Do higher paid goalies perform better?

This summer has been a big year for UFA goalie signings. Sergei Bobrovsky signed for a record $10 million AAV with the Florida Panthers, and Andrei Vasilevskiy re-signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning for $9.5 million AAV. On the home front, the Calgary Flames have managed to lock up both their netminders for a combined $5.5 million – just over half of Bobrovsky’s yearly cap hit.

Salaries have reached unprecedented highs for skaters the past few years, and it looks like goalies are joining the top tier skaters in terms of annual salary. Goaltending has always been difficult to predict and often described as “voodoo”. With Bobrovsky and Vasilevskiy among the highest paid players in the NHL, it begs the question: what can you expect from a high priced goaltender?

Amongst forwards and defencemen, you can typically look at basic stats such as goals and assists, as well as more advanced ones such as Corsi for (CF), expected goals (xGF), or if you’re Brian Burke, the “eye test”. On a very basic level, goalies that are paid more should tend to have a lower goals against average (GAA) and a higher save percentage (SV%).

How did goalies perform relative to their cap hit?

For all goalies who played more than 25 games last season, the stats break down as follows:

Cap Hit vs. GAA for Goalies in 2018-19 with >25 starts
Cap Hit vs. SV% for Goalies in 2018-19 with >25 starts

Looking at the data, there is no definitive link between goalie salaries and a lower GAA or a higher SV%. The goalies who posted the best GAA were the St. Louis Blues’ Jordan Binnington ($650,000 AAV),  Dallas Stars’ Ben Bishop ($4,916,666 AAV), and New York Islanders’ Robin Lehner ($1,500,000 AAV). The goalies with the highest SV% were Bishop, Lehner, and Los Angeles Kings backup Jack Campbell ($675,000 AAV). 

Quality Start Percentage

Looking at some of the more advanced stats, the same trends, or lack thereof, can be seen. One evaluation that can be used is quality start percentage (QS%). Taken from baseball and adapted by Rob Vollman, it looks at starts where the goalie achieved the league average SV% (91.7%), or allowed two or fewer goals while saving 88.5% of shots faced. In essence, this stat looks at the percentage of starts where the goalie “gave his team a chance to win”.

Cap Hit vs. QS% for Goalies in 2018-19 with >25 starts

Once again, there does not appear to be any correlation between goalie salaries and QS%. The goalies with the highest QS% were our usual suspects in Bishop and Binnington, along with Arizona Coyotes’ Darcy Kuemper. Worryingly for Flames fans, Cam Talbot had the lowest QS% last season at 0.281. While he was playing behind a weak defense in Edmonton, it is something that may be a concern come the start of the season, despite it being his lowest season for this category. His previous career low was 0.478.

While both Bobrovsky and Vasilevskiy received new contracts this season, does it follow that the goalies that get paid most should be performing better than the average?

Do higher paid goalies perform better?

Just looking at the top ten highest paid goalies last season, their combined average in GAA and SV% was actually worse than those achieved by the total group of goalies: 2.79 GAA vs 2.75 GAA for the whole group, and .910 SV% vs .912 SV% for the whole group. These ten started an average of eight more games than the rest of the group, but they also averaged a lower percentage of quality starts: 0.512 vs 0.533. 

Age does not seem to be a major factor in this number either. Taking out the two oldest goalies, Henrik Lundqvist and Pekka Rinne who are 35 and 34 respectively, the top eight highest paid goalies actually posted a lower save percentage (0.909) and a lower QS% (0.500). 

What does this all mean?

It doesn’t appear that paying a goaltender more money yields much better results. There is no correlation between goalie salaries and SV%, GAA, or QS%. Goalie performances fluctuate year to year, and predicting how they will perform is difficult.

It will be interesting to see if goalies like Bishop, Binnington, and Lehner are able to maintain their statistical dominance into next year, especially after the latter two received new contracts this offseason. Will the pair of high paid Russians in Bobrovsky and Vasilevskiy lead the league in SV% and QS%? Or will the tandems on teams like Calgary with goalies who are paid significantly less hold their own in the chase for the Stanley Cup?


Image courtesy: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

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