As an ex–goalie I have always studied goalies when watching box lacrosse. My earliest visits to Victoria’s Memorial Arena as a youngster revealed the flamboyant stick saves of my favourite childhood goalie Dave Evans. I also witnessed the competitiveness of the other “Hansen Brother,” the glasses-wearing goalie from Coquitlam, Greg Thomas. Vivid memories were banked from the Shamrock goalies of that 70s era, too. George Grover and Skip Chapman, then followed by the great Larry Smeltzer. Those days were filled with awe and hope that one day I could play on the big stage like them. In the backyard of my residence, we played with a tennis ball all summer while I learned the trade and emulated my heroes.
The experience of time had me navigate the path of “hopeful” to “got there” to “retired” like countless athletes in all walks of sport. I even went on to sports management. What remains every time I set my sights on a lacrosse game of any level is my ingrained view of the sport from the net out.
I have been watching without any agenda or investment in any particular team for two seasons now. As a GM, it is in your job description to find fault with the opposition and deliver that message to your team and coaches. Viewing all goalies in a mechanical way has led me to more acceptance and intrigue in the modern day positions they keep.
Tenders I didn’t care for in the past like Nick Rose and Tyler Carlson forced me to respect their recent body of work due to their un-wavering patience and growing confidence. They are not the kids I watched in Junior.
Other goalies that toiled in backup roles (Matt Vinc, Aaron Bold, Mike Poulin) for many years before getting their chance have become bigtime No. 1 guys and have settled in to the top echelon of stoppers. There is also the case of elder statesmen in Brandon Miller, who is quietly having his best season ever at age 34. Anthony Cosmo holds the fort in Buffalo ala Hasek style at 36 years of age.
Notable Evan Kirk has shown us some flashes of brilliance and Tyler Richards continues to build on a career of winning and excellence. Richards is sure to challenge Bob Watson and Dallas Eliuk for greatness at the rate he is going only in only his mid 20s.
What has always bothered me as a goalie was how goalies are measured and valued and how stats can be very misleading in many cases. Statistics in lacrosse as a whole don’t begin to encompass all the value of players in the sport. That is another story unto itself, for now I’ll just focus on the goalies.
Goals-against average, to me, is a team stat. It involves both the goalie play and the system any certain teams has designed like, say Edmonton (tight defense, low shot totals) or a Minnesota (high shot totals, tranny heavy). A team that is highly penalized may have a high shot total allowed total but if that man down unit is regularly successful it may actually help a goalies save percentage like in Calgary last year. Factors like faceoff win percentage and time management of possessions funnel in to a team stat like GAA.
Goalies’ save percentage has always been the best marker of individual goalie play. It tells the tale of what any given goalie is doing in a season, playoff series or a career but again it can be flawed.
There is no way to measure the quality of shots a goalie faces or the amount of stoppable shots he is letting in. Flip side of that coin is what shots he is saving that should be a goal in most situations. We would hope this all balances out in the end.
Again I propose that a pressure defense like Calgary’s will produce more poor shots under pressure that are dictated solely for the purpose of it being easier for the goalie to stop. Many NLL teams have adopted this strategy. So much so that heavy transition is being used to trap offensive players on defense or to beat defenses on the floor all together. This has created a nightmare in 2013 for some NLL net minders. The amount of unsettled quality shooting opportunities has risen and so have goalie averages.
I relate back to my own experience in the wild days of the MILL in the 90s. Like my idols of the 70s, I favoured using my stick to stop as many balls as I could block or “catch.” So much so I was noticeably different in style than most other tenders of my time. I also became adept at being soft when balls hit me and used my stick to collect anything I could grab close by on a rebound.
After about a year and a half of playing in the MILL I noticed that my shots and saves were always lower than the starting goalies from other teams. The logical reason was that I wasn’t giving out the rebounds the other goalies were. I also had quite a good defense in front of me in Boston most of my years.
I started to break some other teams’ games down on tape. I found that many goalies were giving out plenty of rebounds which were resulting in more shots, more saves and better averages. To this day I see at least 3 to 4 times in a game when a rebound is given out and players immediately force a low percentage shot instead of settling into another 30 seconds of offense. My point is/was that I was being penalized for being efficient. Not sure how many readers would stop to consider something such as this?
Last year, about 3/4 of the way through the 2012 NLL season I had an idea how to measure a goalie’s play that may be a better indicator of his value to the team and overall play.
The formula is simple. Get a baseline of about 6 games or more, (in this case last year it was around 10 or 12 if I remember correctly) and get your goalie’s save percentage.
Next, go game-by-game and see if he comes in above or below his baseline save percentage. So if a goalie had a baseline save percentage of .750 in 6 games with save percentages of (.725)-(.735)-(.800)-(.785)-(.695)-(.760) he should have a record of 3 wins and three losses.
Any time he is at .750 or above should equal a win, or below .750 should be a loss.
At issue right now in 2013, Matt Vinc is at .807 save percentage and he has to perform against that excellent number. But, that number is also encompassing of how his team is set up to play defense and how well they are performing, so …
I applied this to all the top goalies in minutes in the league last year at around the 3/4 mark. This is what I found.
Often a goalie would be over in a loss and under in a win, but, they may have one of each balancing out what otherwise was bang on for the other X amount of games. So again in the 6-game example above, the goalie would have won 1 game with a .740 save percentage and lost one game with a .785 save percentage, which balances out in the end.
So how were the top NLL goalies performing?
Richards was outplaying his team at that point in time I made my notes as I know his stats took a hit the last couple of games of the season. Richards was (-3) at the time of my study. Meaning he was above, in fact way above, his .790 save percentage in 3 losses at that time which indicates he played above the standard his team sets for a winning goalie performance.
Right behind him was Mike Thompson at (-2), but performing against a .753 save percentage, highlighting how good Richards was playing for his last place team. Other goalies who were missing a win were Vinc and Bold while Chris Levis and Poulin benefited from some high-scoring offences that allowed them to win a few games the stats say they shouldn’t have.
Miller was the only goalie to be perfect in his assessment. Miller was (-2) and (+2) to arrive at even, suggesting a couple of nights the team carried Brandon and two other games Miller stood on his head to keep it close in losses indicating a volatile season which is exactly what transpired in Philadelphia in 2012.
This year it is interesting again. As I mentioned, Vinc is posting stellar numbers (.807 save percentage) that the win total isn’t backing up. No secret here, Rochester isn’t scoring enough. So for the formula Vinc is (-1) as he had two losses at .830 and .804 * (should be a loss but I’m giving credit) and a win at .750.
Richards (.802 save perentage) is even with (-1) loss at .873 and (+1) a win at .787.
Nick Rose is a little more lucky but still up against a tall save percentage of .793 in 2013. Rose has (-1) loss at .857 and is (+2) at .686 and .789 making him (+1).
Miller (.784) and Kirk (.748) are perfect on the scale up to this point. Kirk’s counterpart in Minny, Carlson, is batting (.750) and is also perfect with a (-1)(+1) scenario balancing him out.
Bold (.744) and Poulin (.739) are both (+1) thanks to their teams helping them out and both are working against much lower numbers in 2013 than last year. Bold is .30 lower in save percentage and Poulin .50 lower, raising some concerns in their camps. To their defense I’ll say that Poulin backs the Riggers’ run and gun style, which has been exposed in re-transition a bunch this year. Bold is in exactly the opposite dilemma, often having his top notch defense completely deny opportunities which doesn’t offer enough rubber to get into a rhythm and stay sharp at times. Sounds like a good problem to have but one I personally hated when faced with in net.
Buffalo shows the biggest trend in inconsistency for a team in 2013 and it’s more than just goaltending. Cosmo got roughed up a bunch earlier this year before settling in. Surprisingly all four of his wins came in under his current (.756) save average. Bandit/Cosmo wins at (.667)-(.723)-(.735)-(.723) proceeded Cosmo’s two recent losses, both games at a rock solid .800 save percentage against Philadelphia and Colorado at home. Weird.
Numbers like this are work and not for everyone I suppose, but when I want to know the real score this is my tool for now on. I give this to you all to evaluate for yourselves as I believe it is a truer indicator of the work a goalie is doing in the framework of a team.O'Neill is a three-time Mann Cup winner and former general manager of the Philadelphia Wings (2001-2004) and Minnesota Swarm (2004-2010), where he was twice named NLL GM of the Year (2007, 2008).
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