Across all sports, the people promoting better statistics have a common failure: They only engage with the least charitable versions of their critics’ arguments. In hockey, opinions based on observation, specifically, are often treated by the fancystats crowd as the arguments of anti-intellectuals, not as the hard-won knowledge of keen observers of the game.
Take, for instance, Jonathan Quick’s contested “elite” status:
Despite the fact that Quick’s team has made it to the Cup final in spite of him and not because of him, he has a chance to reignite the unfounded claims about his uniquely inherent ability to “get in a zone” when things matter, conveniently enough doing so only from time to time.
This article and many like it treat the suggestion that a goalie can play differently given the intensity of the situation with the kind of suspicion normally reserved for a Matt Cooke apology.
Of course, Quick’s career save percentage (.915) reflects a body of regular-season work that does not hold up against Pekka Rinne’s (.920), Henrik Lundqvist’s (.921) and Tuukka Rask’s (.926). So let’s treat the inane question of whether he is “elite” the same way baseball fans treat the knowledge that Madison Bumgarner is the 20th best pitcher in Major League Baseball according to WAR. Instead the question we’re really asking here is: Who ya got in Game 7? You can keep Lundqvist. I’ll take Jonathan Quick. Don’t strain yourself wondering how this ends. I’ll just send you the 2014 Year In Review sports magazine of your choosing.
But don’t just accuse me of saying, “Count the rings!” Consider the Bumgarner analogy a little further. There is a defensible reason to pick Bumgarner over many statistically superior pitchers in a hypothetical Game 7: He pitches to contact, and not dangerous contact. Limiting walks and wild pitches is a vital skill in those postseason starts for which the 1A goal is to avoid disaster. Could there not be some skill of Quick’s that makes him uniquely suited for the playoffs? But the baseball analogy only goes so far. In MLB, postseason pitching and hitting happen at the same speed as regular season pitching and hitting: at a literal stand-still. Are there seriously hockey fans out there who believe that the Stanley Cup playoffs aren’t played at a different speed, causing certain players with certain skill sets to be, year-after-year, noticeably better after regular season Game No. 82?
Growing up a Predators fan, this point was proved to me by David Legwand, whose regular-season offense was consistently disappointing. He was incredibly athletic but casual in his approach to the game. He mostly got through the schedule by using his speed to provide good coverage of the ice. But in the playoffs—especially from 2009 to ’12—he looked like a different player, using his speed to streak into the offensive zone. The more cynical among you might say that my perception is based on an uptick in Legwand’s shooting percentage. But sometimes a better shooting percentage reflects the fact that a player is taking better shots, not that the universe is fundamentally random and cruel. Even Dirk Hoag, a Preds blogger imbued with more than a little statistical skepticism, joked on more than one occasion about his wanting a playoff Legwand action figure.
Wait, who was I supposed to be talking about? I lapsed into one of my historical Nashville rants that no one cares about. What got me started on this? Oh right, Jonathan Quick. Well, “incredibly athletic but casual” also describes Jonathan Quick.
I watched a few of Quick’s games for this column, focusing mostly on Game 1 of last year's Stanley Cup finals (which Quick won), as well as this month’s Stanley Cup rematch (which Quick lost). I’m not here to tell you he’s bad during the regular season because he lost this one game, or the opposite about the playoffs because he won. (I actually found about equal fault with Quick on the goals that he surrendered in both games.) I want to focus on the perceivable differences in how he behaved on plays that didn’t end in goals.
Chris Boyle, who does great statistical profiles of goalies that go beyond just their save percentages, wrote about Quick’s style last year when he initially struggled during the playoffs. Boyle said that Quick was coming too far out of the crease to be able to take efficient routes on post-to-post saves. This tendency caused the goals he gave up to look unstoppable—i.e., not Quick's fault—like in two-on-one passing plays. The reality, according to Boyle, was that the goals were partially Quick’s fault because, unlike a goalie who plays deeper in the crease, he was making the crisscross pass harder to defend.
I agree with Boyle’s data here—Quick exhibits this tendency, and his fans underrate route-taking in the crease as a virtue of good goaltending. But there’s a logic to what Quick is doing. He can cut off more of the net when he comes out on a shooter (a not insignificant goal, given that Quick plays dangerously low) and can make up for the risk with his amazing flexibility and—ahem—quickness. It’s a calculated cheat that plays to his strength and masks his weakness. But the risk calculus in trading the angle for the far post only works if he can read a cross-ice pass in the first place.
Quick was so slow to react to one side-to-side pass in the beginning of this month’s game against the Rangers that it looks like a frame rate error:
Notice how he scolds himself afterwards with the subtle head bang. Believe me, I often scoff at appeals to the body language of goaltenders. As an intern, I slipped in a jab at Justin Goldman of The Goalie Guild, the Internet’s leading netminder apologia blog, in this Deadspin list of the worst Twitter accounts in sports:
A pseudo-poetic answer for everything. With regard to goalies, the correct answer is usually “random variation.”
I’m not going to walk back that comment, but I will give Goldman full marks for the thoughtful points he raised in his meditation on Quick after the Kings’ first Cup, in 2012. Goldman attributes Quick’s performance against the Devils in the finals to ... ego death. I’ll stop short of calling Quick a zen master, but I will concede that he is a low-key dude. And sometimes—glove hand slack, hopelessy searching for the puck—his personality shows to his detriment on the ice.
At the risk of accidentally walking into a Finnish stereotype, Rinne and Rask seemed to have the opposite problems early in their careers. They came out so revved up, they couldn’t compartmentalize. One bad goal and milk crates started flying over the boards. As someone who has watched nearly every NHL game of Rinne’s career, I can attest that the difference between Rinne when he was surprisingly good back-up and Rinne the superstar of today, is that the first soft goal stopped portending the second. And with that control came a change in body language, from, “I'm so mad!” to “What can you do?”
By contrast, Quick seemingly needs to be engaged in a game. That’s implicit when Pierre McGuirre says something in the opening minutes of the Stanley Cup finals along the lines of, “Jonathan Quick looks engaged in this game early. Could be bad news for the New York Rangers.” Perhaps it’s also the reason Daryl Sutter can motivate Quick with a negative comment, while most coaches handle their goalie’s psyches as if they were Fabergé eggs.
Sometimes “focus” seems like a too easy explanation for an athlete’s struggles or success, since it can’t be disproved. But when it comes to goalies, tracking those little disks at high speeds from behind metal bars, focus matters literally.
In baseball, there is such a thing as a guess hitter, who instead of just relying on his reactions to a pitch, takes copious notes on pitchers' tendencies and tries to guess a certain pitch before it’s thrown. These hitters—frequently power hitters who maybe don’t have the time, given their mechanics, to react to a last minute break of the ball—often take big cuts.
Quick is hockey’s answer to the guess hitter. He takes big cuts. He comes way out of his crease to make sure the fastball isn’t going to beat him. Then it’s all game theory, whether he’s going to guess correctly before you can pass the puck through the slot. And like all great guess hitters, Quick does his best work when his guesses are right, or when he sees things well enough to realize when he’s guessed wrong and uses his flexibility and quickness to cover his mistake.
Perhaps, in retreating to the baseball metaphor, I’ve conceded the statisticians’ point. Like the supposedly clutch hitter who guessed the right pitch in the bottom of the ninth, maybe Quick got lucky in the 2012 finals and will ride that for eternity. But in a very real way, Quick makes his own luck. I see skills—highly variable skills, it’s true—that make his ability to “get in a zone” more than a too-convenient explanation.