Drance Numbers: Does Luongo’s mileage matter more than his age?

Despite his recent run of incredible play, the Vancouver market remains habitually critical of Roberto Luongo. The chronic frustration with the team’s incumbent starter has led to numerous suggestions that the team keep young blue-chip netminder Cory Schneider, who’s still got that new car smell, and trade Luongo instead.

By now, the goalie controversy is old hat, so let’s give credit to Ed Willes for putting a novel spin on it yesterday, with an extremely interesting take in the Province. Willes’s column doesn’t rely on any hackneyed arguments about Luongo’s lack of “mental toughness,” but rather, suggests Luongo has accrued too much mileage, and that Gillis might be best served by sticking with the fresher legs in Cory Schneider. Here’s the meat of what Willes wrote:

It is not the 10 years he has left on his contract. It’s not the $5.333 million annual cap hit he represents. It’s not even the number of Stanley Cups he’s won.

No, those are all relevant in the great Vancouver goaltending debate but the most important number connected to Luongo is this: 21,743.

And that isn’t the number of times Canucks’ fans have called the open-mouth shows saying: ‘We can’t win with this guy.’

That number, in fact, represents the number of shots Luongo has faced thus far in his 12-season NHL career.”

Willes goes on to suggest that Luongo is older in goalie years than he is in human years.

Luongo is only 32 in human years (he’ll turn 33 just in time for the playoffs) and is in the midst of his 12th season, but as Willes points out, he’s faced the 3rd-most shots among all active NHL goaltenders, behind pensioners Nikolai Khabibulin and Martin Brodeur. Luongo has also faced the 10th-most shots-against all-time (shots on goal only began to be recorded by the NHL in 1983-84). In goalie years, Luongo is as ancient and archaic as Tim Thomas — or at least Thomas’s political views.

"Coach? I need a bathroom break. The ol' bladder ain't what it used to be."

The list of goaltenders who’ve faced over 20,000 shots in NHL is short: 13 names for now, with Capitals netminder Tomas Vokoun basically guaranteed to join the list by the end of this season. When you count only netminders who’ve played the equivalent of a full season after the benchmark, the list shortens to 10. Out of curiosity, I figured I’d test Willes’s central assumption: does the performance of an NHL goaltender fall off sharply after they eclipse the 20,000 shots-against mark?

The following table includes 7 of the 10 goaltenders who’ve played at least the equivalent of a full season as a starter, after reaching the 20,000 shots against mark. Included in the table is the age at which they reached the mark, their save-percentage before and after the 20k milestone, and the number of seasons they played (as a starter)* after having faced 20,000 shots against in the NHL.

*I’ve qualified “a full season as a starting goaltender” as starting 42 games, and I’ve assumed an average of 28 shots against per game.

Goaltender

Career SA

SV% Before 20k

Sv% After 20K

Age 20k SA Reached

Starting Seasons After 20k

Brodeur

29295

0.912

0.915

33

5

Roy

28353

0.906

0.918

31

6

Cujo

26796

0.908

0.902

34

4

Belfour

24751

0.907

0.904

37

3

Burke

23299

0.901

0.908

35

1

Khabibulin

21635

0.908

0.902

37

1

Luongo

21173

0.919

0.921

31

1

Some quick notes on the table above: I left Tom Barrasso, John Vanbiesbrouck and Grant Fuhr off of the list for a couple of reasons. Fuhr and Vanbiesbrouck each played games before shots-on-goal were recorded as a statistic, so their numbers would be somewhat inaccurate. Also, save percentage has exploded since the 1980s (4 goaltenders won the Vezina in the 80s with a sub-900 sv%), so I decided to leave goaltenders who made their debut before 1985 off of the list, to minimize that high-scoring era’s capacity for skewing the numbers.

Now to some observations: Nikolai Khabibulin, Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour all saw a drop in save-percentage after having faced 20k shots at the NHL level. While Sean Burke saw his save-percentage rise, that comes with the qualifier that he and Roy are the only two goalies on this list who played in the 80s, when a sub-900 save percentage was commonplace. Including Luongo, only four goaltenders in NHL history have reached the 20,000 shots-against milestone before the age of 35. Two of the three other goaltenders (Curtis Joseph, Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur), went on to have success for a number of seasons after surpassing the milestone.

While Brodeur has fallen off sharply over the past two seasons, he surpassed the 20k mark 6 years ago (he should surpass 30k this season), and in the four seasons immediately after surpassing the 20k mark, Brodeur had a .919 save percentage, was named to two all-star teams, and won the Vezina trophy in consecutive years (2007, 2008). Brodeur is, as Willes rightly calls him a freak. But it’s worth remembering that Luongo passed the 20k shots bench-mark two years before Brodeur did. Patrick Roy never won a Vezina after passing the 20k mark, but he did win a Jennings Trophy and a Stanley Cup. Curtis Joseph fell off precipitously, but he was three years older than Luongo was when he surpassed the “20,000 shots against” mark.

All of this is to say that, perhaps “goalie years” and “human years” don’t differ as much as, say, human years and dog years do. It seems that there’s little correlation between “number of shots faced” and “deterioration of a goaltender’s performance,” and a much stronger correlation between a dip in a goaltender’s performance and their human age.

So when Willes provocatively asks, “But what’s [Luongo] going to look like two years down the road when he’s turning 35” we can answer that it’s not likely that he’ll be a complete shell of himself. Luongo’s odometer is racking up the mileage, no doubt about it, but historically there isn’t much evidence to suggest that he’ll consequently fall off faster than goaltenders of the same age group that have faced fewer shots. Unlike in basketball, where players who have played 30,000 minutes in the NBA tend to fall off a cliff in terms of production, the 20,000 shots-against mark doesn’t seem to have the same iron-clad deflationary impact on NHL goaltenders.

When you further consider Luongo’s reputed commitment to fitness, and the informational advantage contemporary athletes have over their predecessors in terms of nutrition, fitness techniques and maintenance: there’s no reason to suspect that a rapid “decline” in Luongo’s performance is imminent. (After all, it’s not June! Ha ha… oh. I made myself sad.)

Finally, speaking  of imminence, Schneider may be the better goaltender in 5 seasons, but the Canucks’ best chance to win is now, and he’s a guy the Canucks can “sell-high” on. If Schneider can score that elusive “home-run” piece that helps put the Canucks over the top, then he has to be the one to move.

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9 comments

  1. John Andress
    February 10, 2012

    Is it just my elderly memory or do I recall reading at the time Luongo’s contact was signed that there are two windows of opportunity for both sides to opt out somewhere around year five and year seven? I was sure that I read something to that effect. If it is true, perhaps MG is engineering a situation whereby Schneider and Luongo increasingly share the load as Luongo matures with Roberto eventually moving along to a non-playing role in the organization and Schneider inheriting the crease. Wouldn’t it be nice if this was more than just wishful thinking?

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  2. ArtemChubarov
    February 10, 2012

    There is definitely an opt out clause, I forget the exact details of it, however.

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  3. maxcombo
    February 10, 2012

    Classing goalies by NHL shots alone does not make sense any how. . All goalies whether on that list or not face shots when not in the NHL. Luongo was an instant NHLer but are those shots harder than the shots Thomas or Schnieder faced in the AHL. Inferior shooters perhaps but inferior defenders too. And inferior amenities to help the AHLer recuperate. So if shots take their toll so to speak one has to include minor league experience and perhaps even junior/college.

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    • ArtemChubarov
      February 10, 2012

      The point of course, was to cast doubt on the idea that “shots” take their toll as much as age does.

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  4. Canucksrule
    February 11, 2012

    Drance, I like most of your stuff, but probably not worth you spending so much time on something stupid like this… one chart proves your point…

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  5. Allan
    February 11, 2012

    Kudos to you and Ed W, Can we get the exact opt out dynamic of Mr Luongo’s contract ? The key of course is performance under the most extreme pressure. This year should tell a lot. Let’s hope they both have great playoffs so that either one will be attractive to those shopping.

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  6. J21
    February 11, 2012

    The “opt out” has to do with the no-trade clause, not the binding nature of the contract itself (there are no more “option years” under this CBA). So it doesn’t help the Canucks that much, because Luongo isn’t easily tradable anyway, and the list of suitors is not that high now, let alone in however many years. Either way, the full length and price of the contract is ironclad unless he retires.

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    • John Andress
      February 12, 2012

      Thank you. I understand your points but disagree with you about Luongo’s tradability. His cap hit, at the time of writing, is seventh of the goalies in the league and his actual salary paid out decreases with every year the contract runs. Combined with the fact (that is FACT. Not guess, not opinion, not wish, but actual statistically substantiated FACT) that he is year after year amongst the top goalies in the league numbers-wise, I think that he would be very attractive to one of the many cheapo teams that has problems in goal and is also looking for a way to get above the salary cap floor. Having said that, I would be quite happy to see Roberto play out a long and successful career here in Vancouver. The perfect option would be to find a way to keep both he and Schneider together as a tandem in Vancouver but if that is not going to work, and his value as a trade commodity as well as fairness to Cory Schneider is an issue here, Eddy Lack in Chicago is showing some promise as the Canuck’s next possible super-back-up.

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  7. Pinner
    February 12, 2012

    Not a chance we have both Schneider and Lu for that long – schneids is going to be way too expensive in his next deal.

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