Overworked Goaltenders

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 16:  Goaltender Evgeni Nabokovof #20 the San Jose Sharks throws out the puck while taking on the Chicago Blackhawks in Game One of the Western Conference Finals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at HP Pavilion on May 16, 2010 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Every year, this topic comes up. Last Saturday, Kelly Hrudey mentioned it on Hockey Night in Canada and the panel spent some time discussing how coaches need to give their goaltenders a break so that they’re not exhausted when the post-season rolls around.

CBC’s Tim Wharnsby went a little further with the argument in his latest column, examining the playoff struggles of the league’s 10 busiest goaltenders:

There was discussion in the Hot Stove segment on Hockey Night In Canada about the workload of goaltenders. There should be concern among NHL general managers and coaches in playing their No. 1 netminders too much. Yes, they give you a better chance to win and advance to the post-season, but only Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks was able to lead his team past the second round of the playoffs of the 10 goalies who made 66 or more starts last season.

Wharnsby went on to detail the performance of the 10 individual goaltenders, which I’ve converted into hand chart form:

Player Season GP Playoff GP Playoff Exit
Martin Brodeur 76 5 First round
Henrik Lundqvist 72 0 DNQ
Miikka Kiprusoff 72 0 DNQ
Jonathan Quick 72 6 First round
Evgeni Nabokov 72 15 Third round
Craig Anderson 71 6 First round
Ilya Bryzgalov 69 7 First round
Ryan Miller 68 6 First round
Roberto Luongo 67 12 Second round
Marc-Andre Fleury 66 13 Second round

It’s an interesting chart, and at first glance somewhat convincing. The four busiest goaltenders didn’t make it out of the first round, and only one of the four conference finalists is on this list – Evgeni Nabokov, as Wharsnby points out.

But that’s not a particularly helpful list, for a couple of different reasons. First, it’s never a good idea to measure individual performance by team success. Many factors beyond goaltender performance go into winning or losing a playoff series. Secondly, there’s no comparison. I’ll address the second point now, by showing the same chart, but this time for the next 10 goaltenders, who played a more reasonable 53-63 games:

Player Season GP Playoff GP Playoff Exit
Jimmy Howard 63 12 Second round
Tomas Vokoun 63 0 DNQ
Chris Mason 61 0 DNQ
Niklas Backstrom 60 0 DNQ
Jonas Hiller 59 0 DNQ
Pekka Rinne 58 6 First round
Steve Mason 58 0 DNQ
Brian Elliott 55 4 First round
Marty Turco 53 0 DNQ
Dwayne Roloson 50 0 DNQ

Interestingly, these goaltenders fared no better (arguably they fared worse)  – the most successful, Jimmy Howard, a) only made it to the second round of the playoffs and b) was the busiest of the group.

This is because three (Jaroslav Halak, 45 GP; Antti Niemi, 39 GP and Michael Leighton, 34 GP) of the conference finalist goaltenders weren’t clear-cut starters last season; all ended up splitting time with goaltending partners.

Did that limited playing time make those goaltenders successful? Personally, I don’t think that’s a responsible connection to make and I don’t think it’s a defensible argument, particularly given that with the exception of Halak their performances weren’t especially brilliant. Waiver-wire pickup Leighton’s 0.916 SV% was respectable, but not spectacular, while Niemi’s 0.910 SV% was below average for an NHL starter (and of course the ‘Hawks thought so little of Niemi that they declined to match a relatively modest arbitration award, making him a free agent).

A better approach to the topic is to look at how save percentage changes for heavily-worked goaltenders from the start of the season to the end of the season, to see if there is a shift in performance.  This is what I did at the start of last season , looking at all goaltenders to play 65+ games post-lockout.  The full post is here, but what I found was remarkable: there was no drop-off in performance late in the season (in fact, the numbers improved marginally).  This strongly suggests that goaltender fatigue is a highly overrated factor in goaltender performance.