Chicago Blackhawks

Perception vs Reality: Crawford’s Case for the Vezina

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Corey Hirsch isn’t sure if Corey Crawford will ever be mentioned among the NHL’s elite goaltenders. He’s not sure it matters.

“I’d rather have the three Stanley Cup rings,” said Hirsch, who played 108 NHL games for the Rangers, Canucks, Capitals, and Stars. “Consistently, Corey Crawford has been pretty good, year after year.”

In terms of traditional statistics, Crawford ranks among the league’s leaders in several categories following an average showing in Thursday’s game against the Coyotes at Gila River Arena. He was first in the NHL in shutouts (7), second in wins (29), fourth in save percentage (0.930) and ninth in goals against average (2.15).

But as most goalies, active or retired, will tell you, none of the current goaltending statistics offers much of a read on a goaltender’s true performance. Some have tried to dig deeper by examining the location of shots faced, the percentage chance of scoring from each area or the situations under which they were scored.

Some blogs have examined other tools like Goals Saved Above Average to look at how goalies perform against their peers and the league average, but even these stats don’t account for a lot of variables.

“I don’t want to ignore those numbers, but I’m a guy who thinks those advanced numbers are extremely limited in what they tell us because there is something to examining team play when you talk about goaltending,” said Kevin Woodley, contributor editor of InGoal magazine, who also covers the Canucks for NHL.com. “That position more than any other cannot exist in a vacuum. How the team plays in front of you has a direct impact.”

Among the variables that Woodley cited as difficult to chart, even in the improved analytics, are visibility, pre-shot movement, and the circumstances that immediately preceded a shot.

“Did the goalie have to move from left to right because the puck crossed the zone or was there a quick turnover before the shot where the goalie couldn’t get set?” Woodley said. “I like that advanced stats are measuring shot distance and areas, but I don’t think that’s a measure of true shot quality.”

There is also the reality that most analytics sites rely on NHL stats for their data. More than a few NHL executives, coaches, players and writers will tell you how unreliable those are, or how minimal the information is that they provide in the case of play by play, shot location and other key variables.

“Bad data in, bad data out,” former Coyotes assistant GM Darcy Regier once said.

Until those analytics improve, we may never gain an accurate sense of Crawford’s standing among his league peers, but in Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville’s mind, it’s hard to argue with what Crawford has done this season.

“He was a big factor in that stretch where we had some success in January (12 straight wins),” Quenneville said. “We owe some thanks to him.”

Some analysts have floated the idea that Crawford has had to be better this season behind a Blackhawks defense that only runs three deep (Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook) before it drops off. Quenneville thinks there is some merit to that notion.

“The goalie wins have probably been a higher ratio to the number of games (won) this year,” he said. “Defensively, we’d like to play the right way. On certain nights in front of him we don’t give up much. On other nights, they generate a little bit more.”

Early in his career, Crawford developed a reputation as a “blocker”, a somewhat derogatory term to describe a goaltender who doesn’t have a lot of athletic ability and simply relies on positioning. Woodley doesn’t think that label applies to Crawford any more.

“All goalies have strengths and weaknesses and habits — things they defer to when they’re not feeling on top of their game,” Woodley said. “Corey, when he’s not really on his game, his tendency is to default to his knees and pull his hands in until his knees hit the ice, then the hands go out.

“But he’s much more balanced in his play now. His positioning is little more neutral but he will come out and challenge when he needs to. And you can’t ignore the mental toughness. When he got pulled in that playoff series against Nashville in the first round last year, a lot of guys would have been done. Not only did he come back, but he played well and won a Stanley Cup.”

Woodley thinks that more than anything, Crawford suffers from an image problem that keeps him out of the same breath as players such Carey Price, Braden Holtby, Henrik Lundqvist and Cory Schneider.

“He wears rail straight pads and he does it so when he drops into a butterfly those pads form a triangle in front of his knees,” Woodley said. “He likes that. I talked to him about this. Rather than having them wrap around and curve, he likes that when pucks hit his body that he doesn’t fully control, they will drop into this triangle and he can protect loose pucks from players who are banging away.

“But because his pads are so rail straight, when he moves, it just looks a little clunkier than other guys. Even when he’s playing great it’s not silky; it’s not smooth. It’s not like Carey Price, who looks like a how-to-play-goalie DVD. But Corey’s technique is sound and he has kept up with modern techniques like post integration.”

Woodley isn’t sure there will ever be definitive word on where Crawford ranks. In the end, Crawford’s chance at his first Vezina Trophy will probably come down to the same simple statistical measures and the same perceptions that fuel voters opinions, including a belief that Crawford benefits from a great team in front of him.

“I think you have to crunch all the numbers and consider a lot of factors before you say for sure that he deserves to be in the top three goalies this season — and even when you do I don’t know if you’ll have enough information,” Woodley said. “But I do think Corey Crawford deserves to be in that conversation as one of best goalies and I believe he has for quite a while.”

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