Monday, October 10, 2011

The Capitals and the Myth of Consistency, Pt. 1

So when you don't live in the DC area, and you don't have Center Ice, and you can only get a mediocre feed on the internet... you miss a lot of a particular Caps game. So I was not totally able to watch enough of the game to give a decent recap, other than to say that I am still not at all impressed with Neuvirth, that I think it is even more apparent that good teams know to shoot it glove high every time on him, and that Chimera must read this blog because he scores every game after I say he should get traded. But back to the Neuvirth thing: a lot of the recaps I have read all say that he was strong in net, and all summer and during last year he was referred to as consistent. They said Varlamov struggled with consistency. Neuvirth did fairly consistently get wins, and Varly had a losing record. But teams win games, goalies are only one aspect of that.

For example, last night Neuvirth allowed three goals on 31 shots through over 62 minutes of playing time, and got a win. Varly allowed two goals on 38 shots in 59 minutes of regulation, and his team lost because they could not score a single goal. Should Neuvirth get credit for the win, and Varly for the loss? Most logical people would say absolutely not, especially when watching Neuvirth sprawl all over the ice, give up lots of rebounds, and be too far out of position on each of the three goals scored on him. So in this post, I will examine why people think Neuvirth is consistent and why I disagree.

So one thing I learned in business school was how to use Excel, so I figured this is as good of a reason as any to try it out in the "real" world. Now, for reference, in 2010-2011 Neuvirth had a record of 27-12-4 with a .914 SV% and 2.45 GAA in 45 starts. Varlamov had a record of 11-9-5 with a .924 SV% and 2.23 GAA in 25 starts. For goalies who started 25 games or more, Varlamov was tied for 4th in save percentage and Neuvirth was tied for 23rd. For GAA, Varly was 4th in the same group of goalies and Neuvirth was tied for 14th. The only three goalies who were ahead of Varly in both categories were Tim Thomas, Roberto Luongo, and Pekka Rinne: your Vezina finalists for the season. Neuvirth's numbers put him squarely in the middle-to-bottom third of the league for starting or 1A goalies. However, he is viewed as a more consistent player, and Varly got shipped out. Let's compare their seasons using graphs.

Each graph tracks the goalies' performance in one of three measures for each game they played (as opposed to started): Goals Against (not GAA), Save Percentage, and Shots Against. One outlier game for Varlamov has been left out, and two for Neuvirth. The 7-0 loss against the Rangers is excused for Varly, while Neuvy gets a pass on a game where he allowed 6 goals as well as a game where he played for less than one minute. Every goalie has those games, and all can agree they are not the norm and realistically should not be considered in a comparison such as this. With all that said, here is the GA chart:

 A best fit line here would show you that yes, throughout the season, Neuvirth averaged 2.45 goals against per game. It is a remarkably straight line. I chose not to include it here because that is not what we are looking at. We know what his GAA is, my issue is with the notion that he was consistent in that. Consistent implies that in just about each game, he is allowing two or three goals. However, if you look at the chart (Neuvirth is red), you see that, from game to game, he was anything but consistent. He allowed four goals in eight separate games. In all, his goals against were outside the one-to-three goal range in 12 of 45 games. Neuvirth had a good October, and was very solid during the second half of February and the first half of March. The rest of the year, though, he was either injured or allowing three or more goals per game, typically a number that leads to losses. Given his win-loss record, though, it is obvious that the offense bailed him out on these occasions.

Varly, on the other hand, allowed four goals only twice, and they were balanced out with two shutouts. In the interest of disclosure, his best-fit line trends slightly upwards, largely because he had his shutouts early in the season. Most of his part of the chart is centered in the one-to-three goal range, with only four of 26 games venturing out of that region. In terms of goals against game-to-game, Varly comes out ahead in the battle of consistency.

This chart shows the game-to-game save percentages. Again, Neuvirth is in red and Varlamov in blue. In October, the month where Neuvirth won rookie-of-the-month accolades from the NHL and first cemented the notion that he could be a starter, his save percentages were all over the place. Because of his low save percentage on Oct. 19, as well as his and Varly's low percentages in early February, the graph makes it appear that the variation really is not all that great. When talking about NHL-caliber numbers, though, you really want your goalies to consistently stop at least 90% of the shots against him. Realistically, if he only stops that many, your team's GM is very likely browsing the market for a new starter (here's looking at you, Theodore). Routinely varying between 85% and 95% to average out around 91-92% is not the ideal, but that is Neuvy's game. Honestly, as much as I am not a fan of the kid, I was shocked at how often he stopped less than 90% of his shots (19 out of 45 games). It absolutely baffles me how he was ever considered ahead of Varly (when both were healthy) on the depth chart when looking at those kinds of numbers. A model of consistency he is not. Varlamov, on the other hand, saw his SV% drop below 90% only three times in 26 appearances. Almost every game was spent in the 90-95% save percentage range, the very kind of consistency you want to see, even if the season percentage is the same as Neuvirth's. Varly:2, Neuvy:0.

 Finally, the shots against chart. Obviously this does not speak to the goaltenders' play. Shots against for a goalie are a factor of the play of the team in front of him. I put this up mostly because I was curious about another commonly mentioned aspect of the Capital's "strengths" last season: being better defensively. The Caps' goalies backstopped the team to one of their strongest seasons ever in terms of goals against, and many attributed this to better defensive play of the forwards. Personally, I never saw it, and it was always my belief that the team just had better goalies than Theodore, Huet, and late-career Kolzig. The best-fit lines here bare that out to an extent (it is hard to say how much the number of "good shots" increased or decreased as the year went on. I can only speak to overall shots). On average, by the end of the season Neuvirth was facing one less shot per game than at the start of the year, and Varlamov was facing about two less shots. Throughout the year, though, Varly averaged more shots against than Neuvy, yet put up consistently and substantially better numbers. Neuvirth, in fact, faced fairly absurd inconsistency in the number of shots against, while Varly was pretty much guaranteed to see somewhere around 30 shots.

It is certainly possible that Neuvirth was a victim when it came to the number of shots against, but given that both his shots against and his save percentage (which NHL all-time record holder for the stat Tim Thomas calls "the best individual stat for a goalie") were lower than Varlamov's, I'm not quite buying that argument. When it comes to consistency and Neuvirth, the two are not quite as buddy-buddy as many would have you think. Just because hockey media says something is a certain way does not make it so.

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