Wednesday, July 22, 2009

You Can't Teach Experience

It’s been more than two months since the Pittsburgh Penguins ended the improbable run of Semyon Varlamov and the Capitals in the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s enough time to have passed that we can take a sober look at the goaltending situation. Specifically, do Caps fans have reason to hope – or to believe – that the Caps will knock down that door next June and skate with the Stanley Cup in their grasp? And, for purposes of this discussion, do they have any reason to expect that Semyon Varlamov will do a turn around the ice with the Cup as the goalie having led the way?

Well, it might help to take a look at the last 20 seasons’ worth of Stanley Cup winners and their goaltenders to get a hint.

Over those 20 seasons, 12 different goaltenders won their first (or only) Stanley Cup as the number one netminder for their teams as they marched to the prize:

If there is a common – if not quite universal – theme, it is “experience.” Of those 12 goaltenders, only two had fewer than 100 games worth of regular season experience heading into the playoff year in which they won that first Cup (Martin Brodeur in 1995 (91 games) and Cam Ward in 2006 (28 games)). Eight of the 12 had more than 200 games of regular season experience before embarking on their first successful Stanley Cup run. The 12 goaltenders averaged 288 games of regular season experience before starting their respective runs to their first Cup.

That experience extends – to a point – to playoffs as well. Of the 12 goaltenders who won their first Cup over the last 20 seasons, only two had fewer than 15 games of Stanley Cup playoff experience before the year in which they won that first Cup (Bill Ranford in 1990 (four games) and Cam Ward in 2006 (no games)). The 12 averaged 31 games of playoff experience before beginning that playoff season in which they won their first Cup.

One would expect that these goalies, in addition to being experienced, would be successful as well. And it is true, at least with respect to their regular season experience. Nine of the 12 had won at least 100 regular season games before winning their first Cup. Three – Nikolai Khabibulin, Dominik Hasek, and Ed Belfour – won at least 200 games before winning that first Cup. None of the 12 had a below-.500 record (defined as the number of standings points earned among those standing points available in all of the decisions they earned). Eight of them had winning percentages of .550 or better, and three (Chris Osgood in 1998 (.665), Martin Brodeur in 1995 (.604), and Mike Vernon in 1989 (.644) had winning percentages over .600. These 12 goaltenders had an average regular season record of 141-96-35 before winning their first Cup.

Playoff success is a bit more complicated. Overall, the dozen goalies described here had middling success in the playoffs before embarking on their first successful run to a Stanley Cup. Their average record in games was 16-14 in 31 appearances. The thing, though, is the appearances. Only three of the 12 appeared in fewer than 20 playoff games before their first successful Cup run, and only one of the last ten (Cam Ward) appeared in fewer than 18 games. The last half dozen goalies to win their first Cup – including Ward – averaged 55 games.

What doesn’t seem to be much of a factor is having already appeared in a Stanley Cup final (and losing) before winning the Cup. Only four of the 12 appeared in a final before winning one, and none of them appeared in more than one before coming out on top.

The NHL has increasingly become a young man’s game. But experience counts at one position in particular, and it speaks to the odds on whether the Capitals can make a serious run at the Stanley Cup this coming season. The experience gained by Semyon Varlamov last spring was invaluable in his development as a playoff goaltender, but in light of recent history one has to wonder if it was enough. Jose Theodore certainly has the experience (501 regular season games, 49 playoff games), but his performance hasn’t inspired the greatest of confidence. For instance, he has never won more than six playoff games in any of the seven seasons in which he appeared in the playoffs and hasn’t won that many since 2002. Having mentioned both Caps netminders, it is worth noting that in three of the last four playoff years, the Cup-winning club got wins from both goaltenders along the way (Martin Gerber and Cam Ward in 2006, J-S Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov in 2007, Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek in 2008).

This isn’t to say that the Capitals are doomed in their Stanley Cup hopes this year, but it does suggest that the path will be difficult. If Jose Theodore is going to be the guy backstopping the Caps to a title, he will have to reverse a history cluttered with a lack of playoff success. If it is to be Varlamov, he is going to have to grow up in a hurry.