Thursday, September 29, 2011

Goaltending Parity

I was flipping around Hockey Reference the other day, looking at the results from the 1995-96 NHL season. That was a strange year in many ways. The still-terrible expansion franchises in Ottawa and San Jose were both doing their part to skew the standings. In the West, Detroit cleaned up, winning 62 games to set a new league record, while the Wings' bitter rivals and eventual Cup champions Colorado Avalanache were the league's second-best regular season team, leading to a rare situation where 10 out of 13 Western Conference teams finished below .500. In the East it was the exact opposite situation, with nine teams finishing at 86 points or better, including the defending Stanley Cup champions from New Jersey who missed the playoffs despite a record that would have ranked them fourth in the West.

It was a unique year for goaltending as well, particularly as many of the big stars had off-seasons or down years. Patrick Roy got traded by Montreal, Ed Belfour had an off-year and was in the process of losing his starting job in Chicago, while Dominik Hasek and Martin Brodeur both played well but missed the playoffs. All that combined to allow a 22-year old sophomore named Jim Carey to walk off with the Vezina Trophy, all of the voters completely unaware that he would have only three seasons remaining in his professional career.

The league was still full of the old guard of standup goaltenders, many of whom were past their prime or struggling to keep up with the changing game. The result was a huge spread in the save percentage numbers among starting goalies, all the way from Hasek at the top with .920 down to Don Beaupre at .872.

The large gap in results was likely influenced by a higher level of shot quality differences across teams than we see today, particularly for goaltenders representing the Sens or the Sharks. However, even within teams there was a broad range of performance numbers, suggesting that goaltending was a real difference-maker back then. Going through team by team, it is impossible to avoid noticing that the starters almost always had much better win/loss records than the backups.

Compiling the numbers league-wide demonstrates this point (I just took the goalie with the most games played that season for each team to represent their "starter"):

Starters: 611-512-156, .539
Backups: 318-417-118, .442

The totals can be skewed a bit by some team's starters playing more games than others, but even if you take the average of each team's starter and backups you get .536 and .436, a full .100 increase in winning percentage with a team's most-used netminder in the game.

Only five out of 26 teams had a better win/loss record with their backup goalie(s) in the game. Only three more teams had their backups post a win percentage that was even within .050 of their starter.

Let's compare that to 2010-11:

Starters: 838-605-186, .572
Backups: 392-328-111, .539

That gap is much closer, even more so when the averages are taken for each team (starters .564, backups .547). Thirteen out of 30 teams had a better winning percentage when their top goalie didn't get the decision, and eight more had a difference of less than .050 between their starter and backups.

These results strongly confirm what analysts all over the place have been pointing out regarding today's goalies, that there is far more depth at the position today than in prior decades. The two big factors in the increased level of talent was the technical revolution sweeping the game and the increasing influx of European goaltenders.

In 1995-96, only 7 out of 78 goalies in the league were European (I don't count Olaf Kolzig as a European product, he grew up in Canada and played all his minor hockey there). They combined to play a total of 247 games.

By last season, there were 29 Europeans among the league's 87 goaltenders, meaning the percentage of Europeans rose from 9% to 33% in just 15 years. The European goaltenders also combined to play over four times as many games (1077) as they did in 1995-96.

Based on this evidence, it is perhaps unsurprising that there appears to have been a stronger correlation between goalie talent and championships won in the mid-to-late 1990s than in the post-lockout era, where the best goalies have mostly struggled to achieve much team success. Today, it's simply much harder to stand out from the pack.


Robert Vollman said...

Despite the Vezina, I think Jim Carey was much more successful as a comedic actor.

Besides, anyone can look good playing behind Joe Reekie and Mark Tinordi in their primes.

Bettman's Nightmare said...

You neglected to refer to Jim Carey by his nickname at the time, The Net Detective.

It seems intuitive that this parity happened; the league's been the same size for over ten years now, in addition to the European influx.

Anonymous said...

Has there been an increase in parity among scorers as well? Team results?

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

There has been an increase in parity everywhere, yes, especially with team results in the salary cap era. The best team last year had 117 points, the worst had 62. In 1995-96, the best team had 131 points and the worst had 41.

Anonymous said...


Yes, of course, the cap would explain team parity which is different from the point of this article. Didn't think about that.

It would be interesting to see if the gap reduction in goalie quality was matched with the scorers. That would seem to lend support to either the technical revolution argument (if the reduction is limited to goalies) or an increase in the supply of talent (if it is evident with scorers as well).

Agent Orange said...


Just looking at the numbers quickly something struck me as odd.

Percentage of games played
Starters: 0.609
Back-ups: 0.391

Starters: 0.662
Back-ups: 0.338

Unless I'm missing something in your numbers (it looks like you are posting decisions) it looks like the starters workload is INCREASING despite the back-ups performance improving. What are your thoughts on that? Are the decision makers just completely missing the boat on this?

Did you break out the loser points from OT and shootout? Maybe teams play for the regulation tie when their back-up is in and lean on the starter to be the star otherwise (basically play more offensively and trade chances) leading to more regulation decisions?

If you drop the outliers is the save % spread closer? I understand the gap between Hasek and Beaupre is large but Hasek was Hasek and Beaupre was... well lets be honest he's best known for being an All-Star in NHLPA 93 for Sega Genesis for a reason.

Just some thoughts. I guess parity could explain the starters playing more. If everyone is in dogfight for a playoff spot the idea to roll the big guy out everynight to get every point possible makes sense (segway to the Carolina back-up post!)

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Yes, the top goalies took on a greater workload in 2010-11. I think it likely did have something to do with teams fighting for playoff positioning, but teams also did tend to platoon goalies a bit more often back then. Today the media often stirs up a goalie controversy whenever two guys are in position to share the load, but that wasn't at all out of the norm in the '80s and '90s.

Hasek actually wasn't that much of an outlier that year, Daren Puppa and Jeff Hackett were right behind him. At the other end, there were two other starting goalies with sub-.880 save percentages barely above Beaupre. There was a much wider spread of results in 1995-96 no matter how you look at it.