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The player talking to Martin Brodeur in the picture above is Ari Ahonen, a first round pick of the Devils and once regarded as the heir apparent to Brodeur in the New Jersey net.

Like so many goaltenders drafted in the first round, Ahonen never quite lived up to the potential that the Devils’ scouts saw in him; he’s a subpar goaltender in the Elitserien now, and despite spending five seasons in North America he never got an NHL start.

There’s been a lot of discussion around the blogosphere about the value (or lack thereof) in drafting goalies.  I’d already started to wonder if it made sense to invest development time in goalies when I read this tremendous post by Kent Wilson in August of 2008, a post that went through most of the reasoning behind why drafting goalies early is a bad idea and showed that a star goaltender is far more likely to show up late in the draft than a star scorer.  A little under a year later, Richard Pollock broke down the league’s starters by where they were selected and his findings confirmed Wilson’s.

I haven’t seen a systematic study of the success rates of teams drafting goaltenders, so I decided to do one, looking at the 10 drafts from 1994 to 2003 and ranking the success rate of each position by games played.  Here’s what I found:

Position # of Picks < 100GP 100+ GP 250+ GP 500+ GP
Forward 177 30.5% 69.5% 53.1% 24.3%
Defence 95 24.2% 75.8% 62.1% 26.3%
Goaltender 28 57.1% 42.9% 21.4% 3.6%

 

We can see that the NHL scouting community is fairly good at determining the difference in value between a forward and a defenceman; the rates for the latter are slightly better but well within range.  However, goaltenders are off the charts bad: a first-round goaltender is more than twice as likely not to reach the 100 game plateau as a first-round skater.

It isn’t hard to come up with reasons why a scout might have difficulties evaluating a goaltender.  Consider a hypothetical case: the difference between an NHL starter and an NHL backup.  The average NHL starter last season had a .912 SV%, while the average backup managed a .904 SV%.  Assuming that each goaltender has the same quality of defence, the same breakdown of even-strength/special teams situations, and that each faces 25 shots a night, over 10 games of watching each that works out to a total difference of two goals against.  Can a scout, by eye, tell the difference between one goal against over the course of five games?  I have my doubts.  Not only that, but factor in funny bounces, hot and cold streaks, different defencemen, more or less power play situations, and those two goals can disappear entirely.

Of course, it’s more difficult for a goaltender to reach games played marks than it is for a skater, but the reality is that there’s really no value in a backup goaltender – if an NHL team doesn’t draft a starter with their first round pick, it was a blown first round pick.  Given that quality goaltenders are often available via trade, free agency, or late in the draft, it doesn’t make much sense for an NHL team to pick a goalie.