On Ryan Miller, Sergei Bobrovsky, the Media, and Team Effects on Goaltending

PHILADELPHIA - OCTOBER 26: Sergei Bobrovsky #35 of the Philadelphia Flyers celebrates with teammate #33 after defeating the Buffalo Sabres on October 26 2010 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. The Flyers defeated the Sabres 6-3. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

In the past two days, we have been treated to at least two stories about how players handle the media. This is of course nothing new in Philadelphia, as stars such as Eric Lindros to Brett Myers to Mike Richards have all tussled with the press.

Yesterday, it was Richards' answers to some out-of-town reporters that sparked some controversy, and last night it was Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres and his answers to some in-town beat writers. We could easily debate the role team leaders fill in the locker room, their handling of the media and even the expected tone in a locker room after a player suffers through a tough loss.

But what brings us to the point of this post is something I've been debating writing for a couple of days: How mainstream writers judge goalies and whether fluctuations in numbers are on them or the team in front of them.

Gabe Desjardins did something similar recently on Tim Thomas. Take a gander over there to see the general blue print for where we're going. A taste:

Do you remember last year when Tim Thomas was finished?  Untradeable?  How things have changed!  Thanks to Thomas, Boston has, by far, the highest 5-on-5 save percentage in the league (942), which is six points higher than the high over the last four seasons, also Boston (2008-09.  Even though Boston might have the worst defense in the league, they've allowed fewer goals than anyone in the league! 

Ryan Miller is being worked like crazy this year -- he's started 45 of Buffalo's 54 games - and his numbers are down a tad. Last year, he had a 0.929 save percentage, but this year it's 0.909. This leads some to say that Miller has gone "from Vezina Trophy winner and Olympic hero to a run-of-the-mill netminder."

But let's look into that a little more.

  ES SA ES SV ES SV% PP SA PP SV PP SV% SH SA SH SV SH SV% Total SV%
2006 1048 963 0.919 307 276 0.899 85 77 0.906 0.914
2007 1460 1355 0.928 351 297 0.846 75 66 0.880 0.911
2008 1631 1492 0.915 382 331 0.866 91 84 0.923 0.906
2009 1375 1274 0.927 347 305 0.879 51 49 0.961 0.918
2010 1690 1569 0.928 321 295 0.919 87 84 0.966 0.929
Total 7204 6653 0.924 1708 1504 0.881 389 360 0.925 0.916

Ryan Miller has established himself as an above-average goaltender through 5 seasons in the NHL. The League average save percentages since 1998 are 0.917 at even-strength, 0.868 while down a man (labeled as PP SV%), and 0.914 up a man (labeled as SH SV%). He's clearly above league-average in every situation -- at even-strength, at 4-on-5, and at 5-on-4.

There's a reason Miller won the Vezina last year, and it should be obvious. He stopped a career-high percentage of shots in every single situation. So why is he receiving insults like "run-of-the-mill netminder"?

Look at his numbers this year compared to his 2006-2010 totals:

  ES SA ES SV ES SV% PP SA PP SV PP SV% SH SA SH SV SH SV% Total SV%
2011 1068 984 0.921 242 209 0.864 34 29 0.853 0.909
'06-'10 7204 6653 0.924 1708 1504 0.881 389 360 0.925 0.916

Is Miller having a worse season? Certainly. Is he right around league-average? Yes, yes he is. But he's still above league average in ES SV%, and he's mostly being hurt by shorthanded goals scored against the Sabres. But his play at even-strength is only marginally worse than his established talent level. Does that make him run-of-the-mill? No. It makes him unlucky and the victim of small sample-sizes. But most people see the 0.909 overall save percentage and use it as justification for their hyperbolic "run-of-the-mill netminder" statement. And they're wrong.

Now what about Brian Boucher and Sergei Bobrovsky, you ask?

Brian Boucher ES SA ES SV ES SV% PP SA PP SV PP SV% SH SA SH SV SH SV% Total SV%
04-'10 2585 2352 0.910 740 641 0.866 114 102 0.895 0.900
2011 486 449 0.924 114 103 0.904 13 13 1.000 0.922

Sergei Bobrovsky ES SA ES SV ES SV% PP SA PP SV PP SV% SH SA SH SV SH SV% Total SV%
2011 782 727 0.930 150 129 0.860 27 24 0.889 0.918

As you can see, Brian Boucher is far out-performing his true-talent. If he were playing to his true talent, he'd have given up seven more goals at ES, four more goals at PP and two more goals SH. That's thirteen additional goals Boucher has saved above his established talent level this year -- so far. 

Sure, maybe Brian Boucher is playing with such drive, confidence and maturity that he's suddenly become a better goalie, but he didn't become as good as Ryan Miller (he of the career 0.924 ES SV%). No, Boucher has gotten lucky. Maybe he deserves credit for stopping a few of those goals, but he's not going to sustain a 0.924 ES S% or a 0.922 overall save percentage into next season. Since he's a UFA after the season is over, maybe somebody overpays him, thinking he'll be a great backup. And while he will be, he almost certainly won't post another 0.922 save percentage.

Which brings us to Sergei Bobrovsky. As was pointed out in the comments of the Fly By today, Boucher's luck doesn't mean Bobrovsky is lucky. But right now, Bobrovsky is 7th in the League in even-strength save percentage, and 13th best among goalies since 1998. Maybe his true talent is 0.930, and the Flyers found one of this generation's best goaltenders in the exiles of Metallurg Novokuznetsk. But I'm willing to bet that Bobrovsky is not a 0.930 goaltender.

The problem becomes "how good is he?" That question won't be answered for a few years, but look at a few things:

 Even-Strength Fen% Cor% SA/60 MA/60
Bobovsky 0.515 0.499 28.5 12.1
Boucher 0.516 0.512 27.1 12.8

Bobrovsky is facing more shots than Boucher, but giving up fewer goals. Until the WOWY (without you/with you) numbers -- which can account for score effects -- come out, we don't know how much of that is due to other teams trailing and thus firing anything and everything at the net. We do know that Bobrovsky has been on the ice for 26 more Flyers goals than opposition goals, while Boucher is at a plus-10, which does suggest some score effects in these numbers.

We know Brian Boucher is getting extremely lucky this year. We know that Sergei Bobrovsky is facing either the same, or slightly more shots per game than Boucher. We also know that Bobrovsky's numbers could be inflated due to score effects. What we don't know is just how good Sergei Bobrovsky is.

So while the Buffalo media tear Ryan Miller apart for being 3 goals worse than his career norm at even-strength -- and extremely unlucky on special teams -- the rest of the hockey world is commenting on just how good the Flyers' goaltending is. The problem, of course, is that Boucher is more lucky than good this year, and Bobrovsky -- while it's unknown just how good he is -- is probably in the same boat.

Conclusion

Ryan Miller is having an unlucky season, as evidenced by his similar even-strength save percentage and wildly low special teams save percentages. Brian Boucher is having a very lucky season, as evidenced by his save percentages in all areas of play. Sergei Bobrovsky has seen his overall save-percentage dip below Boucher's largely due to slightly unlucky special teams play.

The point here is: Before labeling Ryan Miller as a "run-of-the-mill goaltender" or Sergei Bobrovsky as "a gem" and "a sensational find" who "will be a star in this league for many years" (warning: B/R), look at their underlying numbers.

You'll probably see that team in front of them has a lot to do with the media's perception of how good they are.

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