As Christmas 2009 approached, Michael Leighton had been pushed out of his job as backup goaltender for the last-place Carolina Hurricanes and was picked up off waivers by the injury-riddled Philadelphia Flyers practically out of desperation. By season's end, the 6-foot-3, 29-year-old netminder had recorded an uninspiring .905 save percentage, accumulating only 1.4 GVT (Puck Prospectus' value metric). That mark is just barely above the replacement level of 0, but Brian Boucher's postseason knee injury left the Flyers with only Leighton in their quest for the Stanley Cup.
Six wins and 3½ shutouts later, the Flyers stand in the finals ready to face down the Chicago Blackhawks. As wonderful as Leighton has been lately, he has generally uninspiring career averages (2.94 GAA, .902 save percentage). The achievement raises an interesting question about the value of goaltending in the playoffs, particularly because the Blackhawks entered the playoffs with below-average goaltending as well.
How did these types of teams get here? Does their offense compensate for this weakness between the pipes? Do the goalies just get hot? Does their defense step it up? Or is it all just a fluke?
In short, are goalies as important in the playoffs as we've been led to believe?
Using GVT we can quickly compile a list of all the goalies who have competed for the Stanley Cup since 1980 to see which ones had the worst regular seasons, and we need only look as far as last season in Detroit to find one that was far worse than Leighton and Chicago's Antti Niemi.
Worst Goalies Since 1980 In The Finals
GVT is Puck Prospectus's proprietary metric that factors in a host of applicable statistics and measures each player's individual contributions on the ice. A mark of 0, indicates an AHL call-up could have a similar impact. For reference, Ryan Miller logged the best GVT mark in 2009-10 at 37.1.
Season Team Goalie GVT Result
2008-09 Detroit Red Wings Chris Osgood -13.7 Loss
2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes Cam Ward -7.9 Win
2001-02 Carolina Hurricanes Arturs Irbe 0.1 Loss
2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers Michael Leighton 1.4 "We'll See"
1996-97 Philadelphia Flyers Ron Hextall 1.6 Loss
1996-97 Detroit Red Wings Mike Vernon 2.5 Win
Niemi does not appear on this list, but if the Blackhawks were to win the Stanley Cup, he would be the goalie with the ninth-worst regular season to win the Cup since 1980. Leighton, as you can see above, would the second worst, right behind Cam Ward and just ahead of Mike Vernon. (Interestingly, the teams in the bottom third are no less likely to win, as 10 of the bottom 20 hoisted Lord Stanley's Cup. In fact, the teams with the top 20 regular-season goaltenders won only seven times. Granted this is a small sample size, but it's clear that weak regular-season goaltending doesn't matter if you've made it this far.)
So how do these teams survive with sub-par goaltending? Breaking down this list to include the number of shots each goalie faced, it seems like the goalies simply raised their game in the playoffs.
SOG And SOG Percentage
Let's look at goalies via shots on goal and shots on goal percentage, beginning with this year's Cup netminders.
Season Goalie Season SOG Percentage Playoffs SOG Percentage
2009-10 Antti Niemi 25.6 .912 29.4 .921
2009-10 Michael Leighton 30.0 .905 27.8 .948
2008-09 Chris Osgood 27.2 .887 27.2 .926
2005-06 Cam Ward 31.3 .882 26.5 .920
2001-02 Arturs Irbe 25.9 .902 26.7 .938
1996-97 Ron Hextall 24.9 .897 27.4 .892
Generally speaking, the goalies faced just as many shots in the postseason as in the regular season, and in a few cases -- including Niemi this season -- actually faced slightly more. This diminishes the argument that it is the defense that has improved in the postseason. It's possible that in each case the D was keeping the shots from the outside, letting the goalie see them, and sweeping up rebounds -- but it's more likely that these goalies simply performed better. For example, this postseason the Flyers are blocking only 13.4 shots per game -- 1.9 less than in the regular season -- suggesting that the decrease in rubber marks on Leighton's pads are more a function of his opponents than of the Flyers' defense. Supporting that is the fact both the Montreal Canadiens (26th) and Boston Bruins (30th) were two of the five lowest-scoring teams in the NHL this season.
The sore thumb in this list is 1997's Ron Hextall, who won the starting job back from Garth Snow despite his own uninspiring postseason play. In this one case it was on the backs of Philadelphia's celebrated offensive talents like Eric Lindros, Rod Brind'Amour and John LeClair that the team made its run, not the goalies. Offensively, the 2010 edition of the Flyers have stepped it up, scoring six more goals than would be expected based on their regular-season scoring rate, but even in only half as many games, Leighton's spectacular play has prevented nine more tallies than their averages suggest.
Given that the goalies themselves are to credit for these achievements, it only remains to determine if they've stepped it up, or if it's just a fluke. Looking at Niemi's history in the Finnish Elite League first, we can see that he earned a fourth-best GVT of 30.4 in 2007-08, so it's quite possible that his relatively average regular season is more of an aberration than his solid performances against the Nashville Predators, Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks.
Digging into history can also shed light onto Leighton's spectacular play. He was consistently among the AHL's leaders in save percentage from 2001 to 2008, including a stunning .956 save percentage and 1.35 goals-against average in 19 postseason appearances over four seasons. Indeed, several goalies on the list above are known for consistently solid efforts, so it's possible that he's no fluke and that the real Leighton is somewhere between his disappointing NHL regular-season performances and what we've seen over the past month.
Having a goalie with lackluster regular-season stats compete for the Stanley Cup is nothing new, as we saw last year in Detroit with Chris Osgood, or in 2005-06 when Ward took his skate with hockey's most celebrated trophy. Consider the increased save percentages and, even when you consider the factors beyond the crease, it's clear that solid goaltending is just as important as ever.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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