May 6, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Rangers fans take a ride on a party bus before game three of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs against the Washington Capitals at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Celebrating Sustained Excellence Among NHL Goaltenders


March 24, 2012; Toronto, ON, CANADA; New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (30) makes a save on a shot by the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. New York defeated Toronto 4-3 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

In the Stanley Cup playoffs, everything is magnified. In a playoff matchup that goes seven games, all it takes is one mistake, one act of heroism, or one miraculous moment gifted by the hockey gods for one team to gain the edge. Every player on every team is scrutinized to the nth degree by fans and media alike. It’s easy to lose sight of the whole picture when you’re caught up in the moment and playoff fever takes hold.

Of all the players on the ice, there’s no doubt that one player usually gets the most attention when spring hockey comes around: The goaltender. No matter the failings of the other five skaters, the ultimate fate of your hockey team usually rests on the shoulders of the goaltender. The goalie is the last line of defense, and because of that, it’s easy to heap undue scorn and criticism on the netminder.

It’s very easy to forget the playoffs are the smallest of small sample sizes, and all kinds of crazy unforeseen events can occur in a best-of-seven playoff series. Nonetheless, it’s the most important time of the year, and ultimately players are remembered for how they play in the playoffs. But playoff success rests largely on the rest of your team. Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks has been labeled imaginative names like “choker” and “playoff no-show”, all because he’s never won a Stanley Cup in his career. Never mind the fact he’s scored 32 points in 34 games over the last three post-seasons and lead the Sharks to a Game 7 against the defending Stanley Cup champs in the Western Conference Semi-Finals last night.

Meanwhile, hall-of-famers like Steve Yzerman and Ray Bourque were given similar labels during their NHL careers before they could win “The Big One”. Mediocre goaltenders like Chris Osgood and Marc-Andre Fleury are praised for their contributions to Stanley Cup teams, while Henrik Lundqvist, the best goalie in the league, will continue to have an asterisk next to his name because the team in front of him can’t put the puck in the net.

As a blogger, I get it. You’re covering your team every day, and you can’t simply write off every loss or bad performance for your team as “small sample size”. But I’d like to push past this whole tendency to focus so much on the here and now that you forget the overall picture. The whole point of statistics is to look at a player’s past to try to gain an estimation of how that player might fare in the future. When you throw these stats out the window and instead just look at the immediate numbers, it’s like you’re trading in a panorama view for a microscope; you can’t see the whole picture.

So I decided to try to take a similar view with the NHL’s goaltenders. I read a post about a month and a half ago over at Too Many Men On The Site (FanSided’s general NHL blog) about Carey Price. Price had just come off two bad games where he was pulled from each start. The writer asks questions about Price’s confidence, and whether or not the pressure of playing in a hotbed hockey market in Montreal had gotten to him. My problem with the article was it made no mention of Price’s strong play over the last few seasons. I had trouble coming to the conclusion that Price’s confidence must be shaken after two bad games when he had been a very good starting goalie for most of his career. It’s not like a 25-year-old goalie’s numbers are going to suddenly fall off a cliff, and you’re not going to be able to tell after two games anyway.

But my interest piqued when I read one of the comments on the blog. It was from a Montreal Canadiens fan that basically went on about how Price is a mediocre goalie, and started listing off names of goalies that he believed were better than him. Among them were Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith. So I started looking at numbers to see where exactly Price would fit in among the best goaltenders in the league.

A widely held belief among NHL observers is even strength save percentage is the best stat to use when predicting future results for goalies. This makes sense in that goalies usually face much tougher shots when their team is on the penalty kill. When their team is on the power play, there’s a good chance the few shots they do face will be on odd-man rushes or breakaways. But when dealing with small sample sizes, looking at total save percentage has shown to be the better way to predict future results. But just how big does the sample have to be before we can look at ESSV%?

I asked the editor of the excellent Vancouver Canucks blog Canucks Army Thomas Drance this question on Twitter, and his answer was three thousand shots. Only Cam Ward, Pekka Rinne, Miikka Kiprusoff, Carey Price, Ondrej Pavelec, Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan Miller have faced that many even strength shots over the course of the two seasons before 2013. When you throw in last season, that number jumps to 17 goaltenders. Still, more goalies would’ve hit three thousand if last season had it been a full 82-game campaign. I decided to give some props to those goalies that came oh-so-close to reaching the mark over the last three seasons. Here are the honourable mentions along with their even strength shots against (ESSA) and even strength save percentage (ESSV%):

Team

ESSA

ESSV%

1

Tomas Vokoun

FLA/WSH/PIT

2923

92.93

2

Craig Anderson

COL/OTT

2813

92.77

3

Sergei Bobrovsky

PHI/CBJ

2775

92.75

4

James Reimer

TOR

2585

92.59

5

Semyon Varlamov

WSH/COL

2718

92.42

6

Devan Dubnyk

EDM

2910

92.33

7

Mike Smith

TBL/PHX

2936

91.99

8

Martin Brodeur

NJD

2842

91.42

9

Steve Mason

CBJ/PHI

2648

91.13

Some thoughts:

  • Vokoun would have ranked fourth in the 3000 Club if he had qualified, so it’s no surprise he’s played so well since taking over from Fleury in the Penguins’ crease late in their first round series.
  • Bobrovsky and Anderson were buoyed by finishing first and second in ESSV% among goaltenders who played at least five hundred minutes this season, although Anderson only played 24 games due to injury.
  • Toronto Maple Leafs fans will tell you Reimer is the real deal, and if it weren’t for a concussion he sustained two years ago and the shortened season, he would be in the 3000 Club as well.
  • Mike Smith, our commenter’s favourite goalie, has faced a lot of shots over the last few seasons, and his numbers really don’t look that bad. His 89.88 ESSV% from 2010-11 as a backup in Tampa Bay really brings his average down, but his last two seasons have been pretty good.

Now on to the honour roll. These players have hit the three thousand even strength shots against mark over the last three seasons, and some of them have gone way beyond that number. The reason I didn’t expand this to four seasons is it’s still a pretty big sample of players with 17, and I wanted it to be a somewhat exclusive club. These players have been able to stay healthy, have been leaned on heavily by their teams, and most of them have delivered with excellent play. Don’t think of it as a statistical analysis; think of it as a celebration of good goaltending:

Team

ESSA

ESSV%

1

Henrik Lundqvist

NYR

4023

93.26

2

Antti Niemi

SJS

4006

93.02

3

Pekka Rinne

NSH

4346

93.00

4

Jimmy Howard

DET

3610

92.84

5

Roberto Luongo

VAN

3164

92.80

6

Jonas Hiller

ANA

3405

92.78

7

Niklas Backstrom

MIN

3241

92.65

8

Kari Lehtonen

DAL

3816

92.57

9

Ryan Miller

BUF

4056

92.57

10

Corey Crawford

CHI

3161

92.50

11

Carey Price

MTL

4077

92.48

12

Marc-Andre Fleury

PIT

3595

92.35

13

Cam Ward

CAR

4115

92.31

14

Jonathan Quick

LAK

3534

92.21

15

Ilya Bryzgalov

PHX/PHI

3808

92.06

16

Ondrej Pavelec

ATL/WPG

4104

92.06

17

Miikka Kiprusoff

CGY

3802

91.18

More thoughts:

  • There’s a reason they call him King Henrik.
  • Finland is going to have some dynamite options in net for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, with Antti Niemi (ranked second), Pekka Rinne (third), Niklas Backstrom (seventh) and Kari Lehtonen (eighth).
  • Roberto Luongo should be the leading candidate to be the starter for Canada in Sochi. He has the experience from the 2010 Olympics and excellent NHL numbers to boot. Right now, it looks like Corey Crawford, Carey Price and James Reimer will be in contention for the other two spots, but a lot depends on how well these guys play in the first half of next season.
  • As for Price, yeah, I’d say he’s a pretty solid goaltender. He’s definitely among the NHL’s Top 15 or so, and Habs fans should appreciate him as such.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury’s regular season numbers aren’t bad; it’s his playoff numbers that have been horrendous. He’s definitely inconsistent, and may have lost his starting job to Vokoun, but I wouldn’t count him out as an NHL goalie just yet.
  • Jonathan Quick might be the anti-Fleury. He had a terrible 90.68 ESSV% in the regular season, but has reverted to the 2011-12 Quick this post-season. If you eliminate this past season, Quick is a lot higher on the list.
  • Miikka Kiprusoff should go down as one of the best goalies over the past decade or so, but his numbers really fell off this year. That being said, he’s 36 years old and has faced a ton of shots over the years. He might decide to put the gear away after this season, but I applaud him for his years of stellar play.

Tags: Goaltending NHL Toronto Maple Leafs