Comparing Backup and Starter Performance Expectations
The final installment of a three-part series.
This is Part No. 3 of a three-part series looking at the current performance expectations of goaltenders in the NHL. Part No. 1 examined Games Started, Points Percentage, and Save Percentage stats for backups from 2013-14 to 2019-20. Part No. 2 did the same for starters. And finally, Part No. 3 will offer discussion and analysis on goaltender performance, with a primary focus on the importance of backups’ contributions.
— Pregame Skate contributor Thomas Pepin
Comparing Backup and Starter Performance Expectations
If this is the first article you’re reading of this three-part series, we recommend going back to Part No. 1: How much do NHL teams rely on backup goaltenders? and Part No. 2: Performance Expectations of NHL Starters. This will provide you with the definitions used within the study and necessary context to better understand the sections below.
Starter Performance by Category
After seeing the results from Part No. 1 and No. 2, it made me wonder: If starters’ performance is decreasing, is this the case for all starters or only some?
To start this analysis, I further narrowed down the starters into the top 16 by Games Started as a proxy for “good enough to make the Playoffs.” Note that I chose Games Started because those who get the most starts should be the best Goaltenders in the league; I didn’t choose Points Percentage because it’s more of a team statistic or Save Percentage because I observed that starters with the highest Save Percentage often played the fewest number of games.
After this, I ranked the top 16 Goaltenders by Save Percentage in an attempt to determine if there is a consistent number of Goaltenders that perform well from one year to the next. To my surprise, in almost all cases, nine Goaltenders would remain in the top 16 from any given year to the following year.
Note that since Goaltenders come and go over time, this was the best method I could come up with. Anecdotally, approximately seven Goaltenders remained on the list over three-year stretches and four over four-year stretches; that is, each year, one could estimate that approximately four Goaltenders are of “very high quality,” three more are of “high quality,” and two more are of “good quality.” From this, one could also argue that the shelf life of quality Goaltenders might be limited.
Below lists the average statistics of each of the aforementioned categories I established.
Upon examination, it is clear that performance among all starter categories for Save Percentage is consistently decreasing, whereas Games Started and Points Percentage have remained relatively stable. Thus, one could argue that winning is the biggest priority and, as seen over Part No. 1 and No. 2 of this study, this responsibility is shared among all Goaltenders, not just starters. Moreover, we can now see that a select group of Goaltenders can be relied upon to carry the load and win on a consistent basis.
The Backup’s Importance to Making the Playoffs
Given all of the data that’s been gathered, we can now punch in performance expectations to determine what is needed from each Goaltender category in order for a team to make the Playoffs. From 2013-14 to 2018-19, on average, teams needed 95 Points (87-99 Points range) in order to proceed. If we use 2018-19’s data (since 2019-20 was a shortened season) and give starters priority (i.e. prorate a backup’s contribution for the remaining games), then an average team would get the following result:
- 57.2 Points from a starter + 33.9 Points from a backup = 91.1 Points
Thus, as I’m sure all of us would have predicted, average starters and backups aren’t going to get you into the Playoffs.
How about a top 16 starter and an average backup:
- 67.3 Points from a top 16 starter + 26.0 Points from a backup = 93.3 Points
So, even having a top 16 starter playing some 58.1 games (70.9%) doesn’t guarantee you a Playoff spot.
Therefore, since few teams are fortunate enough to possess a top 9 Goaltender, the contribution of average starters is decreasing, and the contribution of average backups is increasing, it’s obvious where the much-needed Points will come from in order to secure a Playoff spot: The backup.
The Final Verdict
Based on the trends that were found in each Goaltender category, one can expect a very different relationship between backups and the various levels of starters in the near future. In fact, if you continue these trends, one could predict that backups will have had a comparable Points Percentage and Save Percentage to the average starter and even the top 16 at the end of this season; put another way, after this season, it appears as though there will be little difference in the quality of goaltending you’ll get from backups all the way up to top 16 starters.
Where the major difference appears to lie is between backups and top 9 Goaltenders. If trends continue, backups would only approach the performance of top 9 starters six seasons from now for Save Percentage and more than 17 seasons from now for Points Percentage.
Thus, top 9 starters appear to be the only commodity with any noteworthy difference in value to an NHL franchise; that is, on average, backups appear to be nearly as capable and important to a team’s success as the majority of starters.
In conclusion, if an average team expects to make the Playoffs, it better invest in a good backup.