How much do NHL teams rely on backup goaltenders?
The first installment of a three-part series
This is Part No. 1 of a three-part series that will take a look at the current performance expectations of goaltenders in the NHL. Part No. 1 will examine Games Started, Points Percentage, and Save Percentage stats for backups from 2013-14 to 2019-20. Part No. 2 will do 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
Performance Expectations of NHL Backups
To start this study, it was important to define what a “starter” is. There are a number of ways to do this—by salary, career games played, who was labelled “starter” at the start of the season, etc.—so establishing this definition was difficult at first. In the end, what made the most sense—and was easiest for analyzing the stats—was to simply go with the goaltender who was assigned the most starts. After all, what better indicator would there be of who the starter is than who starts the most games.
Thereafter, I separated the goaltenders with the most starts for each team during the season, lumped the rest as “backups,” and gathered each category’s average Games Started (GS; to determine workload), Points Percentage (P%; to determine winning/team expectations), and Save Percentage (Sv%; to determine individual expectations).
Note: In order to account for goaltenders who get traded, any given goaltenders’ stats are separated into each team (i.e. as if each stat is a different goaltender) and therefore the denominator is the number of teams rather than number of goaltenders. Lastly, I broke things down further to determine expectations of each category in relation to making the Playoffs (seen in part three).
First, you can see that backups’ workloads, ranging from 26.1 to 31.6 GS, have been relatively consistent during the time period examined. This shows that backups are counted on for, on average, between 31.8% to 38.5% of starts.
Second, backups’ contribution to Points in the standings has been steadily increasing, from 52.6% in 2013-14 to 55.4% in 2019-20.
Third, backups’ ability to stop pucks has remained relatively consistent during the time period examined, ranging from a Sv% of .908 to .913.
From the above, it is clear that backups are critical to a team’s success and their importance appears to be increasing. Regarding starts, backups tend to play a pretty big chunk of a team’s games nowadays. Anecdotally, this is why you often see teams with a “1a, 1b” setup on their roster rather than the traditional “starter and backup.” How exactly different factors—like fatigue, greater goaltender consistency, higher team performance expectations, etc.—contribute to this trend is hard to say without being in the locker room.
Since contrasting individual performance expectations (Sv%) between starters and backups is beyond the scope of this article, it’s also hard to say how good these individual stats are. That said, having played goalie myself and watched goalies closely throughout my life, a minimum of a .908 Sv% for a backup seems pretty darn good. Personally, I was expecting this number to be lower, but things will be a lot clearer on this front when we get to part three of this study.
The most interesting stat to me was the only one that had a clear trend: Points Percentage.
What this result tells you is that there are no excuses for backups anymore. They’re not only expected to “hold water” like they were in the past; now, they’re expected to win, and more so every year. That being said, one could argue that maybe this is simply an indication of more quality goaltenders being developed every year. Or maybe teams are better at evaluating and choosing the right goaltenders to be backups. Or maybe it’s all of the above and more. In any case, there’s something going on here.
Long story short, the study above shows that backup goaltenders are clearly important, and maybe more so than you would have expected. Nowadays, regardless of if you’re a fan, player, coach, or manager, it’s important not to be fixated on who your team’s starter is.
Instead, you should be paying close attention to your team’s backup—nearly as much as you do to the starter.
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