The impact of a goaltender's puckhandling skills

Eric T.
May 27 2012 04:30PM


Photo by slgckgc via Wikimedia Commons

Bruce McCurdy had an excellent piece recently in which he tracked every time Ilya Bryzgalov and Martin Brodeur touched the puck during the Devils-Flyers series to show what a big difference there can be in puck-handling skills.

The difference was enormous -- Brodeur had 90 good passes and 8 bad ones to Bryzgalov's 15 and 10. When there was no safe pass, Brodeur cleared the puck away from the forecheckers 32 times to Bryzgalov's 13. There could be no question that Brodeur was playing the puck much more effectively than Bryzgalov.

Yet what was missing from the article was an assessment of how much that mattered. How much value does all of that skilled puck-handling add?

Effect on SV%

As McCurdy notes, save percentage is the most wide-spread measure of a goaltender, and any impact puck-handling might have in reducing the quality of shots against would already be built into that assessment. The missing value would be in suppression of shots against.

To assess how many shots against might be gained or lost through puck-handling we can compare how many shots a goalie faces compared to what his backups face.

This year, Brodeur faced 1472 shots in 3392 minutes -- 26.0 shots per 60 minutes. Johan Hedberg faced 27.1 shots per 60 minutes, so the difference was just over a shot per game. Hedberg faced 4% more shots, so he had to hold opponents to a 4% lower shooting percentage to come out with the same number of goals per game. Brodeur's save percentage was .908, and giving him a 4% credit for his puck-handling would change that to an effective performance of .911.

Of course, random variance will play a role in the shots against total; let's look at more than one year to get a bigger sample size and a better estimate of the importance of Brodeur's puck-handling skills. Before 2008-09, Brodeur's backups got very few games, so we will limit our comparison to the last four years.

Over that four-year span, Brodeur faced 5.6% fewer shots than his backups. Given Brodeur's .911 save percentage, his backups would have had to stop 91.6% of all shots against to equalize the number of goals scored.

That difference is not enormous, but is substantial; if we credit his puck-handling for the diminished shots against, the adjustment would boost him from 22nd-best to 13th-best in the NHL over those four years.

But is it reasonable to assign all of the difference in shots against to his puck-handling skills? Let's look at other noted puck-handlers.

Mike Smith faced more shots per 60 minutes than Jason LaBarbera this year and more than either Dwayne Roloson or Dan Ellis last year; we have to look back to 2008-09 to find a season where he faced appreciably fewer shots than his teammates.

Roloson himself is noted for his puck-handling, but he faced considerably more shots than Mathieu Garon this year, than Martin Biron with the Islanders, or than the Garon/Deslauriers tandem in Edmonton.

So while Brodeur has faced fewer shots than his backups, other noted puck-handlers have actually seen more shots against. If good puck-handling helps reduce shots against, the effect is not very large -- for someone who is arguably the best puck-handler ever, it might be worth a few tenths of a percent of save percentage, and for other top puck-handlers we can't even find an effect.

If puck-handling is worth taking into consideration, it would have to be because it helps set up the offense to move the puck the other way; despite NBC's incessant discussion about the importance of keeping the puck away from Brodeur, it would seem that a goalie has at most a very limited ability to help his team suppress shots.

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Previously by Eric T.

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Eric T. writes for NHL Numbers and Broad Street Hockey. His work generally focuses on analytical investigations and covers all phases of the game. You can find him on Twitter as @BSH_EricT.