Grant Fuhr was named the NHL’s Top Goalie in 1988 with an .881 save percentage and 3.43 goals-against average. It was a high-scoring era on an offensive-minded team. He was great because he had the ability to make big saves at key moments.
In this age of fantasy sports and advanced stats, too much emphasis can be placed on individual performances and the statistics that are purported to measure them. Some sports are more controlled, like tennis, baseball, or even football. Certainly, measuring a tennis player by unforced errors, a baseball pitcher by ERA, or a wide receiver by receptions can indeed tell you a lot about their performance. Hockey, however, is more complex and uncontrolled. The nature of the game makes all stats a bit more reliant on the performance of teammates as well as individuals.
For this reason, NHL teams are diving deeper into the numbers to get more specific information about their teams as a whole and the individual players themselves. Almost everything that a skater does on the ice is counted by the league. They have gone way beyond goals, assists and penalty minutes into the realm of blocked shots, shots attempted, faceoffs, giveaways, takeaways, plus-minus and more. That’s just the league itself. Each NHL team and coaching staff has their own unique way of quantifying player and team performance by counting and calculating everything they can.
Some NHL goalie coaches do the same, and they do it their own unique way. The league itself and the rest of the hockey community remain in the dark ages of goalie stats. They only count minutes played, shots against and goals against. From these numbers, we get the familiar goals-against average (GAA) and save percentage statistics (Sv%).
The shortcomings of Sv% and GAA
We all know that Sv% and GAA are almost as much team statistics as they are individual goalie statistics. A bad goalie on a good team usually has inflated stats and vice versa. There remains no consensus way of measuring a true “quality-scoring chance Sv%” or any other more specifically informative goaltending statistic.
In the NHL, comparing one goalie’s stats against another can sometimes have meaning, largely because of the parity in the league and fairly consistent quality of competition. The NHL is very thorough. They hire professionals to sit in the press box and record each occurrence with video and manpower at their disposal to verify stats before they are made “official.” There can be no such consistency or professionalism in high school hockey, youth hockey, or even in college hockey. Therefore, all reported goalie statistics at these levels must be taken with a grain of salt.
Amateur hockey also means amateur statistical recordings. High school or youth hockey scorekeepers will never be able to count shots on goal with perfect accuracy. On the high school websites, sometimes entire games are missing or the wrong goalie was reported to be in net. How much more inaccurate are these stats going to be at a PeeWee tournament? Kids, parents, coaches and scouts should never attempt to rank or judge a goalie based on the imperfectly recorded stats they see online or even on the scoreboard’s shot counter during a game.
Half the story has never been told
Even at the pro level, there is much information about a goalie that remains ignored. There is more a goalie does during a game to help their team than stopping 92% of the shots faced. Generating whistles by freezing a loose puck, catching a shot against the body or deflecting a puck out of play can be major momentum changers. Playing the puck to help puck possession can be counted, as long the count includes a penalty or subtraction for turning the puck over to the other team. In the NHL, they can and should have one or two more bodies in the press box counting these things. Over a large enough sample period and used alongside Sv% and GAA, these stats would tell GM’s and fans alike a great deal about how a goalie is performing.
These might show up in NHL box scores someday:
Whistles Per Shot % (WPS%) – Track number of whistles generated by a goalie and use shots against as a measure of how busy they have been to come up with a percentage. Surely a goalie with a WPS of 30% is doing something better than a goalie at 20%, and his team will likely win more games as a result.
Possession Points Per Game Avg. (PPPGA or PG Avg) – A point is given each time a goalie intentionally gives their teammate possession of the puck. Points must be taken away, however, if the goalie attempts to play the puck and possession goes to the other team. Because the goalie is usually in a precarious position and this is a very dangerous situation for the team, let’s make it minus-3 points rather than just one. If a goalie is +5 one game, and +10 the next, their PG Avg is 7.5 for those two games. It’s no coincidence that the NHL’s all-time wins leader, Martin Broduer, would probably have the highest PG Avg in history as well.
I still contend that the best plays a goalie can make will never be counted or quantified. This is because the best saves never happen. At the moment a scoring chance develops, the shooter looks up and makes a quick decision. If the goalie is set in an imposing position, the shooter will hesitate. Sometimes they shoot right at the goalie’s chest, because they rushed it and never really decided where to aim their shot. Sometimes they aim for a small opening and miss the net (or hit the post). Either way, the goalie has won the battle against the attacker.
Here is the most dominant play a goalie can make. The puck-carrier looks up at the goalie, doesn’t like what he sees and elects not to shoot. Instead, he carries the puck too long or makes an ill-advised pass, and the scoring chance is averted. A goalie in a bad position will never have that same affect.
For young goalies: Thinking about stats can hurt your performance.
A great coach used to say to me, “Don’t worry about individual stats. Try to win the game and the other stuff will take care of itself.” Hockey, perhaps above all else, is a team game. A goalie’s job on the team is too difficult for a mind cluttered with selfish goals. When Jim Craig faced the Russians in 1980, he didn’t aim to get a shutout or a .950 Sv%. His aim was to keep the game close and give his team a chance. With this attitude, he was able to compete, concentrate and enjoy the moment. Nobody remembers what his stats were in that Olympic tournament. We only remember that he was there when the team needed him.
Ever notice that coaches don’t keep stats when evaluating at tryouts? No one cares which goalie made the most saves or allowed the fewest goals. Coaches are looking for confidence, skill, strength and athleticism. Those are the attributes that will help the team. At least in the small period of time of a tryout as opposed to an entire NHL season, they can be evaluated by watching much more so than counting.
So, goalie parents can stop complaining when the scorekeeper was busy drinking coffee during that flurry of saves. And teenagers can stop worrying about what scouts are thinking when the website isn’t correct.
In February of 2016, Taylor DeForrest of Apple Valley High School stopped 111 shots in an overtime playoff loss. As shown, the arena’s scoreboard does not display shots on goal. Maybe this worked to her benefit. Perhaps knowing how many saves she was making could have distracted her or caused her to question her ability to withstand such a barrage. When asked about the statistical results after the game, she replied, “I didn’t think it was going to be that high, and I didn’t know I could pull that off.” Having a mind free of stats helped her the same way it helped Jim Craig.
She explained how her real motivation has nothing to do with stats. “The adrenaline rush is like what kept me in the game,” DeForrest said. “It was just knowing I was making the team proud every time I make a stop, that’s what kept me going.” That’s the kind of goalie every team wants in the net.
Jeff Hall is the Coaching Director at Stauber’s Goalcrease Training and Equipment Center in Edina, Minn., and serves as goalie coach for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL.
As a goalie, I prefer scoreboards that don’t show shots on goal. DeForrest wasn’t thinking about Sv% during her 111 save performance.