Friday, December 21, 2007

Caps Goaltending Needs an Upgrade

It's a fact that's been beating down on Capitals fans for most of this season, and it was again underscored during last night's 5-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens: you can't make the playoffs with a mediocre goalie. There are simply too many teams with good goaltenders for that to happen.

Let me explain. In my mind there are four classes of goaltenders in the NHL (please note the examples I use are how good the players are right now, not their career potential):

Tier I - "Do
minant"

Dominant goaltenders have three distinct characteristics. One is that they have no obvious weaknesses. They are technically and positionally sound, control rebounds, play smart and are just as hard to beat up high as down low. The second is that they very rarely allow soft goals. The third characteristic is mental toughness: these netminders aren't going to get rattled when things don't go their way (which is going to happen sooner or later if you play in net).

Results-wise these goalies will virtually never cost their team the game and will in fact keep their team in games they have no business being in and will "steal" games for their team on a regular basis.
I would estimate that there are between three and five such goalies in the NHL right now, the prototypical example being Roberto Luongo (pictured).

Tier II - "Very Good"

These goalies are generally solid and can be counted to play a good game the vast majority of the time, but are not quite at that dominant level because they aren't top-notch is every aspect of the game. They may have only average lateral movement, five-hole coverage, positioning or rebound control. They may allow too many soft goals, not make enough big saves or get rattled too easily.

Although goalies in this second tier are not dominant night in and night out they are difficult to beat and it usually takes a nice play, a rebound, a screen or sustained pressure to get one by them. While they won't steal games for their teams on a fr
equent basis it's not exactly a rare occurrence either. Although you could technically do better as a coach or general manager, any solid team should have success with a goalie of this caliber. Ryan Miller would be an example of a Tier II goalie.

Tier III - "Decent"

An average goalie is just that - average. They probably don't excel at any particular aspect and the areas where they are above average are offset by other areas where they are below average - or worse. Tier III goalies have clearly exploitable holes that they are unable to compensate for without making themselves even more vulnerable. Soft goals are not uncommon and if the goalie steals more than a game or two a season for his team he's outperformed expectations. These goalies are often "tweeners" - not quite good enough to be a starter for a contending team but better than most backups. Examples would include Marc Denis and Vesa Toskala.

Tier IV - "Mediocre"

Mediocre goals will very rarely steal a game for their team, will let in soft goals on a regular basis and have easily exploitable holes visible even to casual fans. While Tier IV goalies may make passable backups any team that is starting one is going to be in trouble, no matter how skilled the rest of their lineup is. For an example think of any unspectacular career backup, such as John Grahame or Curtis Sanford.


Goaltenders are not necessarily normally distributed and these tiers are based more on how difficult a goalie is to beat than how good they are compared to other goalies in the league. I believe that the distribution of goaltending tiers is significantly different than it has been in the past. When I was
younger (and playing as a goalie myself) it seemed to me there were 2-4 dominant goalies and another 5-8 very good goalies in the league at any given time and that most teams were starting decent (Tier III) goalies. Now I believe there are 3-5 dominant goalies, at least 10 more very good goalies* and as many as 30 decent goalies.

Why? Better coaching has lead to better technical ability, so fewer holes open up to shooters. Bigger equipment and bigger players at the position mean that when those holes do open up they're smaller than ever before.

That a team needs
an above average goaltender to be a serious contender and, in most cases, to get into the playoffs has not changed. What has changed is what it means to be an average goalie in the NHL. Just as major league pitchers now throw more pitches and throw harder than in the past and just as NHL skaters are bigger, faster and have harder shots than their predecessors, goalies have gotten better.

So where is Kolzig in all this? In my opinion Kolzig borders between a Tier III and Tier IV goalie at this point in his career. Kolzig is not the kind of goalie a contending team would want - he has poor lateral movement and has let in far too many soft goals this season, mostly on wraparounds and through his five-hole. But at the same time he is not a clear-cu
t backup.

Regardless of whether Kolzig is a Tier III or Tier IV goalie, he is well below average for the league and ranks 37th in save percentage and 35th in goals against average (GAA). This is not a new trend for Kolzig. Last season he tied for 17th in save percentage and 33rd in GAA; the year before he was 33rd and 44th. Part of that is due to the fact that the Capitals were not a very good team (to say the
least), but the numbers suggest what should have been apparent to anyone watching the games: Kolzig was now a average NHL goalie at best. This season having Kolzig be average would be an improvement. With so many talented goalies in the NHL right now a team has to have a guy who is at least on the border of Tier II and Tier III to be a playoff contender, unless the rest of their team is very talented.

So can the Capitals make playoffs with Kolzig? They can, but it will be difficult. What would be ideal for a team with so many young players (including the league's youngest defense corps) would be to have a solid netminder who's going to steal them some games - not one they'll have to bail out more often than he bails them out. But the Capitals are a dynamic, talented team that's getting better every day and they may soon be able to carry a mediocre goalie and still win with regularity.

If that sounds crazy, consider this: how much better are Mike Green, Jeff Schultz and Nicklas Backstrom playing right now than they were in October? With so much young talent this could be a significantly stronger team in less than a month. If the Capitals can have their key players continue to develop quickly they stand a very good chance at being a solid enough to carry a questionable goalie. Pittsburgh made the playoffs last year, didn't they?

Caps fans ought to hope the team can do so because General Manager George McPhee's hands are tied at this point in terms of trying to bring in a goalie to supplant Kolzig as the starter as such a player would be difficult to acquire and the inevitable rift in the clubhouse from Kolzig being forced to accept such a demotion would likely ruin any team chemistry. It's not that Olie isn't a team guy, he is. But he's also very competitive...and not very good at hiding it when he is upset.

The offseason is different story though. In fact, I think I heard Joe B. say Cristobal Huet would be a free agent after this season...



*Goalies who I think would clearly fit into either Tier I or Tier II include the ones listed below. There are several others who may or may not be in Tier II, such as Martin Gerber, Ray Emery and Carey Price.

Martin Brodeur
Ilya Bryzgalov
Rick DiPietro
Jean-Sebastien Giguere
Cristobal Huet
Miikka Kiprusoff
Pascal Leclaire
Henrik Lundqvist
Roberto Luongo
Ryan Miller
Evgeni Nabokov
Marty Turco
Tomas Vokoun


2 comments:

usually frustrated caps fan said...

dmg: A well researched and written piece. I can't be objective about Olie he's been loyal to the Caps and I think they should and will be loyal to him. He's a class act on and off the ice so I'll not comment on that aspect of the article. I'd also like to note though I think, clealry, Chris Osgood is a young goa;ie to watch and could soon be a guy every one acknowledges as Tier I. I also like Vokoun as I've noted beofre when he stole one for his team against the Caps earlier this season

DMG said...

Kolzig has been very very good for this team for a long time on the ice and has been one of the classiest players in the league off-ice his whole career, and it's unfortunate that he can't perform at the high level we're used to as Caps fans.

With that said, the number one obligation for management and the coaching staff is to win games and thus, although it might be hard to accept, they need to start looking for goaltending help. I agree the organization should be loyal to Kolzig - they should keep him here as long as he wants to play and should offer him a front office job when he does retire, but they can't lose points because of their loyalty.

I think Osgood has been a Tier III guy his whole career; maybe a borderline Tier II/III guy (but man is he playing lights out this year). But I think you may have confused him with someone else - he's no young pup, he's 35.