For years in the late 2000s and 2010s, it felt as though whoever played next to Sidney Crosby was guaranteed to see a massive improvement in their point production. Eventually, this became known as the “Crosby bump,” and the same idea has been applied to newer players like Connor McDavid, who has a similar effect on his linemates.
Similarly, pundits and fans often talk about Darryl Sutter’s impact as a coach, pointing to his history of tightening up the defense of teams he coaches. This got me thinking, does Sutter provide a Crosby bump—but for goalies? Not just a bump in team defense, which we already know he provides, but an improvement in the quality of the goaltending itself.
Darryl Sutter, goalie whisperer
In terms of save percentage, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. Below are all of the goalies Sutter has played at least 15 times as a head coach, and their save percentages when on his teams versus not on his teams.
Every goalie except Ed Belfour saw a bump in their save percentage when they played for Sutter. And his stagnant save percentage can likely be explained by the fact that he was aging when he played for Sutter, past his prime.
But save percentage is a flawed stat. Although used to measure goalie performance, it’s closely correlated with team defensive metrics, meaning it’s more a reflection of a team and goalie’s combined ability than the ability of a goalie himself.
Enter, goals saved above expected.
Advanced stats tell the same story
Goals saved above expected (GSAx) is an advanced stat which attempts to factor out the quality of a team’s defense when evaluating goalie performance. Using this metric, we can get a better idea of the Sutter’s impact on goalies themselves, rather than his overall defensive impact.
Unfortunately, expected goals data only goes back as far as 2007, but we still have a decent sample of goalies coached by Sutter.
GSAx is a cumulative stat, so if you play more, you can end up with a higher GSAx than another goalie, even if that other goalie actually prevents more goals above expected per game played. To account for this, I converted GSAx into a rate-based stat, so that it shows a goalie’s ice-time adjusted goals saved above expected.
I also only used data from seasons fully coached by Sutter. When a coach takes over midseason, there’s a period before the team has adjusted to the new systems that aren’t necessarily reflective of the coach. With no way to know how long that period is for any given team, I chose to omit those seasons to best differentiate between Sutter and the goalies’ careers elsewhere.
By this metric, Sutter again seems to be a goalie-whisperer. Every goalie in the sample shows improvement in goals saved above expected. It’s worth noting though, that the goalie who we have the largest sample for, Jonathon Quick, is the least affected.
The improvement may also reflect some aspect of Sutter’s defensive systems that expected goals models underestimate. Without player and puck tracking data, which the NHL does not yet provide for public consumption, some chances can be systemically underestimated or overestimated by expected goals models, like those off the rush, which are often considered to be underrated by the existing models.
So, two possible explanations are that Sutter might be a goalie whisperer, or he might have a defensive system that expected goals models systemically underrate. Either way, it’s great news for Flames fans.
The Flames are taking advantage
One of the reasons it’s great news for the Flames is that it allows them to save money at the backup goalie position. In a flat cap environment, any savings are extremely valuable, and Daniel Vladar is excelling on a league-minimum deal this season.
Another way they’ve taken advantage of is of course on the ice, getting off to a solid 7–3–4 start to the season, with Jacob Markstrom starting the season with an unparalleled string of goaltending performances. He’s been integral to the Flames’ hot start and will continue to be relied on for the rest of the season.
It’s also great news for Vladar personally. Early in his career, he has a fantastic opportunity to earn a raise before his current contract expires in 2023. Jonathan Bernier, Peter Budaj, and Martin Jones are all goalies who left Sutter’s teams in free agency for more money elsewhere.
Good goaltending is hard to find, and the Flames have a coach who seems to will it into his goalie, regardless of whoever is in his net. With two strong goalies, the Flames are poised to take full advantage of Sutter’s system going forward.
Cover Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images