Gmh has proven once again that she is not only smarter than any of the three of us that write for this site - but she's also got a hell of a lot more skill in the photoshop/graphic department too. This is a bit of a long read so we wanted to make sure we put it up on a non-game day so that it wouldn't get pushed down too quickly. It's another great read - enjoy and a big thanks to GMH. - Killion
Yes, this is a post about goaltending (no, it's not that kind of post about goaltending).
First, a list of all the small things that have led to the conception of this fanpost: Going straight to the root, I was born left-handed. I first learned how to write with my right hand because I went to preschool in the basement of a church and that's just How Things Were Done. I do practically everything else with my left hand, though, like using scissors, bowling, stirring cake batter, and giving shitty drivers the finger -- and a few years ago, I relearned how to write with my left hand, so for all intents and purposes I'm ambidexterous (which, funnily, does not mean "two-handed," but "equally right-handed").
A few months ago, I read this mind-blowing fanpost over at Athletics Nation (This Message Is Brought to You By Curtis Granderson), which argues that the number of left-handed pitchers in baseball (28% of the MLB) is not justified by any sort of statistical dominance. Handedness obviously isn't nearly as significant in hockey as it is in baseball -- coaches pair up two left-shooting defensemen together all the time, and wingers aren't confined to either side of the ice.
But what about goaltenders? In the 2007-08 season, there were only seven goalies who didn't use left-handed gloves (the stick side is considered a goalie's strong side). The Hawks played five of them. What's interesting, though, is that since that season, three young right-catching goalies (RCG for short) have made their NHL debuts. Six of the eight current RCGs either play or have played in the Western Conference, which means the Hawks see them quite a bit.
Aside from this article, there isn't a lot of insightful literature on the rareness of RCGs, and even this piece is rather vague
To Tomas Vokoun, one of the lefties, the difference gives him an edge, a slight one to be sure, but an edge nonetheless. And we all know how goalies love those advantages, however small. "It's a little bit easier for me to stop left-handed shots and most of the players in the NHL have left-handed shots," said Vokoun, the Florida Panthers’ top goalie. "Although, I don't think it's a significant advantage. I don’t think a goalie that catches with his right hand has a significant advantage."
Right-handed catching goalies do have more trouble with players that have right-handed shots because that leaves their stick side susceptible to a shot from the player’s strong side.
"Righties are a little bit tougher for me because a goalie's natural weak side is his blocker or his stick side and that is what the righties are facing against me," Vokoun said. "It's tougher to make a save on the stick side, but fortunately, most of the players in the NHL are left-handed (shots), even though there are more and more right-handed shots in the League."
So Vokoun is basically saying, yeah, I can see some shots better but some are tougher for me and while being a lefty has its advantages it's not a real advantage and ... followed by a bunch of quotes from NHL players about "adjusting their game." Pretty nonconclusive.
What was conclusive, though, was the Hawks' 5-6-1 record and measly 7.3 shooting percentage against RCGs in 2007-08, despite the roster being around half right-handed shooters that season (Vokoun states in the NHL.com article that he experiences some trouble with right-handed shooters coming from his weak side).
I needed to dig deeper. So I did. Three weeks, four spreadsheets, three text documents, and approximately 329048 Photoshop layers later, these are my results, broken down from both the RCG and the shooters' perspectives.
(For the record, the third thing that made me want to take on this long and mind-numbing project was my angsty yet unabating obsession with Jonas Hiller.)
I made infographs so this part wouldn't be all WALL OF TEXT, TOO LONG DIDN'T READ. Fact: Clipping hockey players in Photoshop without using a mouse (and with perpetutally sweaty palms) is a massive pain in the ass.
- I only included results from the 2007-08 season until the present, both to preserve my sanity and to keep the data set palatable. The Hawks dressed over a dozen rookies that season, and it was the start of the renaissance, which is also pretty fitting.
- The Hawks played less than 15 minutes against RCG J.S. Aubin in a 6-3 blowout of the L.A. Kings on December 12, 2007. Aubin gave up goals to Ruutu, Havlat and Keith and was promptly pulled. The sample size was so incredibly small that I did not include that game in my spreadsheets (also, the shot summary page for that game seems to have been eaten by a black hole, aka the NHL database, which makes it difficult to track individual shots).
- I didn't make a graphic for Jeff Deslaurier (although his numbers are included in the final tally, unlike Aubin's), since he's only faced the Hawks twice in his young career, and behind a spectacular trainwreck of an Oilers team. His numbers against the Hawks can be summed up as "pretty shitty." (For anyone who's interested: Deslaurier has given up 9 goals on 67 shots for a 0.866 SV% against the Hawks, and Toews has been lethal against him, scoring 3 goals on 7 seven shots.)
Um, wow, we dressed some absolute dogs in 07-08, but the good news is, there's definitely been an upward trend both in terms of personnel and shooting percentage against RCG. From the extremely poor 7.3% logged by the likes of Samsonov, Bourque, and Martin freaking Lapointe, the Hawks improved less than a point to 7.9% in 09-10, but they also played two less games than in 07-08, and saw all but two RCGs only once (in Garon's case, only half a game). Hiller and Mason posted 0.935 in three games and 0.917 in four games against the Hawks, respectively, both at or above their season SV% (0.919 and 0.916, respectively).
Another thing to keep in mind when looking at season-to-season changes is the quality of the opposing team. In 07-08, out of the five RCGs we played (Vokoun, Harding, Hiller, Garon, and Theodore), three were on teams that made the playoffs that season, and we only saw Vokoun's non-playoff Panthers once. In 08-09, three out of six RCGs were on playoff teams, Vokoun again was a one-night stand, and Garon (still with Edmonton at that point) didn't even last a full game.
This season is a different story. The Hawks have been outshooting their opponents on a nightly basis (something that wasn't true of the previous two seasons), and their 9.1% shooting success vs RCG is very very close to their season overall of 9.5% (through 79 games). Not only are they carpet-bombing the opposing goalie at times, but all of the Western Conference RCGs are on non-playoff-bound teams. Theodore, with the Caps, is the only playoff-bound RCG this season, and teams like Minnesota (had issues transitioning to a different system), Columbus (basically abandoned their trusted system), Florida (pathetic) and Edmonton (ten-car pileup) were out of the race before New Years.
Also interesting, although a bit irrelevant -- from 2007-10, RCGs have almost all performed at or better than their season SV% when seeing the Hawks more than once per season. Only this season, Deslaurier, with two games against the Hawks, and Theodore, with one, performed worse than their season average. The sample size of 4-to-6 games is obviously smaller than 82+ games over the course of the season, but there's a reason why we dread seeing certain names: Hiller, Vokoun, and Harding have all played exceptionally well against the Hawks over the last three seasons, as seen in the infographs above.
Okay, so this is the part where I try to make sense.
Earlier, I mentioned that the Hawks have a lot of right-handed shooters. I couldn't find the exact split for the entire league, but my guess is that righties are less prevalent than lefties, although slowly gaining ground. Most young hockey players simply learn to shoot from the left side, it seems. For the Hawks, from 2007-10, the split has been 21 RHS to 22 LHS, although the difference in shooting percentage hasn't always benefited the righties when it comes to RCGs, as you can see by the season summary chart.
In 2007-08, righties carried the load, which is what you'd expect from a group that has a natural positioning advantage over RCGs, like Vokoun described in the article. I mean heck, even Sopel got in on the action with an hysterically skillful end-to-end type deal against Harding (I'll never forget it). Toews and Keith were two of the lefties who didn't have much luck against RCGs, although their fates would diverge, if you will, in subsequent seasons.
There were two areas of improvement between seasons. Firstly, the fourth line (which was an integral part of the 2008-09 season, in my opinion) contributed offensively all season. The second was Captain Marvel finding his scoring touch against RCGs: He went from 1-for-30 to 4-for-26, while righties like Bolland and Sharp came down to earth a bit after logging great shot percentages the previous season. Notable non-scorers in 2008-09 were Buff (0-22), Barker (0-10), and Keith (0-23), who continued his bad luck against RCGs.
This season, as you can see by the annoying double columns in the chart, we had a ton of contribution from all across the board. Guys like Bickell, Dowell, Kopecky, and Madden are chipping in, while Buff seemed to finally find his touch. Toews continued to improve his success rate against RCGs, as well, and Hossa proved that pandas can snipe from pretty much anywhere. Combine the Hawks' firepower with lack of quality in the opposing RCGs' teams, and it's not that surprising that their shooting percentages have risen so dramatically in the space of two seasons.
One last infograph, with three-year totals, and shooter and goalie rankings:
After poring through three seasons' worth of data, it might be fair to say that while there may be a difference in perception when facing right-catching goalies, it isn't something they can take for granted, since good goalscorers can make those little adjustments -- shooting at the stick side, or getting into a different shooting position -- that negate the advantage that RCGs have. I think looking at Toews's numbers as a lefty had been the most enlightening. Righties like Bolland, Sharp, and Versteeg have enjoyed fairly constant success against RCGs over the seasons, and Kane, a lefty, has also been steady, I suspect because he's a right winger shooting from the weak side.
Also, because so many RCGs play in the Western Conference (CBJ employs two this season, Mason and Garon, which to me is a wonderful oddity), the Hawks have more opportunities to make those adjustments. This season, excepting the three hours that Rick Dipietro emerged from his cocoon of marshmallow pillows and velveteen coverlets only to remember that the real world is no place for a fragile butterfly like him, the East's only RCGs are Theodore and Vokoun, and the Hawks saw Theodore often enough when he was in Colorado two seasons ago.
That's what makes Jonas Hiller so frustrating to play against. He's never had the best defense in front of him (this season it's been Scott "Greybush" Niedermayer and five pieces of driftwood dressed in Ducks jerseys), and he's only had three seasons of big league experience, but he manages to play the Hawks tighter than a nun's hoohah. Every. Single. Freaking. Time. Having practically stalked Hiller since he was a rookie, I can say that part of it is due to his excellent glove hand (that's what she said), but whatever the reason, he's been one of the boogeyman goalies for the Hawks lately.
Anyway, this is one of those things that might not have any widespread significance, because I'm unable to incorporate stats from all across the league for fear of my laptop and/or brain exploding. It would be really cool to see how well Vokoun plays against the East as opposed to the West, whether RCGs really do give up more goals to right wingers who shoot from their weak side, etc. In the meantime, I feel like this is pretty interesting with regards to the Hawks' fortunes over the last three seasons. Not only was it a nostalgia trip (anyone got a Magnus Johansson rookie card?), but I found it kind of rewarding to isolate and chart this one aspect of the team's ongoing development.
OH THANK GOD FINALLY THE END!! (If anyone is interested in seeing the raw data to do some number crunching of their own or to print out and use as a dartboard, I can do that.)
Thanks to: NHL stats page, Blackhawks game stats archives, Wikipedia, and a lot of Easter candy.