Every year, as the Stanley Cup Final teams are set, we all rush to make judgments on "trends" in the NHL. Last year, the theme was "cheap" goalies. Given that Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton were both considered replacement-level at best, many of us rushed to vindicate the goalie-on-the-cheap method.
On Friday night, there were comments flying around Twitter that the performance of Roberto Luongo and Tim Thomas had fully justified the approach of paying top dollar for an "elite" goalie.
However, even before the Bruins had edged out the Lightning, Ken Campbell from The Hockey News had written this article about the poor goaltending quality in this year's playoffs.
That sounds like a lot of opposing opinion. So which one is the truth?
Final Four Goalies
The easiest place to start appears to be with the starting goalies of the teams that made the conference championships. That gives us four players to evaluate, and we know they've played at least 12 games.
We're attempting to answer two questions:
-Are this year's goalies any better or worse than the past few years?
-Have the higher-paid players outperformed the lower-paid ones?
Given that the playoffs represent the classic "small sample size" argument, we're essentially evaluating each stopper's performance, not his true talent level. That said, this is essentially the crux of the argument between paying top dollar or league-average salary for a goalie. Over the long term, talent will win out, but the postseason is not long term, it's a four to 28 game stretch that is extremely susceptible to luck and streaky performance.
Looking at the last four seasons of the playoffs, we can get a rough idea of how to answer both questions.
To begin with, let's look at the final four goalies of the last four seasons:
Year Avg Save % Best Save % Worst Save %
2010-11 .918 .929 (Thomas) .896 (Niemi)
2009-10 .914 .923 (Halak) .907 (Nabokov)
2008-09 .911 .926 (Osgood) .898 (Khabibulin)
2007-08 .922 .933 (Fleury) .904 (Biron)
So despite the premise that this was a bad year for goaltending, it was actually the best year for the final four goaltenders since 2007-08. It's also interesting to note that despite the idolization of Halak's run in the playoffs last year, he was actually the worst "top goalie" of the last four years. The image that is burnt into our collective memories is Halak stonewalling the juggernaut Capitals offense, but the rest of his postseason wasn't as exceptional.
As for whether or not the money spent on netminders produces better playoff results, you be the judge:
For my money, there is no discernable pattern. There have been poor performances from bargain goalies and from the highest paid goalie on the list (Khabibulin). The argument from the bargain basement crew will always be the grouping in the top left of the chart. Players like Jaroslav Halak, Chris Osgood (twice) and Marc-Andre Fleury (on his entry level contract) have all provided incredible playoff performances on cap hits lower than $2 million.
In his article, Campbell laments the lack of consistent goaltending in this year's playoffs, comparing this season's stoppers to historical greats like Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek and Ken Dryden. While it seems unreasonable to expect each year's crop of players to compare with the best to ever play, it is definitely interesting to see if they've been as consistent as the others.
Using two different methods we can compare this year's Stanley Cup finalists with their historical counterparts.
First, we'll look at standard deviation of game-by-game save percentage. The lower it is, the more consistent the goalie was, regardless of peak performance. The second measure we can use is Quality Starts, developed by Hockey Prospectus's own Robert Vollman. For more detail on Quality Starts, take a peek at this article by Rob. The key point in why Quality Starts are so important is that teams only lose about 25% of the games in which their goaltender records a QS. The stat embodies the idea of the net-jockey giving their team "a chance to win".
For the study, I have cherry-picked any playoff season that Roy and Hasek played more than 1000 minutes, just so we're comparing their long playoff runs to those of Luongo and Thomas. It also gives us a chance to compare to the best of the best in goaltending playoff runs. Unfortunately, we can't include Ken Dryden in these conversations as they didn't keep shot totals and save percentage stats back then.
This postseason's best vs. all-time greats
Player QS% Std Dev of Sv% Games
Roy 63.9% 6.05% 166
Hasek 73.3% 5.96% 60
Thomas (this year) 61.1% 5.09% 18
Luongo (this year) 66.7% 8.14% 18
Looking at it in this light, I'd say that both Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo are having very solid playoff runs. While no one is close to Hasek's QS%, he's quite possibly the greatest goaltender to play the game. Tim Thomas has a more consistent game-to-game save percentage than either Roy or Hasek, while Luongo's QS% is also very much in the same league.
In the end, I think we're going to be treated to two of the best goaltenders the NHL currently has to offer, battling for the Stanley Cup. I just hope every GM in the league doesn't rush out to ink $5 million-per-year deals for this offseason's free agent crop of mesh-protectors.
Ryan Popilchak is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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