I thought of another way to break down shots against and save percentage - by looking at goalies with similar league rankings from year-to-year to see if goalies who faced fewer than average or higher than average shots were likely to have a save percentage that differed from the norm. Even if there is no relationship in an overall sense, there could still be some relationship for goalies with extreme shots against results, whether high or low. After all, when we are comparing say Turco in Dallas to Vokoun in Florida, we are talking about the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of team prevention.
I took a sample of the top 40 goalies in minutes played for each season from 2000-01 to 2008-09, and then looked at the save percentage stats and rank for all the goalies who ranked #1, #5, #10, #15, #20, #25, #30, #35, and #40 in shots against per 60 minutes each season, where #1 was the fewest and #40 was the most.
Here is the breakdown:
1st in SA: .908 save %, avg rank 21
5th in SA: .908 save %, avg rank 24
10th in SA: .909 save %, avg rank 21
15th in SA: .903 save %, avg rank 27
20th in SA: .898 save %, avg rank 30
25th in SA: .911 save %, avg rank 17
30th in SA: .909 save %, avg rank 19
35th in SA: .915 save %, avg rank 13
40th in SA: .916 save %, avg rank 13
Those results are pretty consistent across the board. The only ones that are really striking are the low results for #15 and #20, which wouldn't be expected by any commonly advanced shots against theory, and the high results for #35 and #40, which could potentially indicate an advantage to facing higher shots against totals.
The most obvious factor that can be influencing this analysis is goalie quality. Since any goalie can finish in any one of these spots, one grouping could be Brodeur, Roy, Belfour and Hasek while the next could be Cloutier, Raycroft, Esche and Kidd. The actual groupings weren't that extreme, but goalie quality does explain the weird results for the goalies who ranked 20th, as Vernon, Turek, Grahame, Conklin, Khabibulin, Tellqvist, Ward and Toskala was easily the weakest group of goalies. The goalies who ranked 15th weren't much better (Thibault, Roy, Storr, Weekes, post-lockout Theodore, Ward, Lalime, Price this year). It appears to be just a fluke of a fairly small sample size that those two ranks attracted lesser talent and led to lower save percentages. On the other hand, both the 35th ranked and 40th ranked goalie groups were strong, with goalies like Burke, pre-lockout Theodore, Roloson, Huet, Lehtonen, and Luongo three times, along with a few lesser lights in Rhodes, Hnilicka, Denis, Hedberg, Anderson and Chris Mason.
Here are the numbers adjusted for the average career save percentage for each goalie in the sample and normalized to the league average of .907. This works pretty well for most of the goalies, with the exception of those who have played just 1 or 2 seasons, like Carey Price, or goalies whose careers began in the 1980s, like Patrick Roy.
This list makes it look like it was very difficult to face the fewest shots in the league, but that is not really the case. The adjustment is somewhat misleading, as the average career save percentage is overstating the strength of the group. Dominik Hasek faced the fewest shots against in the league in both 2006-07 and 2007-08, so his .922 career mark is counted twice by this method although he was well past his prime in those two seasons. This year, current fewest shots against leader Steve Mason counts as .920, since as a rookie this season is all we have to go on. Mason may be a good young goalie, but he is unlikely to sustain that mark over an entire career. If we replace these adjustments with average values, then the #1 group improves to a .908 adjusted save percentage, only slightly lower than the others.
The two highest-shot groups finish 1-2 in the adjusted rankings as well, which does seem to indicate that there may be some advantage at work. However, the main reason for these excellent results are that they included the two best high-workload, high-save percentage seasons in the period (Jose Theodore in 2001-02 and Roberto Luongo in 2003-04). Remove those two years, and both groups end up with an adjusted save percentage of .911, which is in line with everything else.
There might be a slight save percentage advantage to facing high shot totals and possibly even a slight disadvantage to facing low shot totals, but it is probably at most a couple thousandths. Otherwise, over an 8 season sample it did not appear to make much difference at all whether goalies faced fewer shots than average or more shots than average. The results were certainly within the margin of error given the sample size, or could be explained by differences in goalie quality. The evidence continues to mount that there appears to be no significant relationship between save percentage and shots against.