Cutting corners: don’t spend money on goalies

Updated: June 4, 2012 at 8:33 am by Cam Charron


The average playoff team this past season won 45.8 games and earned a team overall even strength save percentage of .921.

The average non-playoff team won just 35.5 games, probably because they only got .914 goaltending.

Obviously, goaltending is the absolute equalizer in hockey, and average teams ought to pay more for it to become “good” teams. Toronto, Columbus, Edmonton, Winnipeg, all ought to make finding the right goaltender a #1 priority this offseason and take a step forward?

Well, not really. While save percentage correlates with winning, it isn’t exactly proven that spending money on a goaltender will guarantee a team success. Look at it this way: the New York Rangers spent $7.75M on Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron last season according to NHLNumbers. They won 51 games and made the playoffs. At the other end of the table, Florida spent $2.7M and also made the playoffs.

Predicting Goalie ROI

Interestingly enough, the Panthers got a team save percentage of .925 and the Rangers of .923. Home scorer bias definitely played a part in that, but once that’s been accounted for, what did the Rangers pay $5M more for than the Panthers?

The average playoff team spent $4.7M on their goaltending, and the average non-playoff team broke out the chequebook, paying a little over $5M:

Playoff Team $ Spent Wins SV%
Vancouver  $6,233,000.00 51 0.929
NY Rangers  $7,750,000.00 51 0.923
Pittsburgh  $5,600,000.00 51 0.905
St. Louis  $4,350,000.00 49 0.936
Boston  $6,384,000.00 49 0.922
Detroit  $3,082,000.00 48 0.923
Nashville  $4,266,000.00 48 0.924
New Jersey  $6,450,000.00 48 0.909
Philadelphia  $7,417,000.00 47 0.913
Chicago  $3,267,000.00 45 0.908
San Jose  $4,387,000.00 43 0.926
Phoenix  $3,250,000.00 42 0.93
Washington  $2,752,000.00 42 0.92
Ottawa  $4,298,000.00 41 0.918
Los Angeles  $3,050,000.00 40 0.928
Florida  $2,700,000.00 38 0.925
Average  $4,702,250.00 45.8 0.921

Non-Playoff Team $ Spent Wins SV%
Dallas  $3,945,000.00 42 0.918
Colorado  $4,083,000.00 41 0.919
Buffalo  $6,925,000.00 39 0.921
Tampa Bay  $4,357,000.00 38 0.899
Winnipeg  $3,000,000.00 37 0.912
Calgary  $6,696,000.00 37 0.92
Toronto  $3,150,000.00 35 0.906
Minnesota  $6,750,000.00 35 0.923
Anaheim  $6,291,000.00 34 0.914
NY Islanders  $5,699,000.00 34 0.903
Carolina  $7,250,000.00 33 0.918
Edmonton  $4,550,000.00 32 0.916
Montreal  $3,900,000.00 31 0.916
Columbus  $3,891,000.00 29 0.913
Average  $5,034,785.71 35.5 0.914

As the Philadelphia Flyers learned last season, throwing money at a problem doesn’t necessarily fix it. The Panthers covered the loss of Tomas Vokoun quite admirably, with Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen putting it pretty good seasons, as Vokoun became a bargain for what he brought Washington.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles, who are still nursing Jonathan Quick’s first contract extension (a 3-year deal worth $5.4M overall that expires after next season) spent a little over $3M in goal and have the front-runner for both Vezina and Conn Smythe on their roster.

SV% Seems Randomly Distributed

Cam Ward, Ryan Miller, Nicklas Backstrom and Miikka Kiprusoff represent bad buys. Well, not necessarily bad buys, since their teams got decent enough goaltending this season. You could hypothesize, perhaps, that a lack of available cap space made it tougher for their teams to surround their star goaltenders with talent.

However the correlation between “dollars spent for marginal unit of save percentage” and wins was minimal, with an r-squared of -.00239.

This is illustrated by Winnipeg, Dallas, Colorado and Montreal, who all spent well below the league average on marginally effective goaltending, but that didn’t turn into wins. Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Philadelphia all overspent on goaltending but won 51, 48 and 47 games, respectively. Mostly teams that spent money on goaltending did not fail despite overvaluing their puckstopper. Some teams also got lucky with good, cheap goaltending but failed to turn that into more wins.

So cheap goaltending wasn’t necessarily the answer this season, but neither was expensive goaltending. Perhaps goaltending just isn’t the overall answer. You’re probably still better off taking a risk on a cheaper guy than an expensive one, particularly if your budget is limited by more than a salary cap. It’s impossible to predict how goaltenders will do over the course of the season, and even educated guesses can be bad buys over a full season.