In Real Estate they say the value of a property is all about location, location and location. In hockey I believe success is all about goaltending, goaltending and goaltending. I recently wrote an article about young franchise players and I ranked Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo at the top of the list ahead of players like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, Dion Phaneuf, etc. In the comments to that post several people argued against me putting two goalies at the top of the list saying that goalies aren’t that valuable. The following is some evidence to show otherwise.
Last year 15 of the top 16 teams in team save % made the playoffs while only one team not in the top 16 (Tampa) did.
Of the past 12 Stanley Cup winning goalies, not one had a save percentage under .920 in the playoffs in their cup winning season as shown in the table below with cup winning goalies and their playoff and regular season save percentages.
Year Playoffs Reg. Goalie
2006-07 .922 .918 Jean-Sebastien Giguere
2005-06 .920 .882 Cam Ward (was the backup in regular season)
2003-04 .933 .910 Nikolai Khabibulin
2002-03 .934 .914 Martin Brodeur
2001-02 .920 .915 Dominik Hasek
2000-01 .934 .913 Patrick Roy
1999-00 .927 .910 Martin Brodeur
1998-09 .935 .915 Ed Belfour
1997-08 .925 .913 Chris Osgood
1996-07 .932 .899 Mike Vernon (only played 33 games in reg. season)
1997-06 .921 .908 Patrick Roy
1994-05 .932 .902 Martin Brodeur (strike shortened season)
Based on that evidence teams should be aiming to obtain a goalie capable of posting save percentages of .910 and above over the duration of the regular season but also capable of picking up their save percentages to the .920-.935 range over the course of a playoff run. If you don’t have that kind of goalie, can you really be considered serious cup contenders? Based on the list above, probably not.
The Columbus Blue Jackets entered this season with essentially the same team that finished the past two seasons 33-42-7 and 35-43-4. But because of some top tier goaltending by young Pascal Leclaire the Blue Jackets are a very solid 11-8-4 to start this season. That is with a defence of Ron Hainsey, Rostislav Klesla, Adam Foote, Kris Russell, Jan Hejda, Duvie Wescott and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen. At best half those guys are journeyman NHLers. Hainsey was a waiver pickup. Hejda is a 29 year old with 39 games NHL experience (with the lowsy 2006-07 Oilers) prior to this season. Duvie Wescott is a 30 year old with 5 years experience but only a single season with more than 40 games played. Russell is a rookie drafted in the third round of the 2005 draft. That isn’t exactly a top tier defines so I won’t buy the ‘but Columbus has a great defence and that is why Leclaire looks so good’ argument. The Boston Bruins, who are now getting good goaltending from Tim Thomas, have gone from being well out of the playoffs to somewhat comfortable in the playoffs despite having more or less the same team but without the services of talented Patrice Bergeron for more than half their games so far. A similar story can be written about DiPietro and the Islanders. On paper the Islanders forwards and defence crew are quite average but DiPietro keeps them in a lot of games and have allowed them to stay in a playoff position.
On the flip side take a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins. No one can argue that they aren’t an extremely talented team up front and on defence but when they don’t get the goaltending they are quite mediocre. Dany Sabourin has a fairly decent .911 save % this season and is an equally fairly decent 4-3-1. Marc-Andre Fleury has a fairly weak .898 save% and is an equally weak 6-8-1. From October-December of last season Fleury had a .900 save % and a 15-11-4 record. From January to April of last season Fleury had a .911 save % which resulted in a fabulous 25-5-5 record.
Even a team as good as Ottawa struggles when they don’t get top tier goaltending as they are 3-4-1 in their last 7 games during which they posted a decent, but not great, .902 save %. Prior to that stretch the Senators had a spectacular .938 save % which converted into a even more spectacular 13-1-0 record. Any guesses on what the Senators record would be if they had the Leafs .886 save % for the whole season? Would they have a .500 record? Some fans will suggest that the team in front of the goalies has not played as well recently and while that may be partially true I would suggest the biggest reason for the Senators recent woes are the goaltenders not the forwards. I watch a lot of Sens games and I watched the Leafs generally out play the Senators in game 2 of the season but not out goaltend them. The Sens won that game 3-2 with Gerber stopping 41 of 43 shots. I watched Gerber shut out the Rangers the very next game stopping all 35 shots the Rangers directed his way. I watched (in person) a week later when Gerber stopped 36 of 37 shots to defeat the Rangers 3-1. All of these games could have easily gone the other way with just average goaltending just like the recent losses to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Buffalo did.
In an NHL where there are a ton of one goal games the difference between a .925 and a .895 save % is huge. That amounts to about a goal per game and if you are giving up an extra goal every game that will convert (in theory) all OT wins and OT losses into straight loses and convert a several wins into OT losses. On average last year teams lossed 9 games in OT and thus teams on average won 9 games in OT. If you take those 9 OT wins and convert them to regulation losses that would account for a difference of 18 points in the standings. In the eastern conference that could be the difference between finishing 2nd in the conference or finishing 11th like it would have last season. That;s the difference between being a very good team and a very mediocre one. That’s significant.
There are currently 9 teams with fewer points than games played (i.e. sub .500). Those teams are Florida, Atlanta, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Washington, Calgary, Los Angeles and Edmonton. Those teams sit 12th, 26th, 28th, 17th, 22nd, 30th, 14th and 25th in the NHL in save percentage respectively. Not exactly teams with top goaltending.
And if you need one more piece of evidence take a look at the Phoenix Coyotes. They picked up a talented goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov and they have yet to lose a game.
In the NHL success is all about goaltending, goaltending and goaltending.