An in-depth look at how to better evaluate goalie statistics in your hockey pool

Nothing about fantasy hockey frustrates me more than attempting to evaluate goaltenders and predict their future performance.

I understand the importance of the position.  Is it possible to win your league without at least solid production from your netminders?  I don’t think so. Consider the standard statistical categories used in many fantasy hockey leagues: goals, assists, plus-minus, penalty minutes, power play points, shots on goal, wins, save percentage, goals-against average and shutouts. Now think about the difference between the number of skaters and goaltenders on a typical fantasy hockey team and which categories each position affects.  It’s pretty obvious that astute fantasy owners cannot overlook an ineffective group of goaltenders for long if they want to have sustained success over the course of a season.


However, there’s a problem: the best and most informed predictions of how a goalie will perform are educated guesses, and even the most trusted netminders are virtually guaranteed to let you down from time to time. Ask anyone who employed Jonathan Quick this past season.


Not all that long ago, I was an advocate of using early-round draft picks to select one or more of that year’s top-rated goaltenders.  That changed following the performances turned in by Roberto Luongo and Niklas Backstrom during the 2009-10 campaign.


I used my second and third round picks in one 12-team rotisserie league to snag Luongo and Backstrom.  My goal was to dominate the goals-against average and save percentage categories (perhaps wins as well) and be competitive in the rest of the categories. That did not happen. Here are their fantasy-relevant numbers from that season and the one prior:  




Save %


Roberto Luongo -- 2008-09




Roberto Luongo -- 2009-10






Save %


Niklas Backstrom -- 2008-09




Niklas Backstrom -- 2009-10





Simply stated, I used high-round draft picks to select players who gave me middling production. It was extremely frustrating, and I wish I knew then what I know now about expected production at the position.

The "best" fantasy metric for evaluating goaltender talent is save percentage. However, studies indicate that there is a huge amount of year-over-year variation in goaltender performance, save percentage is primarily luck-driven, and it takes about four full seasons for a netminder's save percentage to adequately measure a goalie's true talent. To make matters worse, that talent is rarely stable for four full seasons. 


As a result, I’ve altered my approach to drafting and acquiring goaltenders over the past few years.  When in doubt, I keep the following thoughts in mind…


Value lengthy track records of performance


I care so very little about what a goaltender has done lately. I’d rather be aware of his whole body of work as an NHL goaltender. Mike Smith’s career save percentage after 263 career games is an unexceptional .913, but fantasy owners didn’t treat him as such following a career campaign in 2011-12. He was one of the top goalies taken in drafts prior to the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign. Well, the veteran netminder promptly proved he is what his career stats suggest: unexceptional.



Save %












I’m very wary of goalies that put up elite numbers for the first time in their NHL careers, and I almost always avoid them in drafts the following fall.  Here’s looking at you, Sergei Bobrovsky. Yes, the Columbus Blue Jackets are a team on the rise. Yes, I like many of the skaters that will play in front of him this year, but Bobrovsky has given fantasy owners exactly one lockout-shortened season of high-end production in net.  He’s being treated like a top-ten option at the position, but he has just 114 career starts under his belt and his output has been consistently inconsistent over his three years in the NHL. Simply stated, I’m not sure we know enough about him just yet to properly evaluate his true fantasy value.


Avoid the timeshare


If I’m a fan of a team that employs two quality goaltenders, I love the concept of a timeshare. As a fantasy owner of one of those goaltenders? Not so much.


I prefer to pay a lesser price in my fantasy draft or in a trade to acquire a goalie with less upside but a clearer path to more playing time. At least they are guaranteed regular work if they stay healthy, they may outperform more talented goaltenders in the short term, and they will almost always be available at a more reasonable price.


With that in mind, I plan to avoid Cory Schneider and Martin Brodeur in drafts this fall. My guess is the Devils will employ Schneider in roughly the same manner as the Canucks did a year ago. He’ll get about 50 starts in net and see regular action when he’s performing well. However, I imagine New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer will not hesitate to turn to Brodeur on a fairly regular basis, especially if Schneider struggles in making the transition to a new team and new conference. I’m convinced the one-time Canuck goaltender of the future is one of the game’s best in net, but it is quite possible Brodeur sees somewhere around 25 or 30 starts for the Devils this season.


Another timeshare that could give fantasy owners fits this fall is the one that involves the perennially underrated James Reimer and the still unproven Jonathan Bernier in Toronto. I’ve been more than happy to employ Reimer in the past, as he’s been a perfectly useful netminder for significant stretches of time over the past two seasons, but the Leafs simply don’t trust him to be the team’s workhorse in net. I’d take Reimer over Ondrej Pavelec, Evgeni Nabokov and Cam Ward if he was guaranteed around 65 starts in net for the Leafs, but that’s not even a remote possibility. That being said, I actually prefer Reimer to Bernier heading into 2013-14, as the latter has seen action in just 62 NHL games since the start of the 2007-08 campaign and has a .912 save percentage to show for it. Think about it. What do we really know about Bernier? Not enough to employ him as a No. 2 fantasy netminder in 2013-14.


Buying low is ALMOST always better


Key word: almost.


I’d like to own Henrik Lundqvist on all of my teams this fall, but I’m not willing to burn an early-round pick on him or any other netminder. It is even less likely I’ll talk myself into taking many of the top ten names at the position. The risk doesn’t justify the cost, and some of those players (Marc Andre-Fleury and Corey Crawford are two names that come to mind) have been pretty unspectacular in their time in the NHL.


Take a few minutes and look at the career stats of a handful of goalies. It won’t be long before you notice the significant variation in their numbers from year to year. It will take the same amount of time for you to realize that only a handful of NHL netminders have a career save percentage that exceeds .920, and even they have a few below-average seasons on their respective resumes.


So what’s the right course of action? I believe it is to wait as long as possible in drafts to select goalies, and then take unquestioned starters with at least a few years of NHL experience. Here are three names I plan to target in one-year leagues and try to trade for in keeper formats:


Antti Niemi – I own him every year, and the next time I regret employing the San Jose Sharks netminder will be the first. Niemi has made at least 73 percent of his team’s starts in each of the past three seasons, and for goodHis save percentage has exceeded .920 in two of those years, and his career mark of .917 is better than that of several goalies that will go higher than him in drafts this year. San Jose is a team on the decline, but Niemi’s supporting cast still consists of productive veterans on both offense and defense. He’s a top-ten option at the position on a good NHL team who will be available at a reasonable cost in drafts.

Kari Lehtonen – His reputation as an injury-prone player is deserved, and he’ll probably miss some time this year. But Lehtonen is a solid goaltender when he plays, which is most of theThat’s more than you can say for some of other low-end No. 2 fantasy netminders this year.  Aside from an injury-plagued 2009-10 campaign, Lehtonen has put up fairly decent numbers in his time with Dallas. There’s value here. Just make sure you have an able-bodied backup in place behind Lehtonen.

The aforementioned Backstrom – Backstrom can’t carry your fantasy roster like he did during the first three years of his career, when he routinely provided a save percentage north of .920 and plenty of shutout performances. That being said, the Wild turned to Backstrom to start more than 80 percent of their games a year ago because of Josh Harding’s ongoing health issues. I’m not convinced Harding be healthy or productive in 2013-14, which means Backstrom will be back in net most nights. His numbers were down a bit off his solid career marks, but Backstrom can provide average numbers at a reasonable price. Minnesota has acquired or developed quite a bit of talent on offense (Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, Mikko Koivu, and Jason Pominville) and defense (Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin). I’ll buy low on last year’s stat line (.909 save percentage, 24 wins, 2.48 goals-against average) and rely on the strong supporting cast and proven track record of performance to help turn a tidy profit.

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MikeTSchmidt said:

... @HeyRobbie

I appreciate your response. I'm still trying to figure out how to properly evaluate the position in drafts and trades. There is just so much risk involved. My understanding of the position and how to value each player remains a work in progress.
August 11, 2013
Votes: +0

Hey Robbie said:

Hey Robbie
... Another reason investing heavily in goalies can be unwarranted is that, in addition to year-over-year variation, there is also a lot of fluctuation in week to week performance of fantasy teams in goalie cats. This is highlighted in weekly start, H2H leagues. With usually 4-5 games played by goalies in a week, while skaters contribute 35-40 games, the smaller sample size for goalies unsurprisingly leads to a greater variance in those cats. You explain very well why it would be very difficult to do so, but even if you did manage to own the two best-performing goalies of the season, you would still lose one out of three goalie cats frequently, and two out of three a fair percentage of the time, even against teams with mediocre goalies. Comparatively, if you have skaters of significantly higher quality than your opponent's, you will much more rarely lose cats that you should dominate.
August 11, 2013 | url
Votes: -1

Hey Robbie said:

Hey Robbie
... Well laid out argument, Mike. While I agree with your assessment and strategies, and have had a similar evolution in my approach to drafting goalies over the last few years, I do have a small point of contention. You first discuss goalie talent ("The "best" fantasy metric for evaluating goaltender talent is save percentage. However, studies indicate..." etc.), supporting this with Awad's article. You then apply this analysis of talent to your discussion of goalies' fantasy value. However Awad's analysis specifically attempts to remove the effects of shot quality and arena bias from his assessment, while these two factors still pertain to fantasy value, especially for goalies who do not change teams. Of course there's a strong connection between the variances of the two, but the year to year correlation of value should not be quite as bad as the correlations of talent that Awad found. That said, you're dead on that it's not worth a top draft pick on such a volatile commodity.
August 11, 2013
Votes: +0

destructivedevil97 said:

... drafting goalies is so hard sometimes! Similar to you, in my last years pool of 14 people H2H, I wanted to dominate the goalie stats as that was the area I consistently was weak on. So I drafted Fleury 11th overall (what a joke!) and then in the 3rd round I picked Kipprusoff. Needless to say huge disappointments and I would rather take productive forwards early on.
August 10, 2013
Votes: +0
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