Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Goaltender Value

I just ran across this excellent post from this past summer by Five Hole Fanatics (hat tip: Battle of Alberta) on the topic of drafting goalies. I think it does a better job of explaining goalie value than anything I have written on the subject. In short, goaltending is a paradox: it is the most valuable position but most goaltenders have little individual value, and the reason is simply that the supply (decent pro goalies) exceeds the demand (available starting jobs in the league). A lot of teams think they need to sign their backstop to big bucks rather than risk losing him, but unless your goalie is one of the top handful of guys you are probably better off signing somebody else who will give you similar performance for a fraction of the price.

As Matt Fenwick at BoA writes: "A goalie who reliably stops pucks at a rate well above average is worth his weight in gold (proverbially; literally, he's worth much more). One who stops them at a below average rate, however, is worthless."

All the value in goaltending is at the top end. Subpar goaltending has no value at all, and there isn't much value in league average performance either. Just look the league's starting goalies who aren't earning huge paycheques, and then account for the fact that some teams have 1 or 2 quality backup goalies just waiting for their shot, and the fact that there are always guys dominating the AHL or KHL or Swedish or Finnish leagues but either haven't got a look in North America or are blocked by the guys above them in their NHL organizations. Studies of minor-league goalie performance (like this one at Oil Droppings) repeatedly imply that there are a number of minor league late-bloomers who go on to have some NHL success, and these guys can usually be had pretty cheaply. A lot of goalie selection and development is probably luck, and teams are somewhat limited in the guys they can develop because of the number of spots available in their systems. However, all an NHL team needs is two goaltenders, so a team with a good scouting and coaching should be able to find two guys capable of playing at league average or better. And once a team has two of them, then a guy playing 70 games at an average level is not actually helping his team much at all.

To make a long story short, and to give a general piece of advice concerning roster management, teams should just do what the Detroit Red Wings do. As GM and former goalie Ken Holland puts it (via Mc79hockey):

"My feeling is if you can get one of the five or six best goalies in the league you can spend the money. We can’t get into those guys, and the difference between the eighth goalie in the league and the 15th goalie, it’s a big difference in money. It’s not a big difference in performance."

If you can get a true difference-maker (i.e. top-5 goalie, which in my estimation appears to currently be Luongo, Giguere, Brodeur, Lundqvist, or Vokoun) then do it, otherwise save your money because you can probably get real close to replacing your performance at a bargain price.


Anonymous said...

yup, as i said on this blog on 12/7/07:

"What's interesting about the line of thought that "the NHL is all about goaltending, goaltending, goaltending" is that it's kind of a paradox.

I say that because, on the one hand, it's true. It's true that a goaltender can impact a hockey game to a degree which no other single position player can.

But on the other hand, it's false because in actual reality goaltenders don't make much meaningful impact in the NHL since the difference in skill between most of them is so small.

However, in theory goaltenders have the opportunity to significantly alter outcomes - and they still do at the very extreme outliers."

Kent W. said...

Glad you liked the piece. Im not sure what possessed me to write it at the time, but I think it had something to do with the Flames swimming in goaltending prospects even though Kiprusoff is signed for another 4 or 5 years.

Anyways, thanks again for the high praise.

Bruce said...

Interesting stuff, CG. I missed Kent W.'s post at the time, thanks for the link. Good work, Kent!

It's very difficult to compare goalies to skaters no matter what. There are certainly limitations to the methodology of comparing the top 30 scorers to the top 30 goalies: one represents la crème de la crème, the top few percent of all forwards, while the other extends all the way down to median-level performance (the "top" 50% of goalies).
No doubt if the scorers summary were extended to, say, the Top 200 scorers, the percentage of them to be first-rounders would decline markedly. I noticed the same thing that Cynical Joe commented on, that the top half of the goalie list was of far higher draft pedigree than the bottom half, with a clear majority of them (8 of 15) drafted in the first round. This despite the relatively tiny percentage of first round picks generally that are expended on goaltenders.

Furthermore the comparison is between counting stats in the one case and percentages in the other; in the extreme example of "Sv% as Gospel", the two league leaders, Dan Ellis and Ty Conklin, combined to play 77 games last year, whereas Marty Brodeur played 77 games (and 540 more MP) all on his own. So such "rankings" are by defintion more volatile than the scoring leaders. Indeed, the "top" 6 goalies in Sv% in the NHL last season all had 1 GP! So as I have previously argued ad nauseam, a true measuring stick should somehow factor in both quality and quantity. (Which is why I value Wins, despite that stat's own inherent limitations.)

And all that said, I don't really disagree with either of your (or Ken Holland's) conclusions, summarized thusly:

If you can get a true difference-maker (i.e. top-5 goalie, which in my estimation appears to currently be Luongo, Giguere, Brodeur, Lundqvist, or Vokoun) then do it, otherwise save your money because you can probably get real close to replacing your performance at a bargain price.

The big question being sustainability: can Ellis, Conklin, or Garon be counted on to play at the same level season to season? Whereas the guys you named, plus a few more (not all) of the bigger ticket goalies, have proven that they can be relied upon long term.

In the near future I hope to extend my own study of goaltender development that you kindly referenced, to incorporate all current goalies including the "fast trackers"; and I also want to a draft analysis for goalies similar to this one I did for defencemen. Stay tuned.

Kent W. said...


I considered many of the things you mention re: comparing skaters v. goalies. I was looking at gross trends in that initial swipe and considered it neither exhaustive nor rigorous. All the objections you bring up here are valid and warrant further inquiry.

Let me know if you do any kind of follow-up work. I'd interested to see what you find.