How smart is it to draft a goalie?

Trying to find a competent goalie is one of the most complex tasks of an NHL GM. Numerous goalies have been selected in the first couple of rounds of the draft, and while some like Carey Price and Marc-Andre Fleury have been standout success stories, others like Chet Pickard and Marc Visentin are more likely to appear on an episode of “Whatever Happened To”.

The big question around goaltending is does it make more sense to take your chances in the draft to find your future number one starting goalie or to find one either through trade of free agency?

We have taken a look at NHL goaltending this season to see what teams tend to do. To start, I compiled a data set of the 60 NHL goaltenders who have played 13 or more games so far this season. I then sorted the data by which round they were drafted in (if they were drafted at all), and sorted that information by team.

A couple of oddities in drafting occurred with Frederik Andersen and Craig Anderson, who were both drafted twice. In this case, I used the second time they were drafted as that is a better reflection of their progression.

The goaltenders were then categorized as definitive starters, definitive back-ups, or A/B splits based on whether one goalie started more than twelve more games than their partner. I used twelve as the benchmark, as it was the average difference in the number of games played in the dataset. This number increases as the season goes on, but at the time of taking the data, it was appropriate.

If a goalie started twelve or more games more than their partner, they were labelled the starter. If they started twelve or more fewer games than their partner, then they were the backup. If the difference between the number of games played by two goalies was less than twelve, the duo were labelled as an A/B split. For splits, there is no differentiation between which goalie played more games.

There are a few teams which have three or more goalies that have played more than 13 games so far this season. If two played similar numbers of games and the third did not, the two that did were labelled as A/B splits and the third was labelled as a backup.

Our very own Bill Tran (@mrbilltran) created a visualization, here’s how it turned out. Note that shapes indicate a goalie’s label and colour indicates how a team acquired said goalie.

Drafted

Across the NHL, 24 of the 60 goalies included in the dataset were drafted by the same team that they currently play for. While that number includes some veteran goalies such as Henrik Lundqvist and Price, it also includes a number of young goalies who are just getting established, such as Carter Hart and MacKenzie Blackwood.

Only five NHL teams this have drafted both of their goalies and both have played thirteen or more games this season: Columbus with Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo, Nashville with Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros, St. Louis with Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen, Washington with Braden Holtby and Ilya Samsonov, and Pittsburgh with Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry.

Of the goalies that were drafted in the NHL (as opposed to the ones that were undrafted or found in other leagues), most came from the third round. A total of 12 goalies were drafted in that round, compared to 11 in Round 2 and 10 in Round 1.

The numbers drop off significantly from there, as just 19 goalies were taken in Rounds 4 through 9. The three goalies that are still playing in the NHL from the era of the nine round draft are Rinne, selected in the eighth round, and Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, both selected in the ninth.

Free Agency or trade

Because drafting a bona-fide NHL goaltender is tricky, many teams opt to find their goalie through trade or free agency. Nearly half of the goalies that on the list were acquired this way, 27 goalies in total.

Here is where it gets interesting: it is difficult to find a starting goaltender through trade or free agency. This makes sense as teams are unlikely to trade away their top talent, or let them walk in free agency. Currently, only six starting goalies were acquired through trade or free agency:

  • Fleury was acquired by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, when Pittsburgh opted to protect Murray. Since then, he’s been their bona fide starter.
  • Sergei Bobrovsky went to the Florida Panthers in free agency, as Columbus was unable to retain him.
  • Petr Mrazek was traded to Philadelphia midway through the 2018 season after the Red Wings opted to stick with Jimmy Howard, but Mrazek was not tendered a qualifying offer at the end of the year. He signed a deal with Carolina where he has worked his way up their goaltending depth chart.
  • Markstrom was traded to Vancouver from Florida for Roberto Luongo in order to be the backup to Eddie Lack. He also worked his way into the starting role and has been a star for the Canucks.
  • Frederik Andersen was traded from Anaheim to Toronto in exchange for a first and a second-round pick. This was after Anaheim came off of a poor playoff performance.
  • Ben Bishop had his rights traded from Los Angeles to Dallas in exchange for a fourth-round pick. He was brought in to LA to be the backup to Jonathan Quick in a push for the playoffs, but they did not end up qualifying. He’s been one of the most consistent players for the Stars ever since.

Finding a starter through trade or free agency isn’t easy. It is much easier to find a competent back-up or tandem goaltender. Of the 19 definitive back-up goaltenders (having played ten or more fewer games than their partner), only five were drafted by their current team. Of them, four are 25 or younger and in their first or second season in the league, and the other is Allen of St. Louis who has had the starting job taken by the much younger Binnington.

Of the remaining 14 backups, six came from free agency, and eight from trade.

Of the 26 goalies that play in a tandem, only ten were drafted by their current team. It is much more common finding one or both halves of a goaltending tandem either through trade or free agency, as many teams are reluctant to pay two goalies handsomely and end up getting stuck without enough money to sign skaters.

Found goalies

Nine NHL netminders were undrafted but have found their way to the NHL. This includes both of Calgary’s netminders David Rittich and Cam Talbot. Of the nine, three were undrafted players who got their start in the NCAA, then worked their way up through the ECHL and AHL before making it into the big leagues. The others came through the KHL, Finnish SM-Liiga, Czech League or were signed out of development camp.

Of these goalies, two are NHL starters, Rittich and Bobrovsky. The others are either back-ups or play as part of a tandem.

What makes more sense?

It really comes down to whether a team is looking for a starting goalie and a backup, or are looking for two goaltenders who can play in tandem over the course of the season.

It is hard to know which draft pick will turn into an NHL-calibre goaltender, but teams that are looking for a potential starter should keep trying their luck in the draft. Most NHL goaltenders, and especially most starters were drafted by the same team that they currently play for. And trying to pry a starting goalie out of another team’s hands would take a huge package, the kind for which GMs would be reluctant to pay.

On the other hand, if a team is looking for a reliable tandem option, it is much easier to find one or both of these on the free agent market or through trade. This way, a team has a better idea what they are getting as compared to the draft.

While there is always a hope and a prayer with any signing, the NHL experience and track record are there to provide more certainty. Though it is a more expensive route than drafting a goalie, (as teams generally have to pay more for track record both in salary and in assets potentially dealt) the results are more assured.

Photo credit: NHL.com

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