Kukla's Korner

23 Intently Staring Goalies

Don’t leave that goalie on the shelf!

Tim Thomas is on the cover of this month’s Improper Bostonian. Trim Thomas’ story, and how he ended up playing for too long in the minors and in Europe, make an interesting point about how goalies are selected and developed (or ignored) in the NHL:

...he was the kid with the thoroughly American story that no one in America seemed to notice. At least not the people who put together hockey teams. It didn’t seem to matter that he possessed all the Midwestern toughness of Flint, Mich., the city he grew up near. His dad sold cars, and when there were no cars for him to sell, he opened a fruit stand and his son chipped in by selling apples. It didn’t seem to matter that he had played brilliantly at UVM, compiling the most saves in school history and leading the Catamounts to the national semifinals, an elite stage they had never seen before.

Whether the team-builders were in the United States or Canada, they didn’t quite understand Thomas the way Europeans did. He dominated the North American minors and pro leagues in Finland and Sweden. But there was something about Thomas’ style—indefinable and unconventional—that the National Hockey League didn’t fully trust. He was good enough to be drafted by and affiliated with NHL teams, but when they were looking for “The Guy,” they never felt that he was the right choice.

And here’s the point—NHL franchises, and their associated scouts, are worse fashionistas than Barbie with her daddy’s charge card. There’s always been a thread of "oh, that’s working—let’s see if we can get some of that", but the trend with goalies has been wearing itself to a point for the past 20 years.

Scouts hate to be wrong. If I were in a position where my ability to pick talent to be delivered in 3-5 years determined if I was going to have a job, I’d hate to be wrong as well! An unintended consequence of this is a tendency to make sure your picks are the ones who get "noticed" by the parent organization, even if it means someone else who might be a better bet for the franchise gets overlooked. If the parent franchise says "hey, we need someone who can play like this guy", there’ liable to be a search for "this guy", and a push of "this guy". There’s no grand conspiracy here, just human nature.

I saw this happening when Patrick Roy took off—all of a sudden, everyone wanted a Quebec style Butterfly in goal. The trouble is, no one (well, other than the Avs) managed to get Patrick Roy in goal. In the meantime, goalies whose natural style didn’t fit the mold were either forced into the mold, with less than positive consequences, or were abandoned. Some of these ended up playing in Europe, and some ended up playing most of their careers in the old IHL; or if they were lucky, grabbing a couple of seasons with an expansion team. About the only modification allowed was when the Russians started to show up, and even they were playing a modified Butterfly.

Along come the Finns, who added physicality and hip abductors and adductors of Platinum wire to the mix. But the style for the kids coming up through the North American leagues hasn’t changed all that much—they’re still playing as close to Quebec Butterfly as possible. In the meantime, the Tim Thomases of the hockey world end up out of the running.

What’s the solution? I’m not advocating a turn to MoneyBall (MoneyPuck?) instead of scouting. I know there’s too many ephemeral associated with goaltending to be nicely slotted by a really, really large spreadsheet. Even with the best behavioral models, there’s going to be something missing, and until I see an r-squared better than 0.3, I’m not biting.

But there’s a place for the analysis, and that’s where someone who might get lost in the system at least gets a notice because of their numbers, so let’s not throw the database out with the goalie.

And there’s another aspect to this—instead of training goalies to be the best Quebec Butterfly as possible, why aren’t goalie coaches training the young goalies to be the best kind of goalie for their type as possible? The late Warren Strelow followed this model, and in addition turning out some really great goalies, the goalies he coached all spoke highly of his methods.

Let’s open up the game to more goalie styles!

Filed in: | 23 Intently Staring Goalies | Permalink
  Tags: goalies, goaltending, nhl, tim+thomas

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About 23 Intently Staring Goalies

23 Intently Staring Goalies comes from the 23 close-up photos of goalies that used to line the walls of my office.

On the good side, it kept down interruptions, but it also made sure I had to leave my trash outside my door if I wanted it picked up.

I've been watching and analyzing goaltenders for going on 40 years. Some of that was spent drawing goalies on my grade 8 math homework. Then it was taking my card decks and printouts to Indianapolis Racer games. Luckily, the Internet took off, and by 1991 I was half of the duo that would ultimately become the Plaidworks hockey mailing lists. I wrote "Handicapping the Goalies' for the San Jose Sharks mailing list, and took a lot of photos of goalies in action. I have around 5000 slides of mostly goaltenders in action from 1989 through 2001 from the WHL, IHL and NHL. Since I've gone digital, I've added about 10,000 more images to the library. During summers and when the league went dark, I was reading through multiple SF By area news papers, tracking ice hockey from the 1917 recreational leagues up through the California Seals.

We'll be talking about goalies and goaltending. We'll talk about whats going on now, who's in the system, and when the doldrums hit, I'll haul something out of the big bag of history, or something from the photo archives. We'll talk about who's hot and why, and who's not and what they can do to get back on track. We'll take a look at the trends in scouting goalies, and why a style may work for one team but not another. I'll battle with my dictation software to get it to understand Bryzgalov and Bobrovsky.

It should be interesting--hope you want to come along for the ride!