Last year a new hockey fan's questions led to an analysis on the role relief goaltenders play, where we discovered that Minnesota's Josh Harding had the unlikely distinction of the league's best relief goalie. Anything can happen in such small sample sizes, but given that Harding didn't allow a single goal in his relief appearances this season, it may be time to acknowledge him as the league's best reliever.
It's not easy to come into a game cold, otherwise it would happen more often. Just like basketball players switch on and off to catch their breath, or baseball pitchers are switched up to force opponents to make adjustments, it stands to reason that goalies would be switched in and out if it weren't so difficult for them to do so. In having a goalie that has clearly established that he performs best when coming off the bench, Minnesota has a clearly valuable asset.
GR: Games in Relief
Save%: Save Percentage when playing in relief
Goalie Team GR Save%
Josh Harding Minnesota 3 1.000
Steve Mason Columbus 3 0.977
Pascal Leclaire Ottawa 3 0.971
Patrick Lalime Buffalo 3 0.952
Yann Danis New Jersey 6 0.951
Andrew Raycroft Vancouver 7 0.949
Tuukka Rask Boston 6 0.947
Johan Hedberg Atlanta 6 0.944
Semyon Varlamov Washington 3 0.943
Antero Niittymaki Tampa Bay 3 0.923
Mike Smith Tampa Bay 6 0.855
Michael Leighton Philadelphia 3 0.849
Martin Biron NY Islanders 3 0.825
Thomas Greiss San Jose 5 0.809
Peter Budaj Colorado 4 0.769
*Minimum 3 relief appearances
It may be hard to draw conclusions based on only 3 relief appearances, which is why the year's best relief goalie might be either Yann Danis, Andrew Raycroft, Tuukka Rask or Johan Hedberg -- none of whom were particular effective in relief the season before.
Thanks to Washington's high-octane offense, Semyon Varlamov managed 2 victories in his 3 appearances, matched or bested only by Ottawa's Brian Elliot, who had 3 wins in 7 relief appearances, despite a subpar 0.892 save percentage and 2.99 GAA. On the flip side, Mike Smith was one of only 2 goalies to get dinged with 3 losses in relief -- Philadelphia's Brian Boucher was the other.
Columbus' Mathieu Garon and Pittsburgh's Brent Johnson led the way with 8 relief appearances apiece, followed by Boucher, Elliott and Raycroft with 7. Six others had 6 relief appearances, including Curtis McElhinney, who leads the league in combined relief appearances over the last two seasons - too bad his save percentage is 0.875 with a 3.34 GAA.
Most Relief Appearances, last two seasons
Goalie Team GR GAA Save%
Curtis McElhinney Anaheim 14 3.34 0.875
Johan Hedberg Atlanta 12 2.16 0.908
Josh Harding Minnesota 11 0.86 0.965
Mathieu Garon Columbus 11 2.49 0.912
Andrew Raycroft Vancouver 11 2.64 0.877
Brent Johnson Pittsburgh 10 2.52 0.892
Once again, Josh Harding stands out, with his ridiculous 0.86 goals against average and 0.965 save percentage. Yes, his goals against average is almost as good as McElhinney's save percentage.
Granted, in a sample size this small it's possible for anyone to stand out, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore the results. Maybe there's something about Harding that allows him to step off the bench and consistently shut down the opponents in a way that the league's other netminders cannot.
Needless to say, Harding has the best two-year combined save percentage of any relief goaltender, even if we widen our criteria to anyone who has come in at least 6 times.
Goalie Team Save%
Josh Harding Minnesota 0.965
Antero Niittymaki Tampa Bay 0.959
Tuukka Rask Boston 0.947
Patrick Lalime Buffalo 0.944
Jason LaBarbera Phoenix 0.924
Chris Mason St. Louis 0.923
Erik Ersberg Los Angeles 0.870
Michael Leighton Philadelphia 0.869
Vesa Toskala Calgary 0.869
*Minimum 6 relief appearances
"Ah, Vesa Toskala! Will anyone ever be able to concoct a goalie statistic where you don't finish last?"
- My friend, reading this article's rough draft
Josh Harding's career hasn't been entirely free of accomplishments thus far. Turning 26 this year, he has won a couple of silver medals in international play, been awarded some unique distinctions in the WHL for the Regina Pats in 2002-03, and has a decent 0.915 career save percentage (despite a poor 2009-10 season). Nevertheless, I'd like to do my part and add the latest distinction to his Curriculum Vitae: the NHL's Best Relief Goalie. Perhaps one day he'll get an award for his achievement.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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