Distorted Reality And Fantasy Goalies

Josh L.
October 06 2012 05:28PM

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Goalies are obviously important in hockey. They're the last line of defense to an otherwise huge target. They, like catchers in baseball, get unique equipment tailored to the unique job they do . The unique role they play doesn't necessarily make each goalie unique. Over the past few years the idea that there isn't much difference between most of the leagues starting goalies has grown legs. Goalie performance has high variance, and LeafsNation czar Cam Charron's observation about the recent playoff goalies puts the issue in context:

Los Angeles, Florida, Detroit, Washington, Phoenix, all these teams got competent-to-great goaltending for pennies on the dollar and all made the playoffs. Last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning spent more on their combination of Dwayne Roloson, Sebastien Caron and Mathieu Garon than any of those teams and never found the right guy.

NHL teams largely participate in a crapshoot to find capable goaltending. Fantasy GMs do too, but they might actually have a more difficult job finding capable goalies given the standard set up of fantasy leagues. Four of the ten standard scoring categories in Yahoo leagues are attributed to netminders. Each of a team's two starting goalies then accounts for 20% of that team's scoring potential in a head to head league. This obviously forces GMs to key in on "elite" goaltending talent earlier than they otherwise would.

The importance placed on goaltending in fantasy hockey may not be absurd (it probably is to a degree), but the team based statistics fantasy systems use to give individual goalies credit sets up a direct conflict with newer evaluative methods. The statistics don't actually relay much anything the goalie himself does, and the inflated significance of goalies forces GMs to largely gamble with premium picks on highly volatile goalies instead of taking more reliable offensive players. There has to be a better way to do things.

When to Take a Goalie

Source: Wikipedia Commons

The problem of deciding when to take a goalie is an issue all GMs face, and one that will make a huge impact on their team one way or the other. The inevitable run on elite goalies early in a draft usually establishes an identifiable plateau. The consensus top puck stoppers go high, and the rest of the goalies are, for the most part, treated like kickers in football.

Treating most of the remaining goalies as relatively interchangeable gels well with what we understand about goaltending at the NHL level now. The problem is for GMs who feel the need to select elite goalies early. The opportunity cost of taking a goalie high in the draft is the chance to draft a high scoring forward. Point scorers are the holy grail of fantasy hockey. Passing on one for a goalie early is a cardinal sin.

Goalie Criteria

Once a GM finally gets around to selecting a goalie, what criteria do they actually use? They have a subjective idea of how "good" a goalie is. Statistics like wins and goals against average usually come next in the pecking order, but they're unreliable from year to year because of how much they depend on the team in front of the goalie. The completely unreliable shutout category causes teeth gnashing every year. The inevitable shutout from a randomly picked up back up goalie is the kryptonite for most blood pressure medicines.

The problem though is that there aren't many reliable goalie stats. Leagues could look to use even strength save percentage or Rob Vollman's Quality Starts to add a slightly more repeatable element to their games. Both stats put up barriers to entry for fantasy GMs though, and leagues are going to shy away from unnecessary barriers.

Given the undesirable nature of advanced stats as the basis for fantasy hockey scoring and the unreliability of mainstream goalie stats most players turn to the type of team a goalie plays for. Does the goalie play for a good defensive team? Are they high in the standings? Does he see a ton of shots on a nightly basis? These questions run through every GMs head at draft time, and they make the process of findind goalies much more complicated than it needs to be.

Solve the Problem and Introduce Team DEF

Football drafts offer the option to draft team defenses in lieu of selecting individual defensive players. The option may be available to shorten football drafting time, but it can be applied practically to hockey very easily. Every one of the measures used to grade fantasy goalies is impacted to a significant degree by the team in front of them. Wins are purely a team stat. Goals against average and save percentage fluctuate wildly from team to team. It makes more sense to just draft a team defense.

Drafting a team defense wouldn't change much about the order in which that position was drafted. The Kings, Predators, and Rangers are still going near the top, but the GM gets the added bonus of not having to deal with goalie starting assignments or injuries. Someone is going to be in net one way or the other.

I'm all for making life easier. Having my hand forced into taking a goalie several rounds before I want to do so drives me insane. Introducing Team DEF removes that issue to a certain degree and helps align fanasy hockey with modern hockey thinking by not attributing wins to goalies or penalizing them for seeing a boatload of shots.

It might be fantasy hockey, but that doesn't mean it needs to be illogical. Offer this Yahoo, please.

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Josh writes for DefendingBigD, WFAA.com, and tracks both scoring chances and zone entries for Dallas Stars games. He can be found on Twitter at @JoshL1220 where he may or may not continue to speak in third person. Please follow his meagerly followed account so he can get a boost of self esteem one follower at a time.