Goaltending. That’s right, that one little thing that can bail out a slacking team at any given night – and on the other hand, it has the power to ruin everything your skaters have done right in a matter of minutes. This past year, the top 10 goalies had an impact of 27 to 15 GSAA (goals saved above average), which is enormous and practically puts you in the playoff race by itself. On the other hand, if you happen to sign Scott Darling, the exact opposite is true. Few things in hockey are as volatile as goaltending, and so often we hear people calling goaltenders complete voodoo. However, there might just be a method to the madness of acquiring goaltenders. In what follows, I take a look at how NHL teams acquire their goaltending and suggest the methods of acquiring goaltenders I like the most.
To begin with, I want you to look at this pie chart. It has all 62 goalies (two per team) who are projected to begin the 18-19 season in the NHL, sorted by how they have been acquired.
As expected, three categories dominate here, but in comparison to other positions, they are almost entirely even (as opposed to e.g. top tier defensemen, who very commonly play for the team which drafted them). Now, one could see this and assume that there is no right way to acquire a goalie, and they would be right, but only partially so. All means of acquisition truly have their strengths and weaknesses, which I will get to next.
Signing UFAs is a decent way of finding goaltending help, but there is a major catch there. The vast majority of current NHL goalies who have been acquired via UFA play the role of a backup (the current UFAs who are likely to qualify as their team’s starters next year are Carter Hutton, Brian Elliott, one of Greiss/Lehner and one of Darling/Mrazek). That’s four out of seventeen UFA goalies, which is awfully low. It sounds even worse when it is considered that none of those four (or six, for all I care) are seen as surefire starters in the NHL. That is the main problem with this method, and by looking at the past few UFA classes, you have to go back to Ryan Miller in 2014 to find a goalie who you could realistically have acquired to be an above-average #1G.
Not in the search for a starter? I’ve got good news for you: the backups who become free agents often include guys who can have a great impact without costing you assets. Furthermore, only a couple of backups are on a level high enough to justify paying assets for; out of goalies with under 2000 5v5 minutes played in 17-18, three managed a GSAA of over 10: Grubauer (who has already been traded), Saros (the heir to the throne of Rinne in Nashville), and Ryan Miller, who has a tremendous track record of being a successful goaltender in the NHL. You could walk away with a +/- 5 GAR player for free, if you manage to find the right backup goalie to pick up. Even if the cap hits of UFAs are often bloated, UFA backups rarely get any term, which mitigates the bulk of the risk.
If a quality UFA ever became a UFA and your team happened to be in need of one, you’d better react quickly, because those opportunities only come around so often. Most likely, your team will stick to circulating the same backup goalies and hoping for a hit. As for those starting goalies… well, we’ll get to them next.
As with basically every position, drafting is a great way of acquiring your goalies. This is for multiple reasons: you can get those invaluable young ones, which are extremely tough to acquire due to RFA restrictions and the high value young contributors carry to NHL teams. Moreover, drafting gets you more cost-controlled assets as opposed to paying market value for an UFA goalie. For those reasons, drafting is always a good, logical choice, and it seems to have decent results: eleven out of the fifteen goalies who play for the team which drafted them played over 40 games last year, effectively making them their teams’ starting goalies. Furthermore, five of them featured in the top 10 in Vezina voting of 17-18, including the entire top 3.
But how to draft something that most perceive as complete voodoo? Below is a chart that shows a correlation between draft position and the average amount of NHL games played for a goaltender. (NB: the sample size is not ideal, hence why one or two successful goalies can easily skew the average of any group, as is the case with the goalies picked in the 61-75 range)
Now, projecting the developmental path of a goalie is extremely tough, but it does seem to be the case that taking a shot at the best goalies available gives you a much better return than drafting goalies late. Looking at the current NHL goalie crop, 19 out of 62 goalies were top 45 draft picks. However, even the goalies who are drafted early don’t average too many NHL games. For every Price or Fleury, somebody hits the old Brent Krahn or Chet Pickard. Maybe you go for a goalie early and hit – but only get a Jonathan Bernier, who is more of a fringe starter than a bonafide #1. In short, there is an enormous amount of risk, but not a great return. As for drafting goalies late, you’re basically playing lottery, in which the odds are heavily stacked against you; nearly every goalie drafted in the back half of a draft winds up playing 0 NHL games. From there, getting any significant goaltender is a massive, massive hit.
This is why I believe teams should focus on volume rather than quality; consistently drafting goalies helps teams maintain a pipeline and can occasionally create an opportunity to trade, while maintaining quality in the crease. Drafting goalies differs from drafting players at other positions in that hitting big on a pick once can last you a decade, as has been the case with guys like Henrik Lundqvist: if there is one player the Rangers have not had to worry about, it’s their #1 goalie. That’s why picking goalies early is completely fine; they give you the best shot, but you’re also paying more asset value for those picks.
It goes without saying that drafting is only one part of the process; development is just as important and often makes a world of difference between teams who get the reputation of being a goalie factory and those who are better known as goalie graveyards. This is not really relevant with regards to acquiring goalies, but if your goalie coach is a tire fire, you’d best believe you’ll be searching for your #1 guy for an eternity. Given the rarity of great UFA goalies and your team’s inability to draft and develop one, you’re basically left with one option.
Trading for a goalie is the most common way to have been used to acquire the current NHL goalies. It has some benefits, but glaring negatives too. Let’s start with the obvious ones: for one, you’ll be paying assets to address a need. Secondly, there aren’t many opportunities to pry a starting goalie out of anyone’s hands, but you’ll often get a more proven guy as opposed to drafting goalies or signing free agents. Also, the one thing GMs are pretty adamant on is keeping their prized #1 goaltenders. It seems to be so that whenever a starter is found, that guy tends to stick around for a while; it is easier to keep hold of your ‘good enough’ guy than give him up and risk not having a reliable goalie.
Now for the positives. First, trading gives you the opportunity to get a proven commodity. Most teams in need of goaltending often need just that. Secondly, goaltenders don’t seem to carry much trade value, even the rare good ones. In recent years, the highest return a goalie (Cory Schneider) has fetched has been the 9th OA pick in 2013. Not insignificant, but also not an asset which you would die for. Maybe this is because of good goalies seem to get traded the most when their team has two guys, one of which they have to part ways with. Schneider is a good example of that, but there have been others too, such as Andersen, Grubauer (as mentioned earlier) and Jones. Such moves can be driven by cap constraints, trade requests or simply the younger goalie taking over. I consider these to be the best opportunities at acquiring your starter: the asset cost is relatively low, and the risk is not going to be lesser than this.
Next, I will touch the ‘other’ means very briefly.
For the purposes of the chart, I bundled European free agents, undrafted free agents, waiver claims and expansion draft picks into one group. These are mainly low-risk, low-reward guys who are older and more proven, but rarely have potential to be much more than an AHLer or a backup goalie at best. I foresee teams looking overseas more and more for any goalie talent they can get their hands on in the upcoming years, and just next year, we’ll probably see Mikko Koskinen and Pavel Francouz, two of the best KHL goalies of recent years enter the NHL, looking to make a name for themselves.
Waivers are probably a well-known system for most people. Again, you’ll rarely find much there, but for emergency purposes, they can be surprisingly effective. Current NHL goalies from waivers include Antti Niemi and Malcolm Subban. Lastly, there is the expansion draft, but that is hardly worth mentioning. To sum up these methods, let’s just consider these to be older draft picks: sign the ones you really like and see if they are capable of anything, all while keeping your hopes down.
There is no right – or wrong – way of addressing a positional need in goal. I like to think that most teams are pretty much content with having a capable starting goalie and a backup that does not give the coach chills to watch in action. It might take a while to find yourself the former, whereas those of the latter group are always going about from team to team. But as I mentioned in the beginning, great goaltending is invaluable and helps your team to such a big extent that you almost can’t do without it. So, to any GMs who are reading this, whenever there is an opportunity to get yourself a starter, go for it. Those opportunities do not come often, so taking the risk is basically always justified with guys who have proven themselves to any great extent. This goes especially when a trade opportunity arises, but the UFA route works in a pinch. Meanwhile, keep drafting goalies consistently, and do not be afraid to sign that guy from that weird league in Europe. Whenever you need a backup, don't blow your entire asset stack on one; there are cheap ones available every day.
And, possibly the most important rule of them all: whenever you have an answer to all of your goalie issues in your hands, don’t let go of it.
Sources: Corsica, HockeyReference, hockeydb.com, Eliteprospects, @CMHockey66. Charts by venngage.com.
Inspired by the discussion on goalies I've read here recently, I decided to take a more analytical look at the matter and share some statistics to y'all, as well as offer my own opinion to go with it. I am in no way, shape or form an expert on these things, but rather just curious and keen on learning more about hockey and writing somewhat coherent and informative stuff. Hope you learned something new!