Find me a more dichotomous position in sports than “NHL goaltender.” I’ll wait. Actually, I won’t, because you won’t.
On one hand, we’ve long known the adage, “the goalie is a team’s most important player.” Of the 54 Conn Smythe Trophy winners as playoff MVP, 16, or 29.6 percent, are goaltenders, which is a monstrous chunk of the pie considering the skater-to-goalie ratio on any given night is 18 to 1.
On the other hand, we have the new idea that “goalies don’t matter, because they grow on trees.” Jordan Binnington went from AHLer to Stanley Cup champion last season. Matt Murray won two Cups while he still had Calder Trophy eligibility. Jonathan Quick fought his way up from the ECHL. Pekka Rinne and Henrik Lundqvist were eighth- and seventh-round picks, respectively. Robin Lehner was a Vezina Trophy finalist after signing a one-year, $1.5-million “prove it” contract. Two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky wasn’t even drafted.
So how can both statements be true? Can a goalie really be a team’s most important player when it feels like a glorified beer-leaguer emerges as a new star every year?
The answer is yes. For multiple reasons. The first is the simplest: the correlation between winning and stopping pucks remains remarkably strong. Last season, the NHL’s “two best defensive teams,” the New York Islanders and Dallas Stars, did allow the fewest goals in their conferences, yet they ranked a ho-hum 12th and 16th in shots against. In 5-on-5 play, the Islanders allowed the ninth-most scoring chances, the Stars the 18th-most. These weren’t the best defensive teams in the NHL at all. The Isles and Stars experienced standings “resurgences” primarily because they ranked first and second in the NHL in save percentage. Robin Lehner, Thomas Greiss, Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin were their heroes. Yet the very fact each team boasted two studly stoppers reinforces the idea of goalies being a dime a dozen! Oh, the contradictions. Still, of the top 16 teams in the league in save percentage last year, 13 made the post-season, just as 13 of the top 16 highest-scoring teams did. Interestingly, six of the top eight offensive juggernauts in the playoffs cleaned out their lockers after Round 1.
Secondly, goaltending remains crucial because the idea that it’s easier than ever to find a goalie is only anecdotally true. The stories like Binnington or Darcy Kuemper get the press, and it feels like “some guy emerges out of nowhere every year,” but that tale is more exception than norm. The league-average save percentage across the past five completed seasons was .913, but that was the average, not the median, meaning we didn’t have an equal number of goalies above and below .913. Just 56 goalies posted save percentages higher than .913 across that stretch versus 101 below it and three sitting right on the average. So being an above-average NHL netminder is a much tougher gig than it may seem. That’s why, despite the yearly surprise success stories, half a dozen teams fail miserably at finding good goaltending year after year. The Philadelphia Flyers have literally spent decades searching for their next Bernie Parent or Ron Hextall.
So while it’s true that obscure goalies pop up to shock the NHL every year – hello, Andrew Hammond – that doesn’t mean they’re easy to find. It’s more accurate to say the process is random and requires some combination of brilliant scouting and amazing luck. And that reinforces rather than refutes the idea that goaltending is the most important position. You need to either (a) scout the elite ones, such as Carey Price and Andrei Vasilevskiy, and use high draft picks on them; (b) beef up your scouting to dig up underappreciated talents such as Bobrovsky or Tim Thomas; or, (c) devote resources into development, like the Islanders did when they hired Mitch Korn as director of goaltending and Piero Greco as goalie coach in 2018. They made magic with Lehner and Greiss and they’re doing the same with
Greiss and Semyon Varlamov this year.
So goalies are actually as important as ever in the NHL. Their value hasn’t changed. The way we discover them has. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It requires hard work – and plenty of luck.