The goaltender is often considered one of the most vital positions in hockey. They can steal games, change momentum, and put your team on the highlight reel on a regular basis, all while wearing over 50 pounds of equipment on the ice. During the regular season, they can drag teams down the stretch into the playoffs.
This thought process continues into the postseason, as netminders are expected to be the most consistent and reliable players in the game. This is why people like to point out a Cup-winning goaltender’s often incredible numbers and claim they are the reason for the team’s success.
Champion goalies have averaged a .927 SV% and a 1.98 GAA since the year 2000. These are Vezina caliber numbers that can stifle an opponent’s chances at victory night in and night out. But while these statistics seemingly point to the goaltender’s importance, they do not have the impact that you may think.
Stellar goaltending is not required to win the Stanley Cup.
What a Rip-Off
Let us begin by mentioning some of the not-so-great netminders who have made it to 16 wins in the postseason.
While the average Cup winner earns a save percentage higher than .925, three of the last seven champions have registered numbers below the .914 league average. Marc-Andre Fluery won in 2009 with a .908 SV%, Antti Niemi recorded a .910 in 2010, and Jonathan Quick earned a .911 in his most recent Cup victory. All of these players hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup despite being among the weakest goaltenders in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, some phenomenal names have yet to experience ultimate victory even though they have put up amazing numbers. In 2009, Anaheim Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller earned a .943 SV% but was eliminated in the second round. Braden Holtby posted a .935 or higher twice but has yet to make it to the conference finals. And Henrik Lundqvist, possibly the best in the game, has registered higher than a .925 every postseason since 2011 and has been rewarded with exactly zero Cup wins.
If solid goaltending truly leads to championships, then why have netminders with over a .925 been beat out by those who earned less than .912? There is more to a Stanley Cup than a goaltender’s performance. In fact, goaltending may be the least important position in playoff hockey.
The reason many goaltenders put up insane numbers and why some subpar performers come out on top is because of the small sample size the playoffs provide. The postseason consists of just 28 games at the most, but often averages to between 23 and 25 contests. For comparison purposes, the regular season is 82 games, just over three-times longer.
Let’s say that the average number one goaltender plays in 60 games per season (yes, that’s a low estimate). Over 60 games at a league average 30 shots per game, a starting netminder will see around 1,800 shots a year. This means that each save he makes counts as .00056 towards his annual save percentage.
In the playoffs, however, a goaltender will only see about 640 shots. In this short-term situation, each save will add .0015 to his save percentage, much more than the .00056 that a save contributes during the regular season. By comparing these numbers, we can see that a stop in the playoffs has 2.7 times the impact on statistics than a save during the regular season.
Because each playoff save makes a significant impact on a goaltender’s statistics, the difference between Vezina numbers and below average netminding is quite minimal.
Over 650 shots-a reasonable number in postseason competition-a goaltender with a .927 SV% will allow 47 goals over the course of the playoffs. Assuming that netminder plays in four series that are six games long (24 games total), he will let in 11.75 goals per series and 1.96 goals per game.
Using those same shot totals and series lengths, a goalie with a .910 SV% will give up 58 goals, averaging 14.5 goals per series and 2.42 goals per game.
The goalie with the .910 SV% will give up just 11 more goals, which equates to 2.75 extra goals in a series, or less than half of a goal each game.
Yes, those numbers can make a difference in a tight contest. But, a Stanley Cup caliber team should be able to come up with one extra goal every other game. Unless a club is going into overtime every night, the half-goal per game should have a minuscule impact on the outcome.
Also consider this: we are comparing an above average player with a below average player. Basically, this is Corey Schneider versus Anders Lindback. These comparisons are some of the more extreme examples and even teams with average goaltending will have a smaller goal differential.
The Jonathan Quick Example
Los Angeles Kings goaltender, Jonathan Quick, is very interesting statistically when it comes to the playoffs. In 2012, he earned a .946 SV% in the postseason en route to his first Stanley Cup win-the best percentage since at least the year 2000. He only gave up 29 goals throughout the entire postseason despite seeing 538 shots.
Just two years later though, he won the Cup again. This time he posted a .911 SV%, the third lowest since 2000. This leads me to ask: was Quick unnecessarily good in 2012, or did he get just lucky in 2014?
Analysis of the 2012 playoffs shows that the American goaltender was, in fact, significantly better than he needed to be that year.
While impressive, Quick’s .946 SV% was far more than what was needed for Los Angeles to win the Stanley Cup. The Kings outscored their opponents by excessive amounts in a fair portion of their wins, giving the Southern California franchise a large cushion when protecting their advantage. Because of these substantial leads, Quick could have given up an extra 18 goals and still won the Cup.
An extra 18 tallies would mean he allowed 47 goals on 538 shots that year. This puts his theoretical save percentage at .913, very close to the .911 he earned in 2014. So even though he put up monstrous numbers in the 2012 postseason, he could have gotten by with a below-average .913 SV% and still won it all. This is because of the excellent work done by Los Angeles’s offense, who were able to dominate teams in the offensive zone.
Others Matter More
Even though a number of goaltenders are capable of putting up incredible save percentages, it does not automatically earn them a Stanley Cup ring. Many great goalies have yet to win while a number of mediocre netminders have hoisted the Cup. In the grand scheme of things, offense and defense make more of a difference than goaltending.
Consider this logic: If a goaltender needs to put up a .930 SV%, then the offense is not good enough to win in the playoffs. And if a goaltender ends up posting less than a .910, then the defense is not doing a good enough job at suppressing quality scoring chances. Unless a netminder is making critical saves left and right, or giving up soft goals on a regular basis, then his performance should not dictate how successful your team is.
Of course, there are times when teams need to lean on their goaltender and ask for the big save; that’s why franchises tend to invest so much in their netminder. Not only do they stop pucks, but they also get into the heads of their opponents; nothing is more frustrating than a goalie that is stoning you on every shot. Their intangible impacts are probably more important than their statistics when it comes the postseason.
The goaltending position is not irrelevant, but it is over-valued. A potent offense and a shutdown defense have more impact than the man between the pipes. He has a purpose, but his place on the ice should not be the most leaned on in the game. If that is the case, your team is not good enough to win.
Drew Weber is a columnist for the San Jose Sharks at The Hockey Writers. He previously wrote articles and appeared on podcasts for Teal Town USA (formerly Pucknology) and contributed briefly to Fear the Fin. You can follow him on Twitter at @puck_over_glass.