If you want to win in football, you need a good quarterback. It’s hard to overcome poor quarterback play no matter how good the rest of your team is. Eventually, a poor quarterback will catch up to your team.
In baseball, you’re only as good as that day’s starting pitcher. A good performance from your pitcher will give you a chance to win any game; a poor one could end the game right after it begins.
In hockey, that position is the goalie. When looking at a hockey rink, the masked man with extra equipment sticks out, and for good reason. He (or she) is the most noticeable and important player on any team.
But what makes goaltending so important when it comes to better hockey betting? Which stats really show who’s a good goaltender? How much is a good goalie really worth when you’re mulling over tonight’s NHL odds?
Why is goaltending so important?
Let’s take a look at the correlation between good goaltending and winning.
In the 2019-2020 NHL season, there were 21 goaltenders who played at least 12 games and finished the season with a save percentage of .916 or better.
When the NHL returned for the postseason bubble in August of 2020, all 21 of those goaltenders were there. Simply put, the 21 best goaltenders were all good enough to get their team to qualify for the expanded postseason.
In fact, 33 of the top 35 performing goalies based on their save percentage were in the bubble.
Hockey is a very low-scoring sport (as you can tell by the puckline odds every night), which magnifies every goal. With many games having fewer than six goals scored between the two teams, each one could be the difference between winning and losing.
Teams with poor goaltending often cannot outscore their goalie’s mistakes.
In addition, on most nights, games are pretty closely contested. There usually isn’t much difference in shot totals between the two teams. Even a particularly one-sided game might have a shot-on-goal differential of about 10 shots.
It’s not like one team throws 50 shots on net and the other team takes 10 shots. This means that a lot of the time, it all comes down to who can make the additional save.
Which stats matter for a good goalie?
When looking at goalies, it’s important to know which stats matter when evaluating their talents.
The most common and appropriate stat to use when judging a goaltender is save percentage. This simply measures what percent of shots a goalie saves.
Over the past few seasons, the league average save percentage has been around .910 (or 91%). Anything under .900 (90%) is poor, and anything over .920 (92%) is usually very good.
A one percentage point difference might seem minuscule, but it isn’t. With most teams averaging around 30 shots per game, a one-percentage-point difference is equal to about one goal every three games. When you consider how many games come down to a single goal, that single percentage point starts to loom much larger. When you consider how tightly packed the standings are, you can understand why it’s a big difference.
If you’d like to dig deeper into a goalie’s statistics, there are two good advanced stats that measure a goaltender’s performance, available at Evolving-Hockey.com:
- Goals saved above expectation
- Goals saved above average
Goals saved above expectation factors in shot quality. Basically, the model takes the quantity and quality of shots a goaltender faces and assigns a number of goals that it would expect the goalie to give up. If a goalie gives up fewer goals than the model expects, that goalie has a positive number. And it’s a negative number if the goalie gives up more goals than the model expects.
Goals saved above average works similarly, but instead of comparing the goaltender’s performance to a model, it compares it to the goalie’s peers. It works similar to WAR in baseball. If an average goalie faced the same shots, how many would that goalie save?
GAA (goals against average)
This is a common stat people cite when talking about netminders, but it’s not a particularly useful one. Goals against average is more of a team stat rather than an individual stat. Some teams are better defensively than others, and this will influence the goals against average. It’s not fair to penalize a goalie for playing behind an especially leaky defense.
The same is true of wins. Wins depend on the team in front of the goalie, too. There are plenty of examples of a goaltender standing on his head but losing the game 2-1 because his team couldn’t score enough.
How much is a good goalie really worth?
Here are two recent examples involving significant netminders to illustrate just how important the goalie can be.
Henrik Lundqvist served as the face of the New York Rangers from 2005 through 2020. From 2009-10 through 2015-16, Lundqvist posted seven straight seasons where he had a save percentage of .920 or better.
During those seven seasons, here is how the Rangers did:
- Made the Stanley Cup playoffs six times.
- Won 8 playoff rounds.
- Made the conference finals three times.
- Made the Stanley Cup Final
In the four seasons from 2016-17 to 2019-20, Lundqvist’s save percentage dipped, and so did the Rangers’ performance. During that stretch, New York made the playoffs just one time. Now, Lundqvist has moved on and the Rangers have entered a rebuilding phase with their roster.
Another good example is across the bridge on Long Island. In 2017-18, the New York Islanders had a team save percentage of .903 from a combination of Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss in the crease. The Isles finished with a record of 35-37-10, good for 80 points and seventh place in their division.
Goaltending was the biggest issue with the Islanders, and it caused them to have a bad season and miss the playoffs. In the offseason, the team replaced Halak with Robin Lehner.
In 2018-19, the Isles had a team save percentage of .928. In turn, the Isles gave up 100 fewer goals than they did the season before. But what did this mean for their position in the standings?
The Islanders posted a record of 48-27-7, good for 103 points. Their improved goaltending helped net them 13 wins and 23 points more than the season before. The Islanders went from seventh in the division to second.
They went from well out of the playoffs to winning a playoff round.
The goalie’s impact on hockey betting
The discrepancy in goaltending stats might seem small, but there’s a tangible effect. Good goaltending leads to winning hockey games, while poor goaltending can cost you games and spots in the standings. When learning how to bet on hockey, make sure to factor in goaltending.
Backing a poor goaltender is not ideal for your betting outcomes (unless you’re betting the over, perhaps …). Just like a quarterback or a starting pitcher, an NHL goaltender has a tremendous impact on the outcome of every game.
One mistake from a goalie can be the difference between winning a bet and losing one.