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.
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#1 Derek Jedamski
May 29 2012, 10:47AM
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I consider Ryan Miller to be an "ok" puck-handler, certainly not in the realm of Brodeur or Smith or any of those guys. Jhonas Enroth makes me want to cry every time he leaves the crease.

The example is not as extremely as it would need to be (because Miller is not an elite puckhandler) to draw a conclusion but it is quite interesting to note that Jhonas Enroth faced 8.5% more shots in his starts than Ryan Miller, which I find to be quite signficiant.

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#2 Josh L.
May 27 2012, 08:03PM
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Very interesting topic. I wonder how significant the average quality of opponent would be to these results. I'm assuming Brodeur's backups are generally playing against weaker competition.

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#3 The Keystone Garter
May 27 2012, 09:06PM
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There is a lot to consider here. The Olympics show that this might even be a weakness against good D; you wouldn't want Brodeur to try to clear the zone against 2010 Chi. At the same time, might have lost some strength recent years. If you have mobile D puckhandling keeper isn't as important. And it depends on your opponents coaching. Where I see Brodeur as a real strength is when their offensive puck possession isn't good, or where their D are stuck carrying the puck alot. If they dump it in, Broduer will dump it out with greater likelihood of Devils keeping posession. This might wear down opposition defense. If you aren't very good at passing, it is a strength. If you can receive passes well, it is a big strength. Brodeur and Peca in prime would've been deadly. Basically opponent would need to keep their D back when Peca on the ice. The best goalie trait I like is ability to look through a screen with intelligence. Some goalies know when a shot will be blocked by screen and can pretty much guarantee they will either see the shot or block the remaining unscreened planes of the net.

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#4 Jesse
May 28 2012, 12:22AM
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It makes perfect sense to me that a good puck handling goalie would have a very slight effect on suppressing shots, but a significant effect on team offense/breakout. It seems as though the only puck handling techniques that would suppress SA would be either poke checking/knocking the puck out of an opposing player's reach, or stopping up a hard dump around the boards and either playing it, or allowing his defenseman to play it quickly out of the zone. Stopping a soft dump in (often) allows enough time for the opposition to set up a forecheck, due to the fact that it's a slower moving puck, and the goalie often has to wait for the puck to enter the trapezoid. I therefore often consider these plays almost useless, as it tends to be an excuse for the goalie to just tap the puck.

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#6 The Keystone Garter
May 28 2012, 10:30AM
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Yeah, Devils should've gotten speedy FWs to go for "arrows" attack lead by Brodeur. If you watch the 2004 World Cup Final available at pawn shops, Brodeur is playing with a broken hand, and kills the Finns. They didn't have much attack and Brodeur wiped out their dump and muck offense. Nabokov killed a SJ Cup, after they traded away their own 2004 Cup, by playing the puck against Datsyuk. I wonder if Canada played possum during 2010 round robin, telling Brodeur to overhandle puck? If not, it demonstrates the weakness of puck-handling against good D, like in Cup Finals (psst, LA has good D).

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#7 Joe
May 28 2012, 01:50PM
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A significant problem here is that you are considering all not-exceptionally-good goalies in terms of puck handling as equal. Perhaps Hedberg is also an above average puck handling. Perhaps he is instead a below average one. This makes a significant difference, and may either be mitigating or exaggerating the results

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#9 RhysJ
May 28 2012, 04:07PM
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I've always thought that the area that is most affected by a strong puck handling goalie is limiting the number of hits that your defensemen take from forechecking forwards. If you watch how Phoenix and New Jersey handle dump-ins, instead of the goalie simply stopping the puck for a d-man behind the net, both defenders will head to their corners and the Centre will circle deep, giving the goalie three outlet options.

As a result, instead of the d-man heading back and getting slammed into the boards, a good puck handling goalie can usually chip the puck past an oncoming forward to one of his outlets, putting his teammates in a better position to prevent dangerous plays and limit potential injuries.

I would be very surprised to see any significant effect on save% from puck playing skill, however.

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