Why Great Goaltending is a Team Effort

When the playoffs begin next week a familiar nervousness will make its presence known in cities like Pittsburgh (assuming they’re in) and Vancouver as fans relive the failures of playoffs past.


Like everywhere else there will be the usual blather about leadership, chemistry, grit, etc. But more than that, there will be questions about hockey’s equivalent of a rock band’s drummer.


I’m talking about goaltending.


If you follow our column, you’ll notice we rarely talk about goaltending, and there’s a reason for that. Goaltender performance is incredibly variable and really tough to predict.


One year Devan Dubnyk’s a journeyman struggling to keep a job with the lowly Oilers, posting a grotesque .893 save percentage (Sv%) during an 8 game minor league stint. The next, after a return to respectable mediocrity with the otherwise horrific Coyotes, Dubnyk’s suddenly the guy to watch with a Minnesota team that went from playoff question mark to serious contender.


Or how about Andrew Hammond – a 27-year-old who didn’t particularly excel at any level and is suddenly a budding superstar (in part because people like saying Hamburglar ad nauseum).


For fans old enough to remember, the league’s record books are littered with the names of goalies who once showed enormous promise only to disappear into obscurity. Folks like “Net Detective” Jim Carey, who won the Vezina Trophy in 1996 and then managed a whopping 73 NHL games before retiring at the ripe old age of 25.


Or Patrick Lalime, who strung together a Hammond-like beginning to his NHL career with a 16 game unbeaten streak before reverting to mediocrity.


Or Andrew Raycroft, who won a Calder Trophy in 2004. Toronto fans know what happened next: the Leafs traded Tuukka Rask for Raycroft in 2006, and Raycroft’s awful play became a cornerstone of the team’s decade long rebuild while Rask became an All-Star in Boston. To add insult to injury, prospect Justin Pogge, who was ahead of Rask on the Leafs’ depth chart, never panned out.


Call it random, voodoo – whatever you’d like – but the fact is if you’re looking at this year’s playoffs and trying to surmise which goalie will “stand on his head” and “steal a series”, you should probably just pick names out of a hat and move on.


This isn’t to say great goaltending is irrelevant. It’s simply that nobody has provided convincing evidence of when and where it will strike.


There are people out there – Chris Boyle and former NHL backup Steve Valiquette being among the best – who are trying to understand what might be driving goalie performance.


The analysis usually begins with abandoning the “standing on his head” narrative that mainstream pundits love so much.


There will always be desperate grabs or 50-foot floaters that find the back of the net. But those stand out precisely because they’re so rare. The vast majority of games are won and lost by goalies stopping pucks that are neither absurdly easy nor impossibly hard to stop. And while it sounds obvious, all goalies stop a lot more of the easy shots they face than the hard ones.


Mainstream stats like Sv% fail to account for the fact that all shots aren’t created equal and not all goalies face the same proportions of easy and tough shots.


Among the treasure trove of data on war-on-ice.com, you can learn a lot about the quality of shots each NHL goalie faces. Specifically, a hard shot is defined as one taken from an area of the ice where, on average, more than 10% of unblocked attempts during even strength play find the back of the net. Meanwhile, an easy shot is one where less than 4% of unblocked attempts go in (and of course, medium difficulty is anything between 4% and 10%).


This method isn’t perfect since it doesn’t account for things like screens, deflections, or whether the shooter is Alex Ovechkin vs. Trevor Smith. Nor does it tell you whether a goalie is good at making the first save but gives up juicy rebounds.


But if you’re trying to figure out which goalies might be better than their overall Sv% suggests, it’s a start.


The table below shows the following for everyone who has played more than 1,000 5-on-5 minutes this season: (i) Sv% on hard shots; (ii) Sv% on all shots; (iii) hard shots per 60 minutes; and (iv) percentage of total shots that are hard shots.


Not surprisingly, goalies on awful teams like Toronto, Edmonton and Phoenix face a lot of tough shots. Toronto’s James Reimer, for example, leads the league with a shocking 10.70 hard shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, while Winnipeg’s Michael Hutchinson faces a mere 6.70, which suggests his label as an emerging star may have as much to do with the defensive play of his teammates as his own abilities.


Meanwhile, the Islanders’ Jaroslav Halak has quietly played the role of hero this season, with 8.89 hard shots per 60 minutes, a total that represented 32.8% of his work.


Goaltending is undeniably critical to a team’s success. But as we get into this year’s playoffs, eye those goaltending heroics narratives with suspicion. Like everything else in hockey, keeping pucks out of the back of the net is very much a team effort.


Name Team Sv% (Hard Shots) Sv% (All Shots) Hard Shots/60 Min % of Shots that are Hard
Jake Allen STL 87.77 91.37 7.52 30.0%
Braden Holtby WSH 86.68 92.74 7.44 27.2%
Ryan Miller VAN 86.56 91.74 7.69 27.1%
Cam Talbot NYR 86.45 93 9.16 29.3%
Jaroslav Halak NYI 86.42 92.23 8.89 32.8%
Devan Dubnyk MIN/ARI 86.42 93.6 7.08 25.8%
Carey Price MTL 86.23 94.39 7.60 26.0%
Roberto Luongo FLA 85.96 93.07 6.23 22.2%
Cory Schneider N.J 85.71 93.49 7.80 27.3%
Jonas Hiller CGY 85.44 92.62 8.34 28.1%
Pekka Rinne NSH 85.4 93.79 6.47 23.0%
Michal Neuvirth NYI/BUF 84.47 92.45 8.90 26.3%
Karri Ramo CGY 84.38 91.85 9.47 32.0%
Steve Mason PHI 84.38 94.19 8.03 26.5%
Ondrej Pavelec WPG 84.35 92.53 7.88 28.8%
Craig Anderson OTT 84.34 93.69 7.44 23.1%
Viktor Fasth EDM 84.12 89.58 9.45 31.1%
Jonathan Quick L.A 84.11 92.65 6.85 26.3%
Corey Crawford CHI 84.08 92.96 8.51 28.0%
Henrik Lundqvist NYR 83.82 93.1 6.95 24.1%
James Reimer TOR 83.74 91.46 10.70 31.3%
Marc-Andre Fleury PIT 83.46 92.44 8.46 30.6%
Petr Mrazek DET 83.46 92.54 7.03 26.8%
Jonathan Bernier TOR 83.43 92.09 8.98 28.5%
Semyon Varlamov COL 83.12 91.69 9.08 28.8%
Ben Bishop T.B 82.94 91.95 7.77 30.1%
Jimmy Howard DET 82.82 92.16 7.18 27.0%
Robin Lehner OTT 82.5 90.89 8.39 26.0%
Frederik Andersen ANA 82.46 92.09 7.30 27.2%
Sergei Bobrovsky CBJ 82.29 92.23 7.93 25.7%
Tuukka Rask BOS 82.06 93.26 7.30 24.8%
Michael Hutchinson WPG 81.97 92.45 6.70 25.6%
Kari Lehtonen DAL 81.89 91.42 8.38 28.1%
Darcy Kuemper MIN 81.88 90.49 7.10 25.2%
Ben Scrivens EDM 81.79 90.23 7.99 27.9%
Cam Ward CAR 81.34 91.17 7.34 27.5%
Brian Elliott STL 81.17 92.56 6.78 25.1%
Mike Smith ARI 81.13 91.22 9.01 28.7%
Jhonas Enroth DAL/BUF 80.83 91.22 9.44 29.5%
Antti Niemi S.J 80.57 92.13 8.13 27.6%
Ray Emery PHI 80 91.17 8.65 30.6%
Eddie Lack VAN 79.92 91.74 9.09 30.7%
Curtis McElhinney CBJ 79.58 91.37 8.83 27.5%
John Gibson ANA 79.51 92.42 6.72 22.6%
Anton Khudobin CAR 76.64 90.25 8.44 31.1%
*All data are 5-on-5 play
**All data are from war-on-ice.com and are current as of April 4, 2015

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