Do the Devils need an elite goalie?

As Devils fans, we have been spoiled having Martin Brodeur in the net for the last 2 decades. There is a lot of talk lately on how goaltending may affect the future of the Devils organization, both immediately (related to resigning Zach Parise) and the near term (once Martin Brodeur retires). This season’s playoffs suggest that an elite goaltender is necessary to be a successful franchise, however only a few years ago the common sentiment was that goaltending was devalued in the post-lockout NHL. I wanted to try to quantitatively determine whether an elite goalie is needed for a successful team.

There are many ways to define team success, but the ultimate goal is to win the Cup. A lot goes into winning the Cup, from luck to health to fortuitous match-ups, and only one team gets to lift the Cup each year. As a compromise, I will use each season’s conference finalists as the barometer for team success. To address the question in the title, I will use regular season stats from the primary playoff goalie. Regular season stats should provide a better indicator of the goalie’s performance for that season. The simplest measure of a goalie’s performance is save percentage. The following table includes games played (GP), regular season save percentage (Sv%), the rank of the save percentage, the post season save percentage, and the difference between the two. These stats are from, which uses 3 significant values. The rank is based off goalies who qualify for the save percentage leader and includes ties. I also included the league average save percentage which I got from coppernblue.

Aside: I know that even strength save percentage is a better number to use, but total save percentage was all the had on their main stats page. If I get motivated, I may re-run the numbers with ES Sv%.

Post Season League Avg Qualifying
Year Goalie Team GP Sv% Rank Sv% Difference All Goalies Goalies Avg Rank
2005-6 Ilya Bryzgalov ANA 31 91.0% 14 94.4% 3.4% 90.14% 51 21.25
Ryan Miller BUF 48 91.4% 9 90.8% -0.6%
Dwayne Roloson (1) EDM 43 90.6% 17 91.7% 1.1%
Cam Ward CAR 28 88.2% 45 92.0% 3.8%
2006-7 Ray Emery OTT 58 91.8% 7 90.7% -1.1% 91.67% 44 10.5
Jean-Sebastien Giguere ANA 56 91.8% 7 92.2% 0.4%
Dominik Hasak DET 56 91.3% 13 92.3% 1.0%
Ryan Miller BUF 63 91.1% 15 92.2% 1.1%
2007-8 Martin Biron PHI 62 91.8% 13 90.4% -1.4% 91.96% 44 14.25
Marc-Andre Fleury PIT 35 92.1% 4 93.3% 1.2%
Chris Osgood DET 43 91.4% 16 93.0% 1.6%
Marty Turco DAL 62 90.9% 24 92.2% 1.3%
2008-9 Marc-Andre Fleury PIT 62 91.2% 21 90.8% -0.4% 91.90% 47 20.75
Nikolai Khabibulin CHI 42 91.9% 6 89.8% -2.1%
Chris Osgood DET 46 88.7% 45 92.6% 3.9%
Cam Ward CAR 68 91.6% 11 91.5% -0.1%
2009-10 Jaroslav Halak MTL 45 92.4% 4 92.3% -0.1% 91.93% 47 15.75
Michael Leighton (2) PHI 34 90.5% 33 91.6% 1.1%
Evgeni Nabokov SJ 71 92.2% 6 90.7% -1.5%
Antti Niemi CHI 39 91.2% 20 91.0% -0.2%
2010-11 Roberto Luongo VAN 60 92.8% 4 91.4% -1.4% 92.08% 47 10.5
Antti Niemi SJ 60 92.0% 13 89.6% -2.4%
Dwayne Roloson (3) TB 54 91.4% 24 92.4% 1.0%
Tim Thomas BOS 57 93.8% 1 94.0% 0.2%
2011-12 Martin Brodeur NJ 59 90.8% 34 91.7% 0.9% 92.08% 45 11.25
Henrik Lundqvist NYR 62 93.0% 3 93.1% 0.1%
Jonathan Quick LA 69 92.9% 5 94.6% 1.7%
Mike Smith PHO 67 93.0% 3 94.4% 1.4%
average 91.5% 14.9 92.0% 0.5% 91.7% 46.4 14.9
min 88.2% -2.4%
max 93.8% 3.9%

1. Roloson played for MIN and EDM
2 Leighton played for CAR and PHI
3 Roloson played for NYI and TB

There is a fairly large range of performance between the goalies in this group. One goalie led the league in save percentage (and set an all time record) - Tim Thomas in 2010-2011 (93.8%). Two goalies ranked 45th in the league, meaning half the league’s backups performed better. These goalies are Chris Osgood in 2008-2009 (88.7%, 45 out of 47) and Cam Ward in 2005-2006 (88.2%, 45 out of 51). The average performance, based on save percentage rank, was decidedly average (15th in a 30 team league). Grouping each year, the average rank ranged from 10.5 (2006-7 and 2010-11) to 21.25 in 2005-6. The highest ranked goalie, by year, is: 9, 7 (tie), 4, 6, 4, 1, 3 (tie).

Looking at the actual save percentages, the average of the 28 goalies is 91.5% while the league average over those years is 91.7% (both calculations based on the save percentage numbers and not the shots saved/faced). I find this somewhat surprising, so I decided to look at post-season performance.

During the playoffs, the goalies saw a slight improvement in save percentage, 92% vs 91.5% - again this is based off of just the save percentage results and not shots faced. Two of the largest jumps, to no surprise, are Osgood in 2008-2009 (up 3.9%) and Ward in 2005-2006 (up 3.8%).

Frankly I was expecting some more interesting trends to emerge from the data. On one hand, roughly 45 goalies play significant time in the regular season and (on average) you need someone in the top third to go far in the playoffs. On the other hand, a top 15 goalie in a thirty team league suggests that half the teams in the league have a realistic chance to make the conference finals. This is certainly reasonable, with 16 teams making the playoffs and 8th seeds making the conference finals multiple times in this group of years.

An interesting follow up to this would be a systems approach looking at a combination of offensive production and goaltending. '08-'09 Chris Osgood was below average, but the Red Wings were considered a very good possession team, so the team was still able to be successful.

In conclusion, do the numbers say the Devils need an elite goaltender to be successful? Not really. A league average goalie is sufficient to get a team to the conference finals. Of course basically half the teams in the league have a league average or better goaltender and only 4 make it to the conference finals each year.

And if you are curious, out of 28 opportunities, 19 different franchises have made the conference finals in the post lock-out NHL.

So I’m curious what these numbers say to you as the Devils approach a future without Martin Brodeur (sometime in the next 10 years or so). Do you think the Devils still need to find an elite goaltender? Do you think the cap space would be better spent on the rest of the roster? Do you think there is a better way to evaluate the question?

All FanPosts and FanShots are the respective work of the author and not representative of the writers or other users of In Lou We Trust.

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