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April 2, 2009
Howe and Why
Switching Goalies

by Robert Vollman

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Watching a hockey game with someone unfamiliar to the sport can be a great way to improve your understanding of the game. Just recently I was watching a Calgary Flames game with a baseball fan who asked some questions in regards to hockey, but from the perspective of someone unfamiliar to the sport.

“Why does Miikka Kiprusoff start every night? Doesn't he get tired?” “He's off to a pretty rough start, don't they have a relief goalie?” “Why don't they switch goalies of different styles back-and-forth throughout the game?”

These were all fair questions, but I didn't have many answers for my friend. I explained that switching goalies mid-game only happens when a goaltender is hurt, or is playing exceptionally poorly. This is quite a rare scenario, roughly occuring only 7% of the time. Even if a goalie is having a particularly bad night, most coaches will wait until the goalie has allowed about 3 to 4 goals before making a move.

GA: Goals Allowed

TS: Times Switched

  GA          TS             Save%

0 goals        7             1.000
1 goal         8              .938
2 goals       11              .796
3 goals       52              .770
4 goals       50              .783
5 goals       19              .765
6 goals        8              .774
7 goals        4              .711

That's not to say that goalies are always pulled after 3 or 4 goals, it all depends on how well the goalie is performing. If the goalie is stopping fewer than 80% of shots, the coach will have no choice but to switch netminders. The decision is essentially the coaches to make, for instance Peter DeBoer of the Florida Panthers pulls the trigger quite quickly, switching his goalies 7 times this season when they were stopping 80% or more of the shots. On the opposite end of the spectrum, goalies like Kiprusoff, Peter Budaj, Marty Turco and Evgeni Nabokov have all been left in the game at least 4 times this season after failing to stop 80 % of shots.

My friend's interrogation didn't end there. I was fascinated at the number of questions he brought up that have yet to be studied in detail. At one point, as we watched Kipper let another one fly by like he was allergic to rubber, he asked me “Do the Flames have a good relief goalie? Are some goalies better relievers than they are starters?”

Just like some baseball pitchers need a little time to get warmed up while others can step in with their best stuff and tire quickly, there surely must be some NHL goaltenders who are best suited for relief duty. In Curtis McElhinney the Flames have a serviceable back-up who has come in relief 5 times and stopped 90.9% of shots. Which NHL goalies are better?

REL: Relief appearances

GAA: Goals-against-average (Goals allowed per 60 minutes)

SPCT: Save percentage (saves divided by shots)

Goalie                 REL GAA SPCT

Mathieu Garon           3 1.03 .967
Jon Quick               3 0.87 .963
Tomas Vokoun            4 1.12 .963
Curtis Sanford          4 1.06 .954
Josh Harding            8 1.13 .952
Jason LaBarbera         3 2.12 .935
Patrick Lalime          3 2.34 .933
Craig Anderson          4 2.26 .931
Stephen Valiquette      3 1.36 .929
Chris Mason             6 2.05 .923
Fredrik Norrena         3 1.18 .923
Alex Auld               3 2.05 .911
Curtis McElhinney       5 2.73 .909
Cory Schneider          3 2.64 .907
Kevin Weekes            3 1.71 .905
Pekka Rinne             3 3.13 .903
Johan Hedberg           5 2.28 .887
Jonas Hiller            7 2.84 .887
Curtis Joseph           7 2.76 .886
Michael Leighton        4 2.88 .877
Carey Price             3 2.31 .875
Tobias Stephan          5 3.48 .871
Mikael Tellqvist        3 3.41 .868
Ben Bishop              3 3.04 .857
Erik Ersberg            3 2.48 .853
Andrew Raycroft         3 3.56 .846
Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers 3 5.17 .839
Dany Sabourin           3 4.62 .833
Karri Ramo              3 6.12 .831

The Edmonton Oilers began the season with two back-up goaltenders, Mathieu Garon and Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers. Garon has been one of the NHL's best relieving goaltenders in stopping almost everything in his 3 relief appearances, whereas Drouin-Deslauriers was right at the bottom of the league among relievers. Garon was then traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Sabourin, one of only two goalies this season who stopped an even lower percentage of shots than Drouin-Deslauriers when relieving the starting goalie. The Oilers better hope their starting goaltender Dwayne Roloson is healthy and steady the rest of the way!

This table also explains why DeBoer switches goalies so quickly, as both Vokoun and Anderson are exceptional when being brought in. Maybe Florida is on to something.

If there were an award for best relief goaltender, it would probably be awarded to Josh Harding of the Minnesota Wild. Harding has been brought in relief a league-leading 8 times and has stopped a remarkable 95.2% of shots while allowing barely over a goal every 60 minutes.

It's amazing how your eyes can be opened up by watching hockey through the eyes of others. So many new areas of analysis were unveiled after just one evening with my friend. I never really knew the facts behind goalies switching until being asked these seemingly simple questions. I would go on, but I can see the coach calling me over to the bench ...

Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.

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Howe and Why (03/18)
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Howe and Why (04/15)
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