How important are goalies?

Hockey is probably the hardest sport to judge who the most valuable player on the team has been because they all contribute in different ways. Judging how important goalies are to a team’s success is even more difficult. There’s some goalies that are considered “elite” and key to a team’s success. While there are others who are good enough to make the saves when they need to but aren’t exactly the main reason for a team winning. In baseball sabermetrics, they use a stat called WAR (Wins Above Replacement) to see how valuable a player is to his team. For hockey, we will use  stat called “WAA” to determine how many wins a player contributes to, or in this case how valuable a goaltender is to his team.

Hawkonomics did a blog on this where they looked at every goalie’s performance last year. What they did was took the goaltender’s save percentage, subtract it from the league average, multiplied it by their shots faced and adjusted it to their win total to see how much the goaltender contributed to the team winning. For instance, Veznia winner Ryan Miller had the highest WAA at 5.5764, which makes sense given his amazing play last year. Second on the list was Florida goaltender Tomas Vokoun who had a WAA rating of 4.2642, which also makes sense because of how much the Panthers rely on him to win games. Also interesting is Stanely Cup winner Antti Niemi’s WAA’s rating is less than 1, showing that he wasn’t the main reason the Blackhawks won the Cup. Same goes for both Flyers goaltenders Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher who had negative WAA ratings. This could lead to say that having an elite goaltender isn’t necessary.

Just for fun, I decided to look at the goalie stats for this year even though we’re working with a small sample size. I decided to set the limit to 100 shots faced for goaltenders to be qualified for this.

Goalie team WAA Save Pct SA saves Wins
Thomas BOS 2.213333 0.983784 185 182 6
Johnson PIT 1.6976 0.960227 176 169 5
Backstrom MIN 1.168 0.929368 269 250 4
Bobrovsky PHI 1.084 0.939914 233 219 6
Bryzgalov PHX 1.016 0.922297 296 273 3

To no surprise, Tim Thomas is at the top. However, you can see he’s faced considerably less shots than some of the others on the list. I’m not saying that Thomas hasn’t been standing on his head this season but the Bruins defense deserves a lot of credit, too. Still, stopping all but three shots is impressive in any sample over 100. Interesting to see Sergei Bobrovsky on the list but he’s been very good this season and a clear improvement over Brian Boucher’s -1.256 WAA. Niklas Backstrom of the Wild has been stellar this year but the Wild only have 4 wins behind him.

Another surprising thing was seeing Brent Johnson as #2 among qualified goaltenders but Dan Bylsma has been starting him more and he’s played a factor in the Pens winning. They need him to be with Marc-Andre Fleury’s dazzling -7.152 WAA. Yikes. Also of note, the Pens have only won one game behind Fleury and five behind Johnson.

All year I’ve been saying that Michal Neuvirth is the Washington Capitals MVP but his WAA is only .562286 despite him facing 272 shots. Does this mean the the Capitals offense has been more effective than the numbers show? Or has Neuvirth not been as amazing as we thought? Or is this just flawed date? Who knows.

Tampa Bay is also an interesting case. Mike Smith has a -1.508 WAA and Dan Ellis’ is barely above the league average (.077333) and the Lightning are 7-2-1 behind both of them. Showing that Tampa’s stellar offense has been the key to their success and they’re winning behind average goaltending.

I’m sure I’ll have a more clear conclusion to this date once we’re deeper into the season but you can clearly see that goaltending is very important to some team’s success (Wild) while that’s definitely not the case for others (Lightning).

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