Inside Slant: Pulling the (NFL) goalie

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
1:15
PM ET
Another in an Inside Slant series that will appear regularly during the 2014 offseason.

You might be aware of an unusual coaching decision Thursday night at the Pepsi Center, where Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy pulled his goalie with three minutes, one second remaining in a playoff game the Avs trailed by one. They tied the game with 14 seconds remaining and won in overtime.

As a football writer and hockey novice, my reaction moved quickly to the gridiron. Namely: You would never see an NFL coach depart from conventional wisdom to that degree, especially in a playoff game.

We can get some context for Roy's decision from a study performed through Canada's Simon Fraser University. (H/T to Adam Gretz of SBNation.com for providing a path to finding it.)

The study found that when NHL goalies were pulled in the 2007-08 season, there was about one minute remaining in regulation. By examining the various possibilities, the study found NHL coaches were missing opportunities by not pulling their goalies -- and adding an extra potential scorer -- earlier in games they trailed in.

A strategy of pulling the goalie when trailing with three minutes or less remaining would account for an additional point over the course of a season, according to the study. A more aggressive approach could push that outcome to 1.5 additional points.

Yes, Roy's decision Thursday night would have failed if not for a spectacular empty-net save by a defenseman. But as we've discussed in this blog series, strategies must be evaluated over time and not by a singular outcome.

My hockey friends tell me that Roy pulls his goalies regularly, and thus what is out of the box for most isn't even unusual for him. I also don't know if his decision-making is based on the data or his own experience as a goalie. Regardless, it would be rare to find an NFL coach either confident or crazy enough to embrace such a counterculture strategy.

What would the NFL equivalent be? I asked Twitter followers to give me their best suggestions. A representative sample is in the module below.

To me, it's as if Roy went for it on fourth down in the fourth quarter of a tie game. Or maybe he called for a running play on a two-point conversion when trailing by one. (NFL teams pass more often than run in those situations, but the data shows running plays are more successful.)

With a Hall of Fame playing career on his resume, perhaps Roy enjoys a level of security that most NFL coaches do not. But I look forward to the day when an NFL coach has the guts to pull his goalie with three minutes left in regulation -- and survives to tell about it.

 

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