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Hockey in Canada: Are the Shooters Getting Worse or Are the Goalies Getting Better?

Canada is still ahead of the pack but the pack is gaining.

It's a classic scenario of chicken and egg.

It all started as an innocent enough question in my mind, arising from all the furor over the Canadian goaltending situation. To wit: many hockey fans and hockey authorities are worried over the state of top tier homegrown goalie prospects in the minor and junior leagues which leads, inexorably, to much hand wringing and some finger pointing over the status of goaltending for the upcoming Sochi Olympics. The question that arose was along the lines of how much of that is hype and how much is legitimate. Is Canada actually declining in this important aspect of hockey?

In terms of percentage of Canadian goalies playing in the NHL, yes. Significantly, as the chart shows. In 1982 Canadian goalies accounted for a whopping 94% of the goalies in the NHL. For context, Grant Fuhr and Tony Esposito were still playing and Canadians Billie Smith/Rollie Melanson won the cup with the Islanders that year. The highest save percentage in the league was .910 (Melanson) and the second was .906 (Smith), followed by Pete Peters at .904. By today's standards, most goalies from that year would have been sitting on a bench. Or in the AHL. Or at home in an armchair talking about the good old days when they thought they might make it to the NHL.

There were twenty seven goalies in 2013 who had better stats than Melanson's 1982 mark of .910. Only 10 (37%) were Canadian.

In 1982 a save percentage, as the chart shows, of .910 was fantastic. Since then two things have happened: the percentage of Canadian goalies in the NHL has dropped significantly and the average save percentage of NHL goalies has risen in a similarily significant manner. Coincidence? Coincidences do not usually track so predictably on a graph.

I know what you're thinking: goalie equipment changes, rule changes, style of play changes - they're the culprits of the stunning rise in goalie performance. And, to some degree, you would be correct. But it does not account, in any way, for the relative performance of Canadian goalies or their relative representation in the NHL. Back then, in 1982, Canadian goalies were dominant. Not quite as dominant as players (by a few percentage points), but overwhelmingly dominant.

In 2013, the Stanley Cup winning goalie, Canadian Corey Crawford, ended the regular season in seventh place at .926 and he was the first Canadian on the list. Then Canada is represented again at 9th, 10th, 13th, 14th, 16th, 19th, 23rd, 24th and so on. Not truly terrible. Unless you're Canada. If you're Canada, you're wringing your hands and gnashing your teeth and looking very cranky when the topic comes up. You have to go through two Americans, two Swedes, one Fin and one Russian before you get to the Canadian.

There are two possible conclusions to this bit of raw data. One: Canadian goalies have never been particularly good, in the world-wide sense, and this fact is simply being noticed now because so many goalies of other nationalities have arrived in the NHL. OR two: Canadian goalies are no longer at the top of the heap because there is some weakness in the current system which is supposed to be producing them. One you can't do much about except hang your head and lament the good old days before statistics and the European invasion, the other is systemic and can be addressed.

Using the Elitserian league as a control group, it seems that European goalies were posting similar (slightly lower) numbers in the 1980s. SM-Liiga's stats (slightly higher) bear out this rough conclusion. A lot of .880 and .890s with a .900 here and there. So, let's say that it is not that Canadian goalies have always been bad. Whew, right?

And I know what you're thinking now: well, sure, there is not as high a percentage of Canadian goalies in the game because they have followed the same downward trend as the skaters. Almost, but not quite. Using rough numbers, Canadian skaters have gone from 97% to 53% in representation (-44% points). Canadian goalies have gone from 95% to 45% (-50% points). In short, Canada's goalies are being used less and less in the NHL and when they are used, they perform less and less well than their American and European counterparts. Ouch.

The chicken, egg part comes here: are Canadian goalies being used less because there are less of them or are there less of them because they are being used less? Say that five times in a row, I dare you. A much harder, and darker, question is: are they being used less because they play less well? It's chicken, egg counterpart is: are they playing less well because they are used less.

At some point, someone has to separate the white out and get to the yolk of the matter. Canada cannot remain a dominant international hockey country without good goaltenders. It's a simple and undeniable issue.

My conclusion, without any of the other important data I would need to review, based on intuition, a long-span of time spent watching and analyzing hockey and a rudimentary knowledge of Canada's junior hockey system is that Canada is simply not producing enough goaltenders and in that gross deficit, lies the problem of not producing enough NHL quality goaltenders. The CHL recently imposed a ban on importing European goaltenders into the Canadian Junior ranks, a fact that is vilified by some and applauded by others. I am of the applauding camp, not because I have anything against European players, but because the simple fact is that we can only develop players who are ... you know ... playing. Whatever short term pain that causes to the individual teams in the junior system, will benefit the long term Canadian prospects for years to come.

While it is coached in the more political tones appropriate to someone of his age and speaking on behalf of his league, Jordan Binnington, one of Canada's top goalie prospects and the OHL's goalie of the year in 2013, seems to agree with me. "There's nowhere near a crisis," the Owen Sound Attack netminder said, "There are tons of great Canadian goalies out there. With the European goalies sometimes it adds a little bit more competition and maybe makes it harder for the Canadian goalies to develop more, but it's good competition."

Of course, one has to climb further down the rabbit hole to get to the roots of the thing. Some suggest that the problem we are seeing in the NHL is rooted in the Junior system but that their own similar problem is deeper yet and is rooted in the minor leagues, at the very grassroot heart of the Canadian hockey establishment. To cut through the crap that often surrounds sticky issues like this, it seems to come down to dollars and cents. Sending a kid to play minor hockey is expensive, from an equipment perspective, but sending a kid who wants to play goalie is five times as expensive and, very often, prohibitively so.

Why this would remain an issue is beyond me. Hockey Canada can certainly afford to outfit teams with "team gear" for goalies. All that used equipment is somewhere, in someone's basement, perhaps they need to find ways to get it out and back onto the ice. It doesn't disintegrate after one season. Because, honestly, if the reason Canada is faring poorly in international play is due to a reduced quality of goaltending and that is because, two or three or four levels under that, kids who want to be goalies can't afford the equipment ... geesh, that's the easiest thing in the world to fix. And probably the cheapest. There seems to be no shortage of goalie coaches, mentors and advocates. It's just money. And not a lot of it in the grand scheme of things. To their great credit, the NHLPA has taken an important step to assist in this area with their Giving Back program but clearly more needs to be done. The issue with these things is that a perceived weakness is identified and instead of the governing body spearheading efforts to change what needs changing, third parties are left to fill in the holes.

But back to the present, seven months from the Sochi Winter Olympics, we still have to deal with the reality and results of the situation. Word has gotten out to the rank and file. Suddenly the average Canadian citizen is worried about our hockey program and with it, our single boast of world supremacy. In a country that is more middle of the pack, by philosophy, fairly conservative on the world stage, sparsely populated and politically neutral, hockey was always that thing we crowed about. If we have ever been impolite in our self-regard, it has been over hockey. And people who watch it, even those who do so once every four years, don't like that one little bit. It's good to have that thing. That unifying boast. It brings us together in an apolitical, non contentious, non-religious or philosophical way. That we do so over a sport, over hockey, is about as good a way to define what "Canadian" means as anything. Even in our national passion, we have chosen something that is not likely to upset anyone else. Well, except the Russians. And as I am wont to say: they're the nemesis. It's okay to upset them. Over hockey.

In that dribble-y, drabble-y way that these things go, with absolutely no disrespect to such fine goalies as Roberto Luongo, Corey Crawford, Carey Price, Mike Smith and Braden Holtby, the talk around the water cooler (and the grocery store line-up and the gas station pumps and the bus stop and so on) is that Canada is on shaky ground in respect to goaltending. In a more "in the bones" way than in any immediate, Sochi specific way. At the moment, while the decline is undeniable, the conventional wisdom consensus is that we still have goalies of a good enough caliber to take to the Olympics and win a gold with. As has been noted by others much better qualified to have an opinion, it's a challenge that is not yet an actual crisis

I've already pondered the issue of which goal tenders we should send in another post. But, if the decline continues, even for five more years, we will find ourselves on the outside looking in - able to ice teams with the best forwards and defensemen in the world and no goal tender of relative merit.

The above chart confirms the rate of goal tending improvement by showing a necessary corresponding decline in shot percentage. The takeaway from this isolated data could well be that with the decline of Canadian skaters, goalies are just able to stop more shots because players of lesser talent are taking them. The nearly perfectly matched trends could allow you to make that your solace. Were that I could wear those rose-colored glasses. It would be a nice offset, a nice way to make ourselves feel better. But in the same way the other data chart could lead you to believe that Canadian goalies have always been bad and the increase in save percentage is a result of more non-Canadian goalies coming into the league, this chart's story is not so simple, either.

While it might well have some residual effect, the lesser concentration of Canadian players leading to a general decline in playing ability (hubris, anyone?), that situation would, in fact, be self regulating. In other words, the best players get drafted and signed. If the league is anything like any other similar body, it doesn't care where they were born, only that they can play the game well. So, the decline in Canadian players simply means other countries are producing top tier players at a more significant rate than they used to. This is, of course, an inevitable and predictable result of the game gaining wider appeal in the United States and Europe. It was not possible to maintain a stranglehold on the NHL in terms of player nationality percentage and still have the game expand in fans and appeal. Can't have your cake and eat it, too. At 53% of the NHL skaters still being Canadian we have a long way to go before we're in a similar situation with them as we are with goal tenders.

But the trend is there. And I doubt anything can be done about it unless we want to go all communist-like and start putting boys with displayed talent in special schools and training them from a very young age to be elite hockey players. It's important in Canada because it is a grassroots endeavor, a thing undertaken for the love of the game. If we make it more than that we lose the thing that makes it important. Rock, meet hard place.

Here's the kicker:  with 53% of NHL skaters having a Maple Leaf tattooed on their ass they still represent the overwhelming force of the game. Upon their merits, rises and falls, the overall statistics also go. You just know someone is going to ponder out loud someday, "But what if the shot percentage is not actually strictly and uniquely a reflection of improved European goal tending? What if Canadian players, without their own stop notch goalies to develop with at the junior and minor stage, are becoming less effective? Less ... good. What if the goalies are not just getting better, but the shooters are getting worse."

And then the shit will hit the fan, I tell you.