Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Damien Cox Column is not a Winner

I have trouble sleeping after I exercise, so 10 p.m. soccer games are a pain. Anyway, it's after midnight, and I'm wondering why it is, that when people left homeless in Asia by the recent earthquake are settling in for a long cold winter, when instability in Chad threatens to make the already dire situation in Darfur that much worse for people facing a long hot winter, and even here in Canada we have people who have been held for years on 'Security Certificates' which don't meet international standards for justice, and the Federal government is still trying to explain how it came to waste roughly 5 of my (hard earned) tax dollars back in the mid-90's, why, in this world is the thing which is irritating me most a column about goaltending statistics in hockey?

To be honest, I don't know.

And it's not like there is any point in me writing a long detailed explanation of why this particular column is dumb. Is it really likely that someone who might have been convinced by this article's 'argument' will see my post and be enlightened? I suppose it might at least be funny or make me feel better to get it off my chest (or less aggravated anyway - if this works, maybe I'll write a 10 page review of 'Bruce Almighty' some time when I have a free 10 hours). At any rate, I can't sleep so here goes.

Perhaps it is just bad karma rebounding from me actually saying something nice about Toronto Star hockey columnist Damien Cox the other day, but a (so-called!) friend forwarded me this column written by Cox for ESPN.

The column is about goaltending statistics, but even if you have no interest in the topic, you may want to stick around for the bad writing, the lack of knowledge, the disdain for numbers and, most of all, the insane logic. Now, Cox might say, in his defense, that he wasn't really serious and he was writing tongue-in-cheek, but the only conclusion I think is possible on reading the column is that Cox is serious about the point he is trying to make. If this is satire, it is too subtle for me, which would be a novel experience from reading a Damien Cox column to say the least.

OK, enough build-up, I think the only way to do this thoroughly is just to go line by line through the whole mess.

"Only wins should be the measure of a netminder"

By Damien Cox
Special to ESPN.com

"For years, it was all about goals-against average, the statistic that was supposed to tell you all you needed to know about an NHL goaltender.

Indeed, for more than five decades, they awarded the Vezina Trophy, named in honor of the famed Montreal puckstopper Georges Vezina, strictly on the basis of which goaltender or goaltenders helped their team give up fewer goals than any other team.

That changed in 1981, when the league dreamed up the Jennings Trophy to honor the goalies with the best GAA, leaving the Vezina for the masked man adjudged "to be the best at his position" in the NHL."

This is all true, so far so good, moving on.

"In recent years, the wisest of the wise have decided that, like size, it isn't G.A.A. that matters most. After all, if a goalie faces five shots per game and lets in two, a flashy G.A.A. of 2.00 might not be telling you all you need to know."

Man, an aging columnist trying to sound hip by using the (cliched by this point) penis size matters/doesn't matter joke is a sad sight (plus, 'the wisest of the wise' wtf?), but we need to keep focus. The second sentence here is the smartest thing in this article. Goals Against Average (G.A.A.) measures how many goals a goalie lets in, but it doesn't adjust for how many shots he faces, so it is a poor statistical measure of a goalie's ability. Good point Damien.

"Instead, save percentage, something those of us who watched the game before the Original 30 never even knew existed, has become the sexy measuring stick for goaltenders."

Yes, I am sad that I missed the pre-1980 days when men were men and only sissies knew how to count past their fingers and toes (10, that is, for you old-timers). They never knew it existed? I know the NHL only started tracking the number of shots each team took in 1983, but c'mon. It never occurred to anyone that a goalie who stops most of the shots he faces is better than one who doesn't? Truly, it was a different era.

One of the things I've realized, blogging, is just how much columnists rely on meaningless little words to try and make their arguments for them. For example, in the previous paragraph, the move away from G.A.A. is seen to be bad because it was instigated by 'the wisest of the wise'. Now, save percentage must just be a flash in the pan, because it is the 'sexy measuring stick' - because we all know how sexy goaltending statistics are. What Cox seems to be missing here is that statistics is not a fashion show: some are simply, objectively, logically more accurate than others - and they always will be, until the end of time.

"Like on-base percentage in baseball, save percentage has come to be seen as the true measure of what a goaltender is accomplishing every night."

Uh, that's not really how on-base percentage is seen in baseball. We also have to account for fielding and slugging at the very least. Maybe Cox should stick to hockey - uh - or just stop writing altogether.

"The problem with this number, of course, is that it doesn't take into account the quality or difficulty of shots a goalie faces. Just how many he stops out of how many he faces."


This is true. One possible solution would be to try and adjust for the difficulty of the shots the goalie faced (based on the shooting % of the shooters he faced, based on an in-game subjective classification of the difficulty of the shots, based on the number of shots faced (presuming that facing more in one game also usually means facing better shots on average) or what have you. Another possibility is to realize that if we used G.A.A. for decades when it failed to account both for the quality of the shots a goalie faced, and the actual number of shots he faced, we can get by for a few years with a measure that at least accounts for the number of shots.

"Well, in the new NHL, it may be time to simplify again. As in, just wins, baby."

OK, let's be clear here. We used to measure G.A.A. but it failed to control for how many shots a goalie faced or how difficult they were. So we moved to save percentage. But save percentage still doesn't control for the difficulty of the shots - so the solution is to use a measure which not only doesn't control for the quality of shots faced, it doesn't account for the number of shots faced, and on top of this, it throws in the influence of how many goals the team playing in front of the goalie scores, something which is almost entirely outside of his control. That's what Wins is: G.A.A. adjusted based on how many goals are scored by the goalie's teammates.

Let's consider two goalies. Goalie A is a regular human being who has some training as an NHL netminder. Goalie B is a pylon - and no, I don't mean Wade Belak, I mean a big plastic orange pylon. Now, imagine that goalie A plays for a really lousy team while goalie B (the pylon) plays for a really good team. The two teams play each other and goalie B's team wins 10-8, scoring 10 goals on 50 shots (against goalie A) and allowing 8 goals on 10 shots (2 shots hit the pylon). Here are the stats:

Goalie A (regular human): Wins 0, G.A.A. 10, Save Percentage 80% (40/50).
Goalie B (plastic pylon): Wins 1, G.A.A. 8, Save Percentage 20% (2/10).

Uh yeah, maybe I'll stick with save percentage. Moving on...

"Victories are what matter the most, and perhaps should be the decisive issue when it comes to passing on the Vezina legacy."

What a great argument - victories matter most, so the best goalie is the one with the most wins. Based on this irrefutable logic that victories are what matter the most, we should give every trophy to the player with most wins. Best defenseman - the guy who plays on the team with the most wins. MVP - same deal. Best coach? - same again. Most sportsmanlike player? Why not. True, this means that every trophy would get awarded to players on the team with the most wins, but surely this is only appropriate since victories matter most.

"Like save percentage, of course, wins weren't really a big deal for the majority of the NHL's existence. That was a baseball thing, and perhaps it was just generally thought awarding a "win" to a goaltender was giving him just a little too much credit for a team effort."

I wasn't around in these olden days of yore, so I can't speak to the truth of this assessment, but if is true, then at least those old folks had some common sense, even if they couldn't count past 10.

"Wins and losses stats crept into the game in the 1980s, however, and began to make more sense as a measure of goaltending excellence as minding the twine tent became as crucial to the outcome of a hockey game as pitching was in baseball.

In fact, by the mid- to late 1990s, it could be argued that goaltenders had usurped pitchers as the most single dominant position in any team sport."

So let me get this straight, goaltending became more important to the outcome of the game in the 1980's vs. the 1970's. So how did this happen exactly? What made goaltending so important all of a sudden? All I can think of is that the 80's were more wide open, leading to more shots and more chances thus making the goalie more important. I have no idea if this is what Cox is thinking, but at least it's plausible.

But then what to make of his assertion that goalies had become *even more* important by the late 1990's. The late 1990's, as we know, was an era of very low scoring, tight checking games. So how is it that goaltending got more important as the game opened up and then got even more important as the game closed down again - it just doesn't make any sense.

"With the advent of the "new" NHL, however, that's changing again. In fact, a defenseman who can actually move a body out of the slot area may soon become the MVP of the league.

Or could it be possible that scorers might again become kings of the jungle as they were in the days when a fellow like Bernie Nicholls could pot 70 goals in a single season?

Which brings us back to wins."


How - how does this bring us back to wins - what on earth does any of this have to do with wins?

So scoring was up in the 80's and the goalie became more important. Then it was down in the 90's and the goalie became more important. Now, this season, it is somewhere in between so the goalie is even more important?

"Given what we've seen in the opening month of NHL activity -- and holy smokes, hasn't it been fun? -- it may well be the only number that truly matters is the number of wins a goaltender records while in goal.

That's not just because the GAA and save percentage numbers seem inflated and out of whack, particularly for veteran goalies like Martin Brodeur, Marty Turco and Nikolai Khabibulin."

Some of the veteran goalies aren't doing well this year, so we should change what we are measuring to make them look better?

"It's just that winning the game, or figuring out how to avoid complete and utter embarrassment in the face of nightly offensive onslaughts, is quite likely becoming the only issue that matters."

Winning the game is becoming the only issue that matters... uh, ok, you mean like it always has been - in the NHL, in the minors and in every friggin sport, game or competition ever invented and played on this planet. This is not a new development!

"Take the case of 40-year-old Eddie Belfour of the Toronto Maple Leafs, for instance. The Eagle's personal stats have been taking a pounding this season. As of Thursday, his GAA was at 3.37, hardly a Belfour-type figure, and his save percentage was .889, well below the .900 mark, under which goalies historically assumed to be performing as if the eye holes in their masks were taped over.

On Monday, Belfour's stats weren't enhanced, as he gave up another four goals, making it 13 goals allowed in three games.

But two of those were Leafs wins, including Monday's victory over Boston in which Belfour blocked 43 of 47 Boston shots in regulation, turned away another six in overtime, then blanked Glen Murray, Joe Thornton and Patrice Bergeron in succession to win the shootout (Eric Lindros scored for the Leafs)."


So Belfour's been a sieve, but the Leafs scored enough goals to win a couple of games despite him allowing a bunch of goals. But wait, says Damien Cox, it wasn't Belfour's fault he let in a lot of goals against Boston, after all, "Belfour blocked 43 of 47 Boston shots in regulation, turned away another six in overtime". What's that you're saying Damien? The reason Belfour's performance against Boston was good was because he had a high save percentage - is that your argument for why we shouldn't use save percentage as a measure of goalie performance?

Then we get some irrelevant information about Belfour and his new blocking mitt. Followed by,
"See, figuring out the new NHL seems largely about looking at things in a different way and tossing out old assumptions. ...goaltenders, who before might have been seen as wanting if their GAA was over 2.50 and their save percentage less than .915, should now be viewed more generously, with more of a focus on the number of points their teams generate in the standings."

Look, if the league is more wide-open, goalies will face more shots, thus increasing the number of goals a goalie allows each game. Goalies will also likely face more difficult shots, reducing the percentage of shots they can stop. Regardless of this, what matters is how a goalie is doing compared to his opponent at the other end of the rink. Every team in the league could have a pylon in net, and the pylons would all have terrible statistics, but it would still be the biggest pylon that stops the highest percentage of shots that you'd want between the pipes. Not the one playing for the best team which gets the most wins as a result.

Also, how is it being more generous to goalies on bad teams to focus on the points their teams generate in the standings? Has Cox considered that under his 'wins' measure, the best goalie in the league Roberto Luongo would regularly be considered to be inferior to other goalies such as Dan Cloutier in Vancouver? Until Luongo got traded to a better team (one that scores more goals, allows fewer shots or both) and he magically became a 'better' goalie (won more games).

"These fellows are, after all, also dealing with new equipment sizes, with streamlined jerseys still on the way, and veteran goalies would tell you they are working harder these days while facing more difficult shots and elongated offensive-zone possessions by enemy teams on a nightly basis."

Someone please tell me what this has to do with measures that are used to compare one goalie to another. They are all dealing with the same things, so what?

"So, if we put wins ahead of everything else, as of today, Detroit's Manny Legace (10 wins) and Tomas Vokoun of the Nashville Predators (seven wins) would be the favorites to win the Vezina."

Yes if we only considered wins, the goalies on the really good teams (i.e. the ones that win a lot of games) would look good - that really tells us a lot about who the best goalie is. Similarly, if we put latitude ahead of everything else, then as of today, Jussi Markanen (53N - Edmonton) and Mikka Kiprusoff (51N - Calgary) would be the leaders.

"Call it the Grant Fuhr standard. In the 1987-88 season, Fuhr appeared in 75 games for the Edmonton Oilers, registering a GAA of 3.43 and a save percentage of .881.

Nothing special, right?

Except Fuhr won 40 games, and ultimately, helped the Oilers capture the Cup. For his efforts, Fuhr was awarded the Vezina for the first and only time in his spectacular career.

He was, the voters understood, better than the numbers."

Sorry, what was it you said a few paragraphs ago, "[Belfour's] save percentage was .889, well below the .900 mark, under which goalies historically assumed to be performing as if the eye holes in their masks were taped over." OK, never mind.

Anyway, Fuhr was 'better than his numbers? The fact is, he gave up 3.43 goals per game. If he won 40 of those games it's because his team scored more than that. Which is not surprising considering who was on his team: Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey etc. Does anyone in their right mind think Fuhr would have won 40 games playing for the Minnesota North Stars (19-48-13) that year? Presumably he would have been unaffected by the fact that the North Stars only scored 242 goals, instead of the 363 the Oilers scored?

Now it's true that Fuhr could have been better than his save percentage if it turned out that the Oilers just gave up more difficult shots than other teams (a dubious proposition), but even if that was true, all it means is that it makes sense for voters to have some discretion instead of just going by save percentage, it doesn't mean that we should go by wins.

Let's just finish this off with yet more proof that journalism is not a meritocracy. Here is a personal website I ran across which explains all of what I've been saying clearly and concisely. After the author calculates an adjusted save percentage which attempts to adjust for the varying difficulty of shots, he/she creates a list of the 50 best goaltending seasons since 1983 and notes: "Wait a minute? Where's the great Grant Fuhr? Is it possible that the Hockey Hall of Fame is impressed by acrobatic saves and penchant for over-acting on nice plays and didn't even look to see if he was great? Heavens to Betsy! That's unimaginable. Oh, I forgot: he won Stanley Cups. He won a Vezina. He's a winner."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Update: Speaking of saying it better, Simon at By and Large goes into more (yes, more) detail on Cox's column, proving that great minds think alike, or if not that, then at least that fools seldom write good columns.

8 Comments:

  • flogging jock journalists now, eh... who's the next target of your intellectual wrath, elementary school-aged children? heh.

    By Blogger angela, at 12:59 PM  

  • Yes, you certainly have a point. It's just that this particular topic has been a sorepoint with me since m own lementary school days so I couldn't let it go, much as I tried.

    I've been trying to do less wrath, more analysis, but it's hard sometimes.

    By Blogger Declan, at 1:38 PM  

  • Meh... It's a bloke from ESPN. He probably had to look up how to spell hockey and then get a book out of the library to see what the game was about.

    I read his article and he did nothing but blab himself into a corner. No serious hockey fan will look at that and think he has a point.

    What we need is a real series of discussions on this "new" NHL (no hitting league?) and the strengths of the game then and now. Let's tear it apart. Everything. Goaltending, rules, expansion, scoring, The-Situation-Formerly-Known-As-Ties, fighting, instigation, contraction and anything else we the fans can think to compare/lament. Damnit, the league wants us back, we're willing to watch, but we should get our say!!!

    Ok, I need to settle down and chill. Some days it's a burden to be Canadian. ;)

    By Anonymous Darren, at 2:53 PM  

  • Darren - you're obviously not a long suffering Maple Leaf fan. Damien Cox has been writing about the Leafs in the Toronto Star (highest circulation newspaper in Canada) since probably before I was born.

    Still, your point that I'm wasting my time because nobody is likely to take that column seriously is well taken.

    If you've got ideas on how to improve the game, fire away (or provide a link).

    I've seen lots of hitting in the games I've seen (mostly Canucks, but a few others), so I'm not sure I understand the complaints on that front, but maybe the games I've seen were not representative (or my memory is flawed).

    Me, I'm for 3 points for a win, ties are fine, I like the regular season OT, but not the shootout, most of the new rule changes are good with me, although the trapezoid seems unnecessary, instigator I'm fine either way, I think fighting is stupid but it doesn't really bother me, I like the crackdown on hooking and obstruction but don't expect it to last. I'd definitely like to see contraction (bye to Tampa, Atlanta, Phoenix, Columbus, and maybe a few more), and think it would be good to see Winnipeg to get a team back. I guess if oil prices keep rising, the Canadian dollar will keep appreciating vs. the U.S. dollar and the Canadian teams wil be in a stronger position (as much as this is possible with the cap).

    Maybe I'll have to set out my ideal NHL in its own post at some point.

    By Blogger Declan, at 4:44 PM  

  • Great job.

    Hey, I didn't say it better, I just said more of it!

    I wonder why such a meaningless column from a known buffoon bugged me (us) so much. I'm thankful that he didn't drop that column on us back in our early 20s when we REALLY cared about this stuff!

    By Blogger Simon, at 11:27 AM  

  • "back in our early 20s when we REALLY cared about this stuff!"

    you mean back before we learned to keep things in the proper perspective...

    By Blogger Declan, at 1:41 PM  

  • Leave the stats to baseball and acturaries.Thr next thing ya know some dick will come out with a hockey abstract. Enough already! Make it simple : the Vezina goes to the goalie of the team that wins the Stanely Cup.
    This from a long,long ,long suffering Leaf fan.

    By Anonymous Dan, at 2:42 PM  

  • Hey I'm a long suffering Leaf fan too, but I still think we should try to give the awards to the people who are best at whatever it is the award is for.

    Of course I have a math degree with a stats minor, so I'm not that far off from being an actuary.

    By Blogger Declan, at 7:41 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home