The first couple of months of every season have their share of surprises. Some established players slump out of the gate, some young players play over their heads for a while and there are always a few individuals who come from out of nowhere to make a surprise impact.
A good portion of this is merely the effect of small sample sizes. A couple of good or bad games have a disproportionate impact on a players results early in the season, often leading to a lot of extra praise or handwringing from the local fanbase. However, in most cases the player will still end up close to his usual level of production over the entire 82 game schedule.
As most teams in the NHL hit or pass the 30 game mark, this year remains unusual in terms of the leaguewide success of goalies who were expected to be backups. Tim Thomas has been the most notable story with his season of redemption, having reclaimed his starting job from Tuukka Rask and once again showing the form that won him the 2009 Vezina Trophy, but the American netminder is not alone. Ondrej Pavelec has had a breakout season in Atlanta. His .943 save percentage has put the Thrashers in a great position in the Eastern Conference playoff race and has left veteran stopper Chris Mason struggling to get into the net. In Philadelphia, what had long been a weak link at the goaltending position has been solidified this year by Russian rookie Sergei Bobrovsky. A 15-4-3 record with Bobrovsky in net proves that the Flyers are an elite team if they can just get some saves.
Other backups or unknowns having terrific starts include Corey Crawford, who has relegated Marty Turco to the bench in Chicago with six straight starts, Anders Lindback, just the latest in a long line of goalies coming out of the Nashville goalie factory, Brent Johnson, who carried the Pens through Marc-Andre Fleurys early struggles, and Mathieu Garon, who has similarly kept the Blue Jackets in the playoff hunt despite Steve Masons continuing regression.
This season, teams have actually won more games with goalies that were expected to be backups or, in some cases, not even on the teams roster this season. For the purposes of a comparison, an expected starter was defined for each team. The choice would be debatable in the case of teams with a platoon situation entering the season (e.g. San Jose, Tampa Bay, Ottawa), but even switching those choices around would leave a similar overall result.
Expected starters: 299-242-60 (.547)
Expected backups: 173-120-50 (.577)
Less than half of the teams in the league (14) have a better record with their expected starting goalie in net than with their backup goalie.
In addition to the backups who have claimed starting jobs, several teams with an established starter have still received very strong play from their backup goalies. Even teams that have lost an elite goalie for periods of time to injury havent really suffered for it. Colorado is 9-6-2 with Peter Budaj, compared to 9-4-2 with franchise goalie Craig Anderson. New Jersey is 5-13-1 with Martin Brodeur and 4-7-1 without him.
Looking at save percentage, its the same story: 14 out of 30 teams have a higher save percentage with their expected starter on the bench. Overall, the two groups of goalies have had very similar numbers so far.
Expected starters: 2.66 GAA, .912 save percentage
Expected backups: 2.68 GAA, .911 save percentage
The fact that the backup group had a better winning percentage despite similar goals against levels indicates that they likely faced slightly weaker competition. Backups usually get to face weaker teams in general, although this is counterbalanced somewhat by teams preference to start their best goalie more often in front of the home fans.
Only nine expected starters in the league have both a better win-loss record and a better save percentage than their expected backups. The list includes Jonas Hiller, Ryan Miller, Cam Ward, Craig Anderson, Jimmy Howard, Tomas Vokoun, Jonathan Quick, Ilya Bryzgalov and Mike Smith. With the exception of Smith, who has been merely the least awful option in Tampa Bay this year, all the remaining goalies are in the top half of the league.
These results confirm that there is a very high level of goaltending talent in the NHL today. With more goalies capable of filling a starting role than starting jobs available, competition is intense. Goalies like Bobrovsky and Lindback have continued a recent trend of goalies arriving from Europe and excelling on North American ice. The league average save percentage this season is .912. If it remains at that level, it would be the highest league average ever recorded in the official save percentage era, surpassing even the levels during the Dead Puck Era with its clutch-and-grab defending and oversized goalie equipment.
If teams can do just as well with their backup goalies as with their starting goalies, then that indicates that goaltender salaries will likely continue to slide around the league, except among the very best in the game. Whether it is a goalie prospect working his way through the farm system, a European netminder dominating his league and looking for a bigger paycheck in North America, or a capable veteran willing to sign for cheap to make sure he has a spot to play, teams always have other options. There is no reason to pay extra to a goalie when the team can have someone come in off the street and perform just as well.
Philip Myrland is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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