Testing Ken Holland

Last year, Tyler over at mc79hockey.com included a quote by Red Wings GM Ken Holland in an article he wrote about the goaltending market:

My feeling is if you can get one of the five or six best goalies in the league you can spend the money. We can’t get into those guys, and the difference between the eighth goalie in the league and the 15th goalie, it’s a big difference in money. It’s not a big difference in performance.

  It's a quote that intuitively makes sense to me, but I've never tested it.  That is what I intend to do here.

What I did is really very simple.  I took the top-thirty goalies by games played from NHL.com, and put their information into an Excel spreadsheet.  What I would like to see is how much a move of five intervals in save percentage among these thirty players would affect a team's goal differential.

To do this, I needed to know how many shots the average starting goaltender sees in a season, and how many saves he made.  Here is our composite goaltender, the average of that list of thirty mentioned above:

  • Average: 56GP, 28-19-6, 2.66 GAA, .911 SV% 1611 shots against, 1468 saves, 143 goals against

Evgeni Nabokov is pictured above because he's the closest doppelganger for our imaginary average starting goalie (62GP, .911 SV%).

The list of goaltenders breaks down rather neatly.  Tim Thomas and his .933 SV% is a bit of an outlier, as is Tomas Vokoun's .926.  Niklas Backstrom (.923) and Roberto Luongo (.920) are the last two above the .920 mark.

Ten goaltenders sit between .915 and .919, including Dwayne Roloson, Nikolai Khabibulin, and Martin Biron.  What's the difference between a .915 and .919 SV% in terms of goals?  6.444 goals over an average starting workload (1611 shots).  For those of you interested, that's one goal every nine games.

I think, looking at this list, that we can probably all see what Ken Holland is talking about.  The list of names fluctuates from year to year, with an elite group (in no special order I'd have Backstrom, Luongo, Brodeur and Vokoun with Lundqvist and Thomas just a hair lower) sitting at the top and another ten to a dozen underneath.  That group has some guys getting big money (Huet, Miller, Nabokov, etc.) and other guys getting quite a bit less.  Players like Pekka Rinne, Steve Mason and Jonas Hiller provided very similar performances for much less money, and that's just the way it is.

Where teams get killed is when they're committed to one of the bottom-tier goaltenders.  The difference between a .900 save percentage (Kiprusoff, Theodore and Turco were among the notables in this range) and the above group (let's pick the lower end, .915) is tremendous - just over 24 goals.  Even the difference between the average (.911) and the bottom group is in the neighborhood of 18 goals per season (all numbers projected over the average workload of 1611 shots).

The really remarkable thing is that there are plenty of guys in the average range (Alex Auld, Jon Quick, Chris Mason) weren't making much money and would have represented a rather significant improvement on some of those big-money tenders at the bottom end of the group. 

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