NHL Giveaway Stats: Which Teams' Goalies Cough Up The Puck?

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 18: Goaltender Mike Smith #41 of the Phoenix Coyotes leans on the goal as a non goal is being reviewed during the second peirod of the NHL game against the Dallas Stars at Jobing.com Arena on February 18, 2012 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The NHL doesn't publish giveaway stats for goaltenders, and while giveaway numbers can be misleading without context, looking into which goalies give up the puck most can be interesting.

Let's get this out of the way up front: I hate giveaways.

Not the actual act (though I'm not a big fan of those either), but the statistic. This may be surprising -- I'm a big proponent of taking notes on what we see to avoid memory biases, and giveaways seem like an important event that we'd want to have tracked. Unfortunately, the numbers are fraught with problems and often end up doing more harm than good.

And yet here I am, writing an article about giveaways. Why? Because I recently discovered that although the NHL play-by-play sometimes charges a goaltender with a giveaway, goalie giveaways are not tabulated anywhere on nhl.com.

So I got curious about what those numbers might show. I'll first explain why giveaways are a problematic statistic and how we can correct for that, but if you just want to get to the numbers, I won't be offended if you skim down to the bullet points at the bottom.

Still with me? OK, here goes.

A giveaway is defined as a play where a player's own actions and decision-making results in the loss of team possession of the puck. That seems straightforward enough, and when I imagine what might be recorded as a giveaway, I picture some pretty clear-cut examples.

However, it would seem that there are a lot of plays that are more ambiguous, and that the NHL has not worked very hard to make sure their scorers all apply the same standards to those ambiguous plays. Some scorers see giveaways everywhere they look -- there have been 1,121 giveaways recorded in Edmonton Oilers' home games (through Friday) and 583 in their road games. Some scorers seem never to see a giveaway -- there have been 262 giveaways in Columbus Blue Jackets' home games and 572 in their road games.

Obviously, this kind of discrepancy in how frequently a scorer records a giveaway causes problems, but if we look just at road giveaways, we get around this issue to some extent. (We can do this various other scorer biases too -- all scorers charge the home team with a lot more giveaways than the road team, some scorers ding defensemen more while others ding forwards more, etc.)

Yet even after we make that correction, I'm still not crazy about giveaway totals. The best players will be on the ice the most and will have the puck the most, and so they will also have the most chances for giveaways. The leading forwards in giveaways are Ilya Kovalchuk, Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton, Phil Kessel, and Jason Spezza -- not exactly a group of chumps. Erik Karlsson, PK Subban, Keith Yandle, Dion Phaneuf, Brent Burns, and Zdeno Chara are among the top 10 defensemen in giveaways. Until someone also tracks how many times each player touched the puck without turning it over, I'm going to be hesitant to read much into the giveaways.

With all that being said, at least goaltenders all play roughly the same amount of time per game. So if I just look at road games (to minimize scorer bias) and view the numbers on a per-game basis, perhaps we will learn something interesting. I looked at the 60 goalies with the most road starts, and here's what I found (all stats for road games only):

  • The average goalie gets charged with 0.46 giveaways per game.
  • Mike Smith has the most giveaways, with 33. He also has the most per start, with 1.14.
  • Second in giveaways per start is Jason LaBarbera, with 1.13 (nine in eight games). Whether it's because Phoenix asks their goalies to handle the puck a lot or because they have goalies who attempt aggressive passes or because the players receiving passes are lazy about positioning is unclear, but Phoenix seems to have a dominant lead in the goalie giveaway category.
  • Other teams with two turnover-prone goalies include Montreal (Peter Budaj is tied for third in giveaways per start with 8 in 8 games; Carey Price is sixth with 27 in 28 games) and New Jersey (Martin Brodeur is eighth with 18 in 21 games; Johan Hedberg is 13th with 12 in 17 games).
  • Detroit also has two goalies in the top 15 (Joey MacDonald is ninth; Ty Conklin is 14th), but Jimmy Howard is among the stingiest goalies with just six giveaways in 24 games.
  • Another team with a large spread between starter and backup is Boston. Tim Thomas has just seven giveaways in 26 games, while Tuukka Rask is 12th with five in seven.
  • Philadelphia has the stingiest pair of goaltenders in Sergei Bobrovsky (three giveaways in 11 games) and Ilya Bobrovsky (eight in 26). No other team has two of the bottom 15 in giveaways per game.
  • The goalie least likely to commit a turnover is Mathieu Garon, with just one giveaway in 22 road games. Behind him on the list is a series of goalies wearing No. 1: Brent Johnson (one in nine games), Thomas Greiss (one in eight), Jonas Hiller (four in 31), Steve Mason (three in 17), and Roberto Luongo (four in 22).

These standings are undoubtedly heavily influenced by how often the goalie handles the puck, so I'm hesitant to make a direct jump from "lots of giveaways" to "bad with the puck". But as long as we apply the appropriate level of caution in the interpretation, these numbers give us some interesting things to think about.

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