For many years, Goals Against Average (“GAA”) was the primary statistic used to measure a goalie’s effectiveness, particularly in hockey. It seemed so simple—if you did not let in many goals, you must be good (and would win a Vezina or Jennings Trophy, depending on the era).
Nevertheless, some folks found GAA to be a team stat, reflecting such things as a side’s overall defense, rather than one that effectively measured a goalie’s individual ability. In the 1970s, for instance, many would attribute Ken Dryden’s five Vezina Trophies to the Montreal Canadiens’ overall dominance, not because he was doing yeoman work. Conversely, those same folks would point to Denis Herron and Gilles Meloche, two goalies who labored for the worst teams in NHL history (the Kansas City Scouts and California Golden Seals, respectively). Each often suffered from inordinately high GAAs but, claimed most pundits, either would have each been the second coming of Glenn Hall if they just had a defense in front of them.
Two individuals who questioned the true value of GAAs in hockey were Jeff Klein and Karl-Eric Reif. In their seminal work, The Hockey Compendium, the two created a new statistic designed to measure and reward a goalie’s “perseverance.” Although the NHL had adopted the “save percentage” statistic, this, too, was found wanting, as it overly-credited a goaltender who was fortunate enough to face fewer shots. For example, if you have two goaltenders with a .900 save percentage, who deserves the greater credit: one who saved 9 out of 10 shots, or one who saved 45 out of 50?
To try to address these issues, Klein and Reif devised a “perseverance rating” statistic. Basically taking total number of shots faced and shots faced per game, the duo constructed the formula as follows:
To find Efficiency:
(Saves divided by Total Shots Faced) X 100
To find Shots Faced per Game:
Total Shots Faced divided by (Minutes Played divided by 60)
To find Perseverance Rating:
(Efficiency X 6) + Shots Faced per Game = µ
µ divided by .6 = Perseverance Rating
Using this formula, Klein and Reif were able to determine which goalies were able to earn their money, and which were simply benefiting from strong, close-checking defenses.
The National Lacrosse League (like the NHL) now uses save percentage as the measure for goalie effectiveness. Indeed, it could be argued that GAA has always been largely ignored in box lacrosse, as goals are easier to come by than in hockey; thus, a high GAA does not necessarily reflect poorly on a goalie stopping a truckload of shots otherwise.
Nevertheless, “workload” has not been factored into a goalie’s performance. So let’s use the PR and see how NLL goaltenders have performed over the past two seasons, as well as the 2019-20 season to date. We’ll also look at a random NLL season for some context, as well as the first professional league of the modern era: the National Lacrosse Association of 1968.
In 2018, the Saskatchewan Rush won its third title in four years, with goalie Evan Kirk leading the NLL in wins (12). However, he was not even a finalist for the league’s goaltender of the year award: Matt Vinc (Rochester), Christian Del Bianco (Calgary), and Dillon Ward (Colorado) were in the running, with Vinc winning the honor. Not coincidentally, the three finalists also posted the three highest save percentages that season.
But how does it look if we include “workload” and apply PR:
Looking at these numbers, one sees that, while Kirk had the fourth-best save percentage that year (.777—in other words, “Efficiency” converted to a percentage), he also had the easiest time of any goalie in the league, seeing less than 50 shots a night. Vinc’s selection as the goalie of the year over Del Bianco also does not bear close scrutiny; the Calgary netminder not only had a better save percentage and GAA than Vinc but also posted a significantly higher PR. More glaring was the omitting of New England’s Aaron Bold from the finalists—not only did he lead the NLL in saves, but also posted a higher PR than Ward, mostly as the result of seeing five more shots per game.
Conversely, we see that while the long-suffering Eric Penney of Vancouver may have been the busiest goalie in the league, he was not doing a very good job of stopping balls—not only was his save percentage the lowest in the league, but he also was not very “durable.”
All told, however, PR shows that, for the most part, the right goalies were getting the attention in 2018.
Once again, Vinc, Del Bianco, and Ward were the finalists for NLL Goaltender of the Year and, once again, Matt Vinc received the award. Unlike in 2018, however, one cannot point to save percentage as the reason: while Ward led the league with a .803 percentage, Del Bianco only finished fourth, while Ward finished sixth. Del Bianco’s Calgary team won the NLL title, however, so that might explain his presence. Ward—finishing at 5-11 and often booed by Mammoth fans—was a shocking choice.
Using PR, we see:
Clearly, Matt Vinc earned his award in 2019. But Doug Jamieson and Mike Poulin had some fine seasons undeservedly ignored.
Holding down the bottom was the much-maligned (and, it turns out, justly so) Doug Buchan, who did little to keep the Philadelphia Wings competitive in their return to the league.
So far, this young season has seen some surprises—the Halifax Thunderbirds are undefeated, and the Philadelphia Wings are currently sitting at 3-1. How much has goaltending contributed?
Christian Del Bianco has reasserted himself as the NLL’s best goalie, and Dillon Ward seems to be justifying his previous season inclusion as a Goaltender of the Year finalist. For all the credit being lobbed Warren Hill’s way for the Thunderbirds’ hot start, he is also seeing the fewest shots per game in the league. Israeli-international Zach Higgens has been a huge improvement in net for Philadelphia over the woeful Doug Buchan, with a PR about 45 points higher than the latter’s 2019 performance.
One other odd trend—goalies are much better at stopping shots this year, with PR and save percentages being at historic highs. Have defenses improved exponentially in the past year? Did the goals get smaller? We will see how this pans out.
Because it’s what I do, let’s take a look at how PR applies to some other professional lacrosse seasons.
Toronto Rock defeated Arizona Sting for the championship. Buffalo’s Steve Dietrich was named Goaltender of the Year and a First Team All-Star, and Toronto’s Bob Watson was the Second Team All-Star in goal. Philadelphia Wings legend Dallas Eliuk was the busiest goalie in the league, seeing about 53.5 shots per night.
Using PR, we see:
Dietrich earned his laurels, but pity poor Pat O’Toole, Gee Nash, and Eliuk, all of whom had better PR than Watson.
1968 National Lacrosse Association
After four attempts in the 1930s, box lacrosse attempted to go professional for the fourth time in 1968, with the National Lacrosse Association, a league which included teams owned by the Detroit Red Wings, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Montreal Canadiens.
The league included some goalies who would later play in the National Lacrosse League of 1974-75 and would go on to become legends and Hall of Famers: Merv Marshall (Detroit Olympics), Bob “Buff” McCready (Montreal Canadiens), Pat Baker (Peterborough Lakers), and Dale Russell (Toronto Maple Leafs), among others.
As part of my duties at RetroLax.com, I have been compiling statistics from this seminal league. Alas, goaltending statistics have been hard to come by; to date, I have only found leaders as of June 20, 1968, about one quarter into the season. Alas, as minutes played are also not available, it is impossible to apply PR. Still, it is interesting to see save percentages from that earlier era:
Like most “fancy stats,” PR is not an absolute—it is not the final word on a goalie’s worth or effectiveness. But it does give us a deeper dive into one’s overall effectiveness, as the workload is a legitimate factor in judging a goalie’s ability to stop shots.
So what do you think? Would you like to see other NLL seasons? Was Dallas Eliuk really the legend we remember in his prime? Should we find out?
Let us know in the comments.
Written By: Steve Holroyd