The news of Everett reassigning goaltender Andy Desautels got me thinking …
The Tips are going young this season with youth all over the offense and defense. The one area Everett isn’t necessarily young is in goal, where 19-year-olds Kent Simpson and Luke Siemens both return from last seaso
n. There’s some sentiment that the Tips should trade one — or even both — of Simpson and Siemens and go with the youth movement in goal, too. That’s certainly a valid and sensible argument, but is it the right one?
My background isn’t in hockey, it’s in baseball. I played baseball growing up, baseball was the primary sport I followed as a fan, and I hopped on the Bill James sabermetric bandwagon pretty early on. In The Baseball Book 1990 (which I still have on my bookshelf), James wrote an essay that deals with the importance of defense to different categories of pitchers. What he argues is that good defense is far more important to a young pitching staff than a veteran staff. He goes on to explain that one of the most-difficult transitions in baseball is going from being a young pitcher with talent to being a quality major-league pitcher. He then says that a good defense behind a talented young pitcher is the best way to help that pitcher get over the hump from being just a live arm to being a good pitcher.
So how does this relate to hockey? Well, I’m going to throw out a postulate that mirrors the one James made about pitching and defense:
Good goaltending is more important to a young and developing team than to a veteran contending team.
What? How can you say that? It’s a given in hockey that your goaltender is your most-important player, and that a team can’t win a title without good goaltending. And I acknowledge that postulate may be complete nonsense.
But let’s examine it a bit. We can determine how important goaltending was for championship teams. Here’s the WHL champions each year since Everett joined the league, along with their No. 1 goaltender. I’ve also included the two teams that didn’t win the title, but went on to win the Memorial Cup as the host team:
2004: Medicine Hat, Kevin Nastiuk
2004 Memorial Cup: Kelowna, Kelly Guard
2005: Kelowna, Derek Yeomans
2006: Vancouver, Dustin Slade
2007: Medicine Hat, Matt Keetley
2007 Memorial Cup: Vancouver, Tyson Sexsmith
2008: Spokane, Dustin Tokarski
2009: Kelowna, Mark Guggenberger
2010: Calgary, Martin Jones
2011: Kootenay, Nathan Lieuwen
That’s an interesting collection of goalies. There’s big goalies who filled up a lot of the net, and there’s smaller goalies who flopped around the crease. There’s goalies who were taken pretty high in the NHL draft, and goalies who went undrafted. Some of those goalies were all-stars, and one (Jones) won the league’s Goaltender of the Year award. There’s a lot of variety, but there’s one thing they all have in common:
Not one has set foot in the NHL.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. Tokarski has 44 minutes worth of NHL action, and Keetley has nine minutes. But you get my point, this group has yet to distinguish itself beyond the junior level. One could argue that goaltenders take longer to develop and that this list doesn’t go back far enough to take that development time into account. However, Cam Ward and Carey Price played in the WHL during those years and have long been NHL regulars. There are as many players on that list who never played pro hockey at all as there are who have been AHL regulars.
When I think about the success of each of those championship teams, not once is the goaltender the first thing that comes to mind. Indeed, one could argue that a few of those teams won in spite of their goaltending. Some of those goalies put up incredible numbers, but I know the team’s supporters at the time considered the goalie to be the weak link. I’d say at least five of those teams would still have won the title with their back-up. Heck, that 2005 Kelowna team did win with its backup as Yeomans got hurt early in the championship series, and 17-year-old rookie back-up Kristofer Westblom backstopped the Rockets to the title and then again during the Memorial Cup. Those teams didn’t need to rely on their goaltender to win. They were so strong everywhere else and allowed so few shots on goal that all they needed was for their goalie to be competent.
What about the other side of that coin? Is good goaltending more important to a young team? That’s harder to determine. In fact, I’m not exactly sure where to start in trying to examine that question.
But I think some of the logic used in the baseball case can carry over to hockey. A young team is going to make more mistakes which lead to scoring chances. A good veteran goaltender is going to bail the team out on those occasions more often than a young inexperienced goaltender. I think young players tend to get tentative and conservative if they think every mistake they make is going to end up in the back of their own net. A good goaltender may allow those youngsters to be more confident about playing their own game and not have that abject fear of making mistakes, thus allowing them to learn and develop more quickly.
I don’t know if that’s true, it’s just a theory. But I think it’s worth considering with regards to which direction the Tips should go with their goaltending this season. And because of that I wouldn’t rule out Everett sticking with the Simpson/Siemens duo for one more season.