There are many things you might say about Flyers goaltending. And yet out of all of the possible narratives, an odd one keeps recurring: a rush to praise Jeff Reese.
Since Reese came to the team, the Flyers goaltenders have had a below-average .909 save percentage. They had one great playoff run and two playoff disasters. They brought in a premium free agent goalie and have seen him drastically underperform expectations. Yet through it all, Reese has gotten nothing but praise.
Sports Illustrated named him one of the five biggest under-the-radar forces of the year in 2010 (along with Steve Downie and Wayne Simmonds, incidentally) for his "knack for sucking every ounce of talent from his charges".
The Inquirer described Reese as having a growing reputation and gave him credit for Bobrovsky's play in pre-season that year. CSN Philly didn't directly credit him like that, but did write an article about the excitement around having Michael Leighton spend a full season with Reese. That article isn't available on their website any more, but you can find it here.
Bryzgalov's struggles in his first year didn't slow things down any. ESPN said that helping Bryzgalov adjust to Philadelphia might have been the greatest challenge in the league and that Reese had helped him find a groove.
And even this year as Bryzgalov hit a career-low save percentage and went from premium free agent to amnesty target, the Courier-Post is still praising Reese: "A change of scenery has been big for [Steve Mason] after four years of struggles in Columbus. Even bigger has been his style getting a tinkering for the better under the tutelage of Flyers goaltender coach Jeff Reese."
The common theme here? Each time, the article crediting Reese was written about a small sample size, without looking at the bigger picture. Leighton's 2010 playoffs, Bryzgalov's 2012 stretch run, Mason's 7 games in 2013 -- these are not the kind of sample sizes you should judge a goaltender on, much less his coach.
Looking at the bigger picture tells a different story. Here's the list of goalies who faced at least 500 shots both with and without Reese as their goaltending coach:
|Goalie||Sv% with Reese||Sv% without Reese||Difference|
Eight out of twelve goalies did worse under Reese than in the rest of their careers. Some (like Burke) came to him at the end of their careers, when expecting them to match their career average is probably unfair -- but some (like Khabibulin) played under him at their peak, when we should expect them to outperform their career average.
Collectively, if this group had all performed the same under Reese as they did elsewhere, their aggregate save percentage would have been 90.8%. It was actually 90.6%. If we add in the guys (like Mason) who didn't meet my 500-shot threshold, the aggregate expected save percentage was 90.4% and the actual save percentage was 90.3%.
I look at those numbers and think the overwhelming likelihood is that he's having no appreciable effect. Maybe this means goalie coaches don't have a big impact (after all, if they did, we'd expect to see more significant team effects than we do). Maybe goalie coaches do have a big impact, and Reese is right near average. But I certainly don't see anything suggesting he's a miracle-worker who can turn the Leightons and Masons of the world into upper-tier goaltenders.
There's an interesting twist to this though. The media have overreacted to Reese's goalies' hot streaks with glowing praise, but the corollary where they blame him for a cold streak is scarcely to be found.
Even during this disastrous season, Reese was being praised as "one of the game's best teachers" and given credit for the adjustments he made with Mason. I can't find any mainstream articles suggesting Reese deserves a share of the blame for what's gone wrong in this season or any of the other rocky stretches he presided over.
Why is the coverage so imbalanced?
It's not because the writers believe that they don't have the expertise to judge a coach; there's been no hesitation to write that "if Paul Holmgren truly hasn't thought about changing head coaches, he should be fired for dereliction of duty" or "what could happen is a front-office shakeup that also ousts Holmgren [in addition to Laviolette]." They don't shy away from pointing fingers.
So why is Reese immune from this criticism?
Is it because some of Reese's goalies seem to genuinely like him? (When we come right down to it, those players' quotes are really the only window the media has into what Reese actually does, after all.) Is it because Reese has been a good source of the quotes they rely on throughout his tenure and they are hesitant to turn on him? Do they think that for some reason coaches in general deserve praise when their goalie gets hot but not blame when the goalie goes cold? Or that Reese in particular should get credit for making Bryzgalov comfortable last February but not blame for his discomfort this year, that he should get credit for giving Mason confidence last month but not blame for Bryzgalov's shaken confidence last November?
What drives their one-sided coverage is difficult to discern from the outside. But it is awfully hard for me to look at the whole picture and conclude that Reese deserves the uniformly positive press he has received, that he has been anything more than average as a coach.
Note: the wording in the introduction has been changed from the original version to acknowledge certain differences of tone between the referenced articles.