Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Gone, Goalie, Gone

It is not wise to draft goalies. They take a long time to develop, and draft position- in other words, quality of teenage play- is not a good indicator of future success. This is not an opinion, it is a certainty. A goalie, even the best of goalies, will not make an NHL team better at 18, or 20, and probably not even at 22. The majority of them are at least 25- that is, two years away from mandatory free agency- when they start playing in the NHL. Those who start younger almost invariably start badly. To draft a good goalie and somehow wring from him two or three years of great play at entry-level cost requires a combination of improbable good fortune and careful management. Which is to say, there are a lot of ways to fuck up the drafting and development of young goaltenders. That the Canadiens got to this point, to even have a Halak/Price problem, is so unlikely as to drop jaws and boggle minds.

If, as Gauthier said, as seems to be the lesson of Chicago and the mantra of this off-season, it is necessary to have young players outplaying their contracts in order to win the Cup, then drafting goalies is especially ridiculous. Young goalies do not outplay their contracts to the level needed to win Cups. Or, more accurately, they sometimes do, but not more consistently or predictably than older goalies. To be an NHL goalie is to occupy an incredibly elite position in this world- there are many hundred jobs for skaters in the NHL each season, but less than a hundred for netminders. Any goalie good enough to get even a couple of games in the National Hockey League is at the absolute acme of his profession, the equivalent of a first-line forward or a top-pairing defenseman in terms of relative skill. And, not surprisingly, virtually all of them are capable of putting together a run of incredible games. Christobal Huet was the best goalie in the NHL during November 2006. In 2003-2004, Brian Boucher racked up five consecutive shut-outs. Jose Theodore won the Vezina in 2001. Look into the history of virtually any available goalie, and you will find some flashes- and in some cases, a full-on disco ball- of brilliance.

So when one considers Jaroslav Halak’s performance in the 2010 playoffs, particularly the mind-bending trio of games that sealed the fate of the Capitals, it should be remembered that it is remarkable but not entirely unusual. It is certainly evidence in favor of the hypothesis that he will have a long and respectable career as an NHL goalie. But it is not evidence that he will be a superstar goalie, either next season or in perpetuity. He might yet be, of course, the next Roy. But he could just as easily be the next Theodore. We cannot know.

Don’t dismiss these performances. To play hockey at that level, even for a short time, requires an incredible amount of training, discipline, focus, energy, and intelligence. It means taking a natural talent, developing it obsessively, and bearing up under enormous pressure for years at a time, and then, somehow, for a brief period, transcending even that to do something that by all logic should be physically impossible. Goalies on hot streaks are working miracles under twenty pounds of equipment. Don’t call that luck.

But don’t overestimate its predictive power, either. The vast majority of streaks end. If one is writing the checks, one should probably assume that every streak will end, until proven otherwise, and with goalies, that proof can be a long time coming.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that, as far as can be known at this point, Pierre Gauthier made a good deal.

Halak and Price are similar in their career averages: .919 vs. .912, 2.62 vs. 2.73, in 101 vs. 134 games played. Halak has an edge, but not a huge one. It might have been a toss up, with the better return making the decision. But the manner in which they acquire those percentages is quite different. Both goalies are, as goalies are wont to be, inconsistent. Price’s game-by-game averages are all over the place, in every range, from the very bad to the very good to the plain and ordinary. It’s a thoroughly erratic record. Halak is inconsistent in a different way. He is excellent or terrible, very good or very bad. He’s either flirting with a shutout or stopping nothing. His average is .919, which would make him a B+ goalie, but his games are all either A+++++++ or D, with very little in between- the playoffs as well as the regular season.

One cannot, of course, read the mind of the general manager, but it is possible that the organization is betting that, because of his youth, Price’s brand of inconsistency is more improvable than Halak’s. It would not be an unreasonable bet. Black-and-white, on-or-off inconsistency is a tough problem to solve in NHL hockey, and the League is littered with players young and old who suffer from it. Coaches and fans and teammates will shake their heads and shrug their shoulders and say, “He could be a starter/Norris candidate/first-liner/superstar, if only he could find some consistency.” A lot of them never do. People across four franchises and two decades have had high hopes for what Alexei Kovalev could do if only he played consistently, and have psychoanalyzed the poor man to death trying to explain his stubborn failure to do so, and only rarely considered the possibility that he just can’t. Some guys are never going to have a good slapshot, some guys are never going to skate faster, and some guys are never going to be consistent. We all have our limitations.

Price is not yet a failed experiment. He is still a mere child, by goaltender standards, and should have been seen as a work-in-progress rather than a savior lo these past three seasons. As mentioned above, the majority of current starting goaltenders didn’t even begin their NHL careers until 25, or even older. Among those who did start young- say, 19-21, your Wards and Fleuries- most went through three or four seasons of mediocre-to-shitty play. The exceptions are, basically, Luongo and Brodeur. Being unremarkable to date says absolutely nothing about Price, except perhaps that it would have been kinder to the boy and more reasonable strategically to let him brick-wall it in the AHL for a few more seasons.

With their cap constraints, few thought the Canadiens could keep both goalies, and it would have been unfair to do so. Either might be a bona fide starter, both deserve the opportunity, and one can hardly fault a GM for keeping the younger, cheaper, more consistent player. And moreover, Gauthier did what any good manager is supposed to do in a trade: he addressed organizational needs, in this case a need for young, inexpensive forward prospects with size and strong NHL potential.

It is not wise to draft goalies; at least, not if one can think of anyone else even remotely desirable to spend the pick on. Because a seventh-round goalie can easily and frequently be as good as a first-round one, and an undrafted, overage one could well be better than both. Because they’re not likely to help a team in those young, cheap years. Because there is often a surplus of them available for purchase or trade in a wide range of price brackets. Because virtually any one of them at any moment might be a playoff superstar. A team could probably pick up any number of mid-range veterans on a short contract for a reasonable salary and get a better year out of them than a highly-touted twenty-year-old.


This is, by the way, not to say that I didn’t like Halak. I loved Halak. I liked him more than I liked Price by a country mile, because Halak seemed to prove himself again and again despite low expectations, while Price was always being hailed as the Great Redeemer and yet failing to redeem anything. But like is not a reasonable grounds for assessing general management decisions. This is not about like. This is about the good of the team, and Halak on a big contract playing inconsistent hockey that averages out to the same as Price isn’t good for the Canadiens. The only way this trade works out badly for Gauthier is if: A) Halak proves to be a Luongo-level superstar, or B) none of Eller/Schultz/Price turns out to be any good. If one considers all possible outcomes, there are far more in which this trade works out as positive or neutral for the Habs than those where it turns out bad, and in my eyes that makes it a good one. As for Halak, I truly wish him well in St. Louis, and I will always follow his career in the NHL and internationally with interest and affection. That’s what like is good for.

Anyway, I spent all my beloved-goalie-trade tears on Huet, and look how that turned out…


Don’t believe me? Check out the data at: Gospel of Hockey, The Copper & Blue, Five Hole Fanatics, and mc79. Don’t believe them? What about The Journal of Sports Economics?


Marc.E.B. said...

Ellen, I wholeheartedly agree. Flashes of brilliance tend to last a split second. Montreal needs a tender, not to carry, but to support the team.

What a great season. Best of luck to Halak and I'm still looking forward to Carey's development.

kostadis roussos said...

Could not agree more with your analysis on goalies.

Ever since the Cup, i've been thinking the decision to draft Price was a mistake, not because of Price, per se but because of goalies.

You make an excellent point that the delta between the best goalie and the thirtieth is actually miniscule.

Here's what i wrote on halak.

greywall said...

can i just say that i couldn't possibly think up a more perfect name than ellen etchingham, for these writings and blog scribbles.

TheIronLung said...

At 22, Price has more wins than Fleury, Brodeur, and Luongo had at that age. He's a kid and patience will be rewarded.