Thanks to a select few writers and radio station shock jocks, the topic of goaltending evaluation has had it’s respective well poisoned long ago here in Boston. Every year Tuukka Rask is the target of written hit pieces speculating whether the Bruins should move on from him, coupled with endless sports radio hits about his supposedly lackluster performances in both the regular season and playoffs. These are, in a word, awful and they should be ignored and/or roundly mocked, but what happens when the goalie actually does under-perform, and his play warrants criticism?
Over the years, there has been a natural defense mechanism among many in the Bruins world to uniformly deny any criticism of Rask, and to subsequently label anyone who dares to point out any flaws as “bashing” or a “hater” as a way to try and de-legitimatize their arguments. It’s increasingly prevalent as Rask’s play declines with age, and while understandable given the oftentimes absurd criticisms of Rask, it is in fact just as wrong as the Rask haters, in essence two sides of the same wrong, increasingly annoying coin.
A few weeks ago, I asked my Twitter followers a simple question. While most likely thought I was referring to David Backes or Joakim Nordstrom’s respective roles on this roster, I was actually referring to the Bruins two goalies. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority stated the Bruins should play the best performing player, after all the goal is to win, right? So why exactly does that commonly held belief disappear the very second it is applied to the goalies? Anyone? Let’s examine this, but before we do, if you aren’t one to look at things analytically or objectively, you aren’t going to enjoy this.
BRUINS POLL: Do you believe the Bruins should play the best performing players in playoffs, regardless of age/contract/etc? #NHLBruins— Colin Beswick (@CBeswick) March 26, 2019
For the record, it’s not just fans either, outside of the usual radio voices, the majority of Bruins media are overwhelmingly in favor of starting Rask, including the majority here at SCOC. While part of me understands fans rooting for the longtime, fan favorite, talented goalie in Rask over the newcomer, the media should be more objective about it, and the simple truth is while Rask has been fine, Jaroslav Halak has not only been better than Tuukka Rask, he’s been considerably better by virtually every single publicly available goaltending metric.
Let me take a step back so I can make sure everyone is following along here: Jaroslav Halak has matched or outperformed Tuukka Rask in every single commonly used goaltending metric other than games played.
No, that is not an exaggeration or hyperbole, as shown below. In fact, using GSAA/GSAX (Goals Saved Above Average/Expected), Rask has been a slight negative (not for a starter, but for a replacement level NHL goaltender), whereas Halak has been a Top 5, near Vezina caliber goalie this season.
As an important aside, if you aren’t familiar with these stats by now, you should be. Plain and simple. If you want to debate goalie performance and you haven’t taken the time to learn about far better, publicly available stats, that’s honestly on you at this point, with all due respect. I explain them in some detail here if you need a refresher, additionally sites like Hockey-Graphs.com, CorsicaHockey.com, HockeyViz.com & Evolving-Hockey.com all post explanations and/or glossaries for users on their sites and most are available to answer questions if you have them.
I know, I know, I can already feel the snide comments and dismissal from those of you who have made it this far, how dare I say something critical of Rask, and Halak near Vezina level?, that’s insane! If you’ve followed me on here long enough, you know I primarily write about challenging pre-conceived biases, both conscious and subconscious, and folks, you all have some real serious ones when it comes to the two goalies here in Boston. In my experience talking with the holy trinity of family, friends and followers, they go something like this:
1. Rask is the starter, Halak is the backup. No matter what or how they play: This is technically correct, the Bruins do consider Rask the starter and he’s certainly being paid to be the starter, however it’s overflowing with bias & incumbency affect issues on their part, and rewards a player who performed considerably worse over a player having a remarkable season. Further, relying on coaches/management to always make the correct call is poor analysis, as we know, they are wrong on a consistent basis. This is a rather obvious form of an “appeal to authority” error.
2. Halak is just having a good season, but he’s he’s never been as good as Rask: This is patently wrong, but in a world where everyone still uses GAA, Sv% and Wins to measure goalies, it’s hardly surprising. The fact of the matter is Halak has played on far worse defensive teams throughout his career, whereas Rask has benefited greatly from playing behind an elite defensive team his entire career. Stats like GSAA, GSAX and dSv% account for this and are far more favorable to Halak, and far less to Rask. In actuality, they are both roughly around the same level, career wise. If I had the energy, this could be an entire article in and of itself, but I don’t, so, sorry I guess.
3. Rask has better playoff numbers than Halak: Wrong. He has played more playoff games (65 vs. 30), again benefiting from playing on a very good team his whole career, but he and Halak have the exact same career playoff .924 Sv%. Rask has played in the playoffs more recently, however last’s years .903 Sv% performance against Toronto & Tampa doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Since 2007, Rask’s career playoff GSAA/30 is 0.17, Halak’s is almost twice as strong as that at 0.30. While I personally don’t put much stock in playoff numbers due to sample size, there is simply no argument here that says Rask is a better playoff goalie, especially when he has struggled overall this season and significantly over the last month or so (more on that later).
4. The Bruins play better in front of Halak/worse in front of Rask: I get this one often, and it’s simply not true based on the data we have available to us. This is an admittedly difficult thing to evaluate and is overflowing with bias from the “eye test”, but using Micah from HockeyViz’s work we can see that the Bruins play noticeably worse defense in front of Halak. The higher the number, the less the threat against Rask/Halak is for reference. In essence, the Bruins are an elite defensive team in front of Rask, and a very good one in front of Halak. Both goalies have had easy usage, but Rask considerably more so.
5. Rask played harder quality of competition: People use different methods to evaluate this, and truth be told I think it’s relatively pointless, but since people will argue it I measured it two different ways, first by the amount of playoff teams faced where Halak faced 21 in his shorter workload vs. 20 for Rask in his larger workload. Then I looked at points % from Hockey-Reference.com for each goalies’ opponents and found the average % for each, Rask with .562 and Halak with .551, nearly identical, and not different enough to have any statistical significance for either goalie.
6. RASK IS ELITE: Seriously, stop, this has already been thoroughly debunked by me, even if you don’t want to accept it. He absolutely doesn’t suck, and he’s certainly not elite, like most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t matter how many times you yell about it, he’s an average starting goaltender. While we are at it, stop using career save % to compare goalies at very different stages of their careers, they will fall as goalies age, as we have almost seen Rask’s drop from .922 to .920 this year alone. (it will drop to .920 early next season barring a very strong start).
7. Halak was only good early in season/Rask is playing better recently: Over his last 17 games, Rask is sporting a career worst stretch of .890 Sv% hockey, and while some put more faith in recent performance or “going in hot” to the playoffs, it should be concerning that Rask has been very poor over the last 2 full months. As for Halak? His first half saw him with a .931 Sv%, followed by a 2nd half with a .914 Sv%. His second half included his abysmal post-Christmas 6 game stretch that saw him go 1-4-1 with an .866 Sv%. Since then, he’s gone a cool 9-2-1 with a .931 Sv%. If you are a fan who cares about playing the hot hand, there’s exactly zero doubt that it’s Halak at this point. If Sv% isn’t your thing (it shouldn’t be), check out the expected goals vs. goals saved charts over time below, slide across to see each.
8. Rask has better numbers against Toronto/Tampa Bay: On the season Halak has a 2-1 record against the Leafs (.932 Sv%) to Rask’s single game (.938). Against Tampa Bay, Rask started all 4 games, and went 1-3 with an .860 Sv%. In less recent history, Rask went 4-3-0 with a .899 Sv% against Toronto in 17-18 playoffs, followed by a 1-4 blowout featuring a slightly better .907 Sv% against the Lightning who went on to lose in 7 against the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the Capitals.
9. Rask is rested so he will perform better in playoffs: This is another common comment when I bring this topic up, and even Bruce Cassidy used it after Rask’s underwhelming performance against Tampa Bay in the regular season finale. On the surface, it makes sense, a well rested goalie may be more likely to perform better, no? Except Rask was well rested this entire season, playing the 2nd fewest games as a starter in his career, and by far the least in the last 6 years and he still arguably had his worst full season in the NHL by most metrics. Some of which is age related, but nonetheless, it wouldn’t appear rest has helped him regain his younger, near Vezina form, nor would I expect it to at this stage of his career. His level of play has been roughly average for a NHL starter for the last 4 years, it slipped slightly this year, but it’s plausible he performs somewhat better in playoffs, enough to outperform Halak however? Less likely. Besides, if playing the rest goalie is important, wouldn’t Halak be better rested?
Now that we have addressed most of the underlying biases many of us have, let’s stop and take stock. Has Rask statistically played better than Halak, on any level? No, he unquestionably has not. Has Rask played well recently, more so than Halak, forcing Bruce Cassidy to ride the hot hand? Definitely not. Does Rask have demonstrably better playoff numbers? No. Has he faced harder competition than Halak? Not in any tangible way. Does he have better recent numbers versus the Leafs or Lightning? He does not. Is he “Elite” enough to steal the Bruins a few series? Perhaps, although his last 4 seasons of average play don’t indicate it is likely, and given Halak’s 2018-19 performance, it seems more probable that Halak gives you a better chance in the near term.
So why is a worse goalie starting despite significant evidence against the logic in doing so? As best as I can figure there’s three reasons:
1. This is hockey, and coaches/teams are still significantly behind on incorporating metrics on a meaningful level. Additionally, coaches are prone to the first bias listed in this article: choosing a “starter” and not deviating from that. For most, goalies are still voodoo and they are consistently afraid of messing with some mystical goalie dynamic by changing starters. Like most things of that nature, it’s largely nonsense, but this is the NHL and change happens far slower here than any other major sport.
2. Coaches are on borrowed time and doing anything that’s too far outside of the norm, like sitting your longtime, highly paid starter is taking a risk in their eyes. If a bold move like that doesn’t work out, the criticism will be deafening. In Bruce’s case, he’s built up plenty of well-deserved goodwill in his tenure here, but even so it’s understandable he would be hesitant to start Halak, and instead pull Rask if he struggles.
3. The contract. Plain and simple, it’s near impossible to talk about Tuukka Rask without his monster contract being brought up. While it’s not the albatross many think it is, it’s certainly the basis of many disagreements on Rask, and while research has shown he earned it initially, he has undeniably under-performed it in recent years. Beyond that, the Bruins have Rask under contract for another 2 full years after this season. Any decision they make with him is going to be filtered through a longer-term view as a result. They may even think Halak gives them a slightly better chance, but don’t think it’s worth alienating their $7m per year goalie. While that’s not the way it should be handled, again, this is hockey and GMs are far from innovative.
That’s the coaches, what about fans who still want Rask to start? The answer: The only measurable reason to start Rask is simply because you want him to, because you like him better or think he gives the Bruins a better chance in spite of significant evidence to the contrary. After all, fans aren’t expected to be objective, it’s not exactly part of the gig, but just this once, can we at least admit that our biases are clouding our view?
While we’re at it, perhaps we should stop and see why our natural reaction has been to largely ignore a fellow Bruin having one of the best Bruins goaltending seasons in years, in an effort to shield a different Bruin. Listen, I’ve admittedly never been the best fan, I tend to see things differently than most, but why is one more of a Bruin than the other, shouldn’t you want what’s best for the team overall? Halak has received virtually no attention locally this season despite truly impressive numbers, his 250th career win, and of course keeping the Bruins afloat when Rask struggled and/or stepped away. Meanwhile, national writers have written about Halak as a Vezina favorite, CSA Hockey (who provide the Bruins with their goalie analytics) have him as a top 5 goalie in one metric, and 1st overall in another, oh and he received votes in the PHWA Mid-Season poll for Vezina.
Why are other markets able to recognize his performance, but not us? In a city that is often too afraid to fairly criticize Rask, even after a career worst year and a media market that actively goes out of their way to defend him after poor games (largely in fear of being labeled a “hater” or being lumped in with the Clickbait Crew), it’s hard to buy into this popular theory that there’s any institutionalized Anti-Rask bias here. If you turn off your radio and ignore the one guy writing the same “trade Rask” hit piece every year, you may finally realize most of the coverage in Boston is actually overwhelmingly pro-Rask, to the point it’s interfering with our views of other Bruins players. Maybe it’s time to step back and re-evaluate how we are evaluating goalies here, don’t you think?
With all that said, on the surface it’s not hard to see why the Bruins are hesitant to bench their longtime starting goalie, but if winning is their goal, especially while Bergeron and Chara are still playing, they should do whatever gives them their best chance, and right now that’s starting the “backup” in Halak. It may not be the same next year, or the following, but right now, the fact is Halak is the better option. Coaches and management are paid to make decisions based on more than the surface level however, even if, no especially if they are hard decisions to make. At the end of the day, Rask may play well, he’s certainly capable of it, and I am personally rooting for him to do well, but coaches are expected to make decisions based on the information available to them at the time of the decision, and right now virtually all the data says to start Halak. If Rask performs well, all’s well that ends well, that is after all what we all want to see, but even so, that doesn’t mean Halak wouldn’t have done so as well, a key point many fans will conveniently ignore.
If we are viewing this situation objectively and through an analytical lens, the answer is obvious, even if it’s bound to be wildly unpopular. I don’t expect everyone to agree, they rarely do, but if you can’t provide an effective counterargument to the data, maybe it isn’t as absurd as you likely found it, and that’s the whole point of stopping to look at things objectively in a market increasingly filled with narratives in place of facts or analysis. Over the years, there’s been a long list of media who have said to bench Rask or trade him with no valid cause other than an opportunity for clicks, and no suitable replacement to step up for the Bruins. Virtually all of them were wrong, even before Rask proved them so, but this time around there’s both valid cause, and a more than capable replacement sitting on the bench. Here’s hoping Rask has enough in him to add one final article to the list.