“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” – Winston Churchill, October 1939
Churchill was talking about Russia, but in the hockey realm, his comments would best apply to goaltending. Take Niklas Backstrom – an undrafted goaltender whose performance through Age 23 had been nothing short of mediocre. He then rattled off four spectacular seasons in Finland, winning two consecutive league championships. The Minnesota Wild brought him over in 2006 and after impressing in his first season, he became Minnesota’s starter in 2007-08, and a little over a year later, signed one of the highest-paying goaltender contracts in the NHL.
His performance in the NHL has been statistically dominant, but there’s a mystery: did Minnesota’s tough defensive play limit the quality of the shots he faced? My simple model based on shot location suggests that he did:
5v5 Save Percentage 2007-08 2008-09
Backstrom Actual 918 921
Backstrom Expected 919 919
League-Wide SVPCT 912.5 912.5
Now “shot quality” is hardly an accepted notion, and many people believe that save percentage on its own (whether overall or just even-strength) is a good metric for goaltender performance and that “shot quality” is just noise. I’m convinced that better defensemen improve save percentage, but there’s no question that the impact is less than what Minnesota’s defense appears to do.
I’ve been wondering for a while what the Minnesota Wild think about Backstrom, and Fanhouse’s Adam Gretz was good enough to ask Chris Snow, the Wild’s director of hockey operations, about it during an interview:
“Adam Gretz: You guys are typically one of the better teams in the league at not giving up even-strength goals, despite the fact you're usually giving up a lot of shots. How much of that is because of Niklas Backstrom's ability as a goaltender, and how much of that is a result of a system that might not give up a lot of quality scoring chances?
Chris Snow: It's both. If you watched our team play under Jacques, his philosophy was that he would basically give the ice outside of the dots. So, from face-off dot to face-off dot, then going up toward the point, there was kind of a box there. We didn't want a lot of teams to penetrate within that box. We'd gladly give up chances from the outside because they're low percentage chances. So we wouldn't overpursue, we wouldn't chase guys out to the boards because Jacques didn't want a breakdown in what would be a high-percentage scoring area. If you look at the number of shots teams give up, and where they give them up, you can kind of see how that team is coaching defensively. So that was a function of the way we were coached. And I would expect where we give up goals from will be different this year because we have a different coach.”
Here’s what Chris is talking about – this chart shows where initial shots (ie –excluding rebounds) were taken from in the NHL over the last four seasons at even-strength:
Clearly, most shots are taken between the faceoff dots, from the goal to a point just above the faceoff circles, which, not surprisingly, is where shots are also most likely to go in from. So how did Minnesota do at preventing shots in this area? We can plot the rate at which Minnesota’s opponents took shots from each spot on the ice relative to the league average:
Here, blue spots indicate locations where the Wild reduced shot frequency relative to the rest of the league and the red indicates where they allowed more shots (the units are shots per 82 games). Clearly Minnesota was able to limit the highest-percentage shots, while allowing more shots from the point and from outside the faceoff dots. So where does that leave us in evaluating Niklas Backstrom? Back to Chris Snow:
“Adam Gretz: I would imagine that makes your job even more difficult when it comes to evaluating a goalie. Niklas Backstrom is always near the top of the league with his numbers, but like you just pointed out, he's not facing the same quality shots that a guy like Tomas Vokoun, for example, might face in Florida.
Chris Snow: I completely agree. We think Niklas is a tremendous goaltender, and we would not have paid him if we didn't believe that, but I agree with your point that it is difficult to compare a goaltender on our team, to a Vokoun as you mentioned. It's harder to compare those guys. You would have to really look at where the shots came from, and the quality of shots if you really wanted to rank the goalies accurately.”
So clearly Minnesota’s own analysis – which presumably uses more sophisticated data from their scorers than I can get for free – shows that Backstrom is both an exceptional goaltender and a beneficiary of the reduced opponent shot quality that resulted from his coach’s defensive strategy.
Gabriel Desjardins is an author of Puck Prospectus and runs the statistical hockey site behindthenet.ca. You can contact him at info at behindthenet.ca.