Cutting corners: don't spend money on goalies

Cam Charron
June 04 2012 08:33AM

 

The average playoff team this past season won 45.8 games and earned a team overall even strength save percentage of .921.

The average non-playoff team won just 35.5 games, probably because they only got .914 goaltending.

Obviously, goaltending is the absolute equalizer in hockey, and average teams ought to pay more for it to become "good" teams. Toronto, Columbus, Edmonton, Winnipeg, all ought to make finding the right goaltender a #1 priority this offseason and take a step forward?

Well, not really. While save percentage correlates with winning, it isn't exactly proven that spending money on a goaltender will guarantee a team success. Look at it this way: the New York Rangers spent $7.75M on Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron last season according to NHLNumbers. They won 51 games and made the playoffs. At the other end of the table, Florida spent $2.7M and also made the playoffs.

Predicting Goalie ROI

Interestingly enough, the Panthers got a team save percentage of .925 and the Rangers of .923. Home scorer bias definitely played a part in that, but once that's been accounted for, what did the Rangers pay $5M more for than the Panthers?

The average playoff team spent $4.7M on their goaltending, and the average non-playoff team broke out the chequebook, paying a little over $5M:

Playoff Team $ Spent Wins SV%
Vancouver  $6,233,000.00 51 0.929
NY Rangers  $7,750,000.00 51 0.923
Pittsburgh  $5,600,000.00 51 0.905
St. Louis  $4,350,000.00 49 0.936
Boston  $6,384,000.00 49 0.922
Detroit  $3,082,000.00 48 0.923
Nashville  $4,266,000.00 48 0.924
New Jersey  $6,450,000.00 48 0.909
Philadelphia  $7,417,000.00 47 0.913
Chicago  $3,267,000.00 45 0.908
San Jose  $4,387,000.00 43 0.926
Phoenix  $3,250,000.00 42 0.93
Washington  $2,752,000.00 42 0.92
Ottawa  $4,298,000.00 41 0.918
Los Angeles  $3,050,000.00 40 0.928
Florida  $2,700,000.00 38 0.925
       
Average  $4,702,250.00 45.8 0.921

Non-Playoff Team $ Spent Wins SV%
Dallas  $3,945,000.00 42 0.918
Colorado  $4,083,000.00 41 0.919
Buffalo  $6,925,000.00 39 0.921
Tampa Bay  $4,357,000.00 38 0.899
Winnipeg  $3,000,000.00 37 0.912
Calgary  $6,696,000.00 37 0.92
Toronto  $3,150,000.00 35 0.906
Minnesota  $6,750,000.00 35 0.923
Anaheim  $6,291,000.00 34 0.914
NY Islanders  $5,699,000.00 34 0.903
Carolina  $7,250,000.00 33 0.918
Edmonton  $4,550,000.00 32 0.916
Montreal  $3,900,000.00 31 0.916
Columbus  $3,891,000.00 29 0.913
       
Average  $5,034,785.71 35.5 0.914

As the Philadelphia Flyers learned last season, throwing money at a problem doesn't necessarily fix it. The Panthers covered the loss of Tomas Vokoun quite admirably, with Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen putting it pretty good seasons, as Vokoun became a bargain for what he brought Washington.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles, who are still nursing Jonathan Quick's first contract extension (a 3-year deal worth $5.4M overall that expires after next season) spent a little over $3M in goal and have the front-runner for both Vezina and Conn Smythe on their roster.

SV% Seems Randomly Distributed

Cam Ward, Ryan Miller, Nicklas Backstrom and Miikka Kiprusoff represent bad buys. Well, not necessarily bad buys, since their teams got decent enough goaltending this season. You could hypothesize, perhaps, that a lack of available cap space made it tougher for their teams to surround their star goaltenders with talent.

However the correlation between "dollars spent for marginal unit of save percentage" and wins was minimal, with an r-squared of -.00239.

This is illustrated by Winnipeg, Dallas, Colorado and Montreal, who all spent well below the league average on marginally effective goaltending, but that didn't turn into wins. Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Philadelphia all overspent on goaltending but won 51, 48 and 47 games, respectively. Mostly teams that spent money on goaltending did not fail despite overvaluing their puckstopper. Some teams also got lucky with good, cheap goaltending but failed to turn that into more wins.

So cheap goaltending wasn't necessarily the answer this season, but neither was expensive goaltending. Perhaps goaltending just isn't the overall answer. You're probably still better off taking a risk on a cheaper guy than an expensive one, particularly if your budget is limited by more than a salary cap. It's impossible to predict how goaltenders will do over the course of the season, and even educated guesses can be bad buys over a full season.

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Cam Charron is a BC hockey fan that writes about hockey on many different websites including this one.
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#1 Johnny
June 04 2012, 12:07PM
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It is pretty common for NHLNumbers type writers to disparage expensive contracts for goaltenders, which i generally agree with. But what about the true top goalies? What about a contract like Henrik Lundqvist? I would personally say the Rangers get good value for the dollars they pay him, as top goalies really do provide enormous impacts.

Would you disagree with this?

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#2 Jonathan Willis
June 04 2012, 01:27PM
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@Johnny

I'd argue that Lundqvist's real value is in his consistency. In any given year, a goalie might put up a 0.916 SV% for bottom dollar, but the Rangers can count on Lundqvist doing that or better each and every year.

Not many goalies can consistently outperform the league average.

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#3 Johnny
June 04 2012, 01:38PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

I'd argue that Lundqvist's real value is in his consistency. In any given year, a goalie might put up a 0.916 SV% for bottom dollar, but the Rangers can count on Lundqvist doing that or better each and every year.

Not many goalies can consistently outperform the league average.

I agree with that.

I also think thats the problem with just pointing out all of the cheap goaltenders that performed well, and making broader implications that spending money on goalies is a bad gamble.

Yes, Mike Smith was cheap and remarkably effective. There was also a very high likelihood he could have had results that more closely lined up with his career to date, and thus the Coyotes season would have been a disaster. The coyotes took a remarkable risk.

While it is possible to find effective goaltending for cheap, it is also possible to find ineffective goaltending for cheap. Also, just because other teams found a good goalie for a low price, there is no guarantee your team will be able to do the same thing.

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#4 Eric T.
June 04 2012, 01:52PM
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@Jonathan Willis

I disagree on consistency, for reasons that are probably obvious -- http://nhlnumbers.com/2012/5/11/the-myth-of-the-hot-goalie-consistent-goaltenders-vs-inconsistent-goaltenders

The reason the Rangers can count on Lundqvist putting up a good save percentage every year isn't because he's more consistent; it's because he's better. In the last five years, he's ranged from .912 to .930. Only a few other active goalies have similar career averages (Rinne, Thomas, Luongo), and over that span, Rinne's worst was .911 in '09-10, Thomas's was .915 in '09-10, and Luongo's was .913 in '09-10. (What the heck happened in '09-10 anyway?)

Obviously a .920 goalie will have fewer sub-.915 seasons than a .915 goalie, but I don't think it's because he's more consistent.

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#5 Glasses
June 04 2012, 04:45PM
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Both teams in the SCF last season had $10.3M invested in just their starting goaltenders. It varies from yr to yr.

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#6 RexLibris
June 04 2012, 08:06PM
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I don't believe that having a "true #1 goaltender", as so many fans like to say, is any more of a key to success than two years ago when it was decreed by popular opinion that a team could win with "good-but-not-great" goaltending, like Niemi.

As mentioned above, I think consistency is necessary otherwise a goalie can look like Jeff Deslauriers, world-stopper one moment and Toskala-esque the next.

Also, being a key performer seems to be a common thread in discussions about winning goaltenders from previous eras. They needed to make the required stops at the right time in order to win.

As it relates to the Oilers, I feel that Dubnyk has the potential yet to find that middle ground of being a solid and consistent performer. I don't expect that he will begin to put up the performances of Pekka Rinne or Henrik Lundqvist, but I also expect that the team will have enough talent around him that he won't have to.

I would rather a team diversify some of it's cap spending in two good goalies than sink exorbitant amounts into a single performer while cutting costs in other areas. The Kiprusoff/McElhinney partnership comes to mind.

Affording top-end scoring talent, depth at defense and a capable goalie, in some ways the reverse of the common "build from the goal out" philosophy, might be a new and intriguing way to go.

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#7 Jesse
June 04 2012, 11:34PM
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@Jonathan Willis

I've been meaning to ask your opinion on this for a day or two; I'm glad for the topical post to provide the opportunity:

With the radical unpredictability and overvaluing of goaltenders in the NHL, don't you think this would eventually have an effect on the average salary that a goalie gets paid?In other words, if so-and-so goalie walks into contract negotiations with a GM and says, "I want Ilya Bryzgalov money because I've put up similar numbers," couldn't the GM say, "Yeah, well look what can (and often does) happen after that contract gets signed." Obviously you wouldn't be bringing up his name in that way, but with so many teams getting good but not great goaltending at decent deals, while having more cap space to build a better team (eg. St. Louis) and thus having better results, doesn't this take all of the bargaining power away from the goalies? It seems like too much of a trend (teams getting good goalies for cheap, or running good 1/1a tandems) to ignore, but NHL GMs still seem stuck in that old school of thought that there's an even proportion of +$$ : +SV%. How many Bryzgalov type situations will have to happen before it's understood? Or am I overreacting to what is actually more along the lines of an exception? You would think that this would eventually drive down the average salary of goaltenders.

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#8 Jonathan Willis
June 05 2012, 10:36AM
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@Jesse

I think we've already seen it do so. Bryzgalov is the exception rather than the rule of late; we've seen Howard and Crawford sign bargain contracts, Niemi get sent away and then he signed a cheap deal (though he ended up inking a more lucrative extension).

We've seen goalie dollars drop off of late; I think it will continue.

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#9 Johnny
June 05 2012, 01:09PM
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Eric T. wrote:

I disagree on consistency, for reasons that are probably obvious -- http://nhlnumbers.com/2012/5/11/the-myth-of-the-hot-goalie-consistent-goaltenders-vs-inconsistent-goaltenders

The reason the Rangers can count on Lundqvist putting up a good save percentage every year isn't because he's more consistent; it's because he's better. In the last five years, he's ranged from .912 to .930. Only a few other active goalies have similar career averages (Rinne, Thomas, Luongo), and over that span, Rinne's worst was .911 in '09-10, Thomas's was .915 in '09-10, and Luongo's was .913 in '09-10. (What the heck happened in '09-10 anyway?)

Obviously a .920 goalie will have fewer sub-.915 seasons than a .915 goalie, but I don't think it's because he's more consistent.

Sure, but that is just a matter of word choice. His ability allows him to put up consistent results.

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#10 Eric T.
June 05 2012, 03:03PM
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@Johnny

The guy who ranges from .912 to .930 will have more seasons above .915 than the guy who ranges from .902 to .920. But it's not because he's more consistent; it's because he's better.

When I went looking for whether some goalies are actually more consistent than others, I couldn't find any difference between any of them, nor any appreciable difference between a goalie and a random number generator. So I think goalie consistency is a myth.

It's not just word choice; people often use consistency or streakiness to argue that a goalie is better or worse than his career average. I think that approach is misguided.

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