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Struggling starters and surprise standouts show how tough goaltending is to predict

Several expected backups have taken over starting roles early this season, but that’s part of the unpredictable nature of the position. Save percentage variances over the past several years show just how tough staying one of the league’s top netminders can be.

The weirdest player on a hockey team is usually the goalie. You’d be a little off, too, if you had to stand in front of a 4x6 net for 60 minutes and stop an onslaught of vulcanized rubber directed at you at highway speeds. It’s up there with the toughest jobs in all of sport.

Goalies are really strange players to figure out, and that rings true in more ways than one. ‘Goalies are voodoo’ is the best way to put it, and that’s because the ones that are good aren’t always the ones that’ll continue playing that way, and the same is true for the ones that aren’t good.

Looking at this year’s save percentage leaderboards both at the top and bottom shows that there’s been some Freaky Friday like shift. Guys like Jimmy Howard and Mike Smith are providing above average goaltending for the first time in years while consistent stalwarts like Cory Schneider and Henrik Lundqvist are doing the exact opposite after consistent excellence for the past half-decade.

At the top there’s about eight guys who are playing a lot better compared to their past few years, seven of which were below average or backup quality over the past three seasons (the other being Devan Dubnyk, who’s putting on his best Carey Price impression). On the flipside, there are another eight guys who are way below par this season who’ve been either above average or starter quality over the last three seasons, with seven of the eight dropping from a save percentage of .920 or above.


Lundqvist? Schneider? Ben Bishop? These three have been great for a while now, but they’ve suddenly fallen off the map. Brian Elliott, Steve Mason and Semyon Varlamov have been quality starters, too, but this year they are playing at .905 or worse. It’s much worse in Elliott’s case. He’s last in the league among goalies who’ve played 10 or more games. Last year he was first. He literally went from first to worst. Imagine Patrick Kane going from an Art Ross to a 20-point pace and that’s pretty much the equivalent here.

Howard? Smith? Cam Ward? These three have been legitimately among the worst goalies in the league the past few years, but they’ve suddenly become competent starters. Mike Condon, Chad Johnson and Antti Raanta have never been anything special, but this year they’ve been almost unbeatable, with one of them outright stealing a starting job and another in the middle of doing the same – from guys on the other list, no less.

All of it is very strange and it’s why evaluating goalies is such a mystery. Sure, most of this is just small sample randomness and some of these guys will end up back where they belong, but the year over year variance is still large. It’s why many people suggest using multiple years of data before getting a read on who’s good or bad. But even that sometimes doesn’t help either, as evidenced by the large chunk of goalies who are way off their usual trajectory this season.

Check out the save percentage leaderboards every year for a taste of the madness that is goaltender analysis. Going back ten years, 51 different goalies (minimum 25 games played, 15 during the lockout) have been in the top 10 for save percentage. Obviously there are new goalies coming in and old goalies fading away, but there’s almost no goalie who is consistently at the top. The longest streak is four straight years, achieved by Lundqvist from 2009 to 2013. The most appearances at all is five, with Schneider being the most impressive as he did it in seven seasons (Tuukka Rask was there in five of eight, and Price was there in five of 10).

For a long while those four have been the pinnacle of goaltending. Year in and year out they’ve been consistently spectacular, the very few that are trustworthy. Add Corey Crawford to that list, he’s been top 10 in three of the last five seasons and is sitting 11th this year, and that pretty much makes up the entire list of trustworthy goaltenders. Five goalies. That’s it. You can set your watch to those five being at or near the top of the league. 

Except for this year that is, where Lundqvist and Schneider have faltered, or last year for Rask, or 2012-13 for Price, or the start of Crawford’s career. Even the most trustworthy goalies in the league have lapses and can just suddenly lose their touch for an extended period of time. Sometimes that can be a whole season. 

Perhaps more interesting is that not a single goalie from the top 10 last season is in the top 10 this season. The average turnover rate for top 10 player over the last 10 seasons is nearly 80 percent, meaning that of the top 10 goalies in any given year, expect just two to be there the next year. That’s very different from the league’s scoring leaders where the usual suspects are in the mix every season.

All of this is just a long-winded way of saying goalies are really weird creatures and this year has been an especially weird one so far. Last year’s savior could be this year’s pumpkin, while the sieve you wished would find a new home is suddenly a brick wall. Of course there are a few that are consistently good or bad, but those are few and far between and even they can sometimes surprise you.

Almost nothing about goaltending in the NHL is in any way predictable. Remember this lesson next time you write a bad goalie off or heap praise on a good one, because what they’ve already done probably doesn’t mean much for the future.



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