There are a few reasons I’ve been meaning to write about what exactly “average” means in the NHL when it comes to save percentages. One of the main ones is that when it comes to talking about goalies it often feels like everyone has their own sense of who is average and who is elite (and who is terrible). Another is that there seems to be a sense that save percentages are skyrocketing–and a claim that this is a dire problem often follows from that. A little context can make a lot of difference in talking about these things.
Over the past five years, NHL save percentages have been climbing, but not at a shocking rate, and there are a couple of reasons why that is happening.
Even-strength (ESSV) and overall save percentage are creeping up over the past five seasons. ESSV went from .9193 in 2009-10 to .9214 in 2013-14. Overall save percentage mirrors that rise, going from .9104 to .9128 in the same span. Both saw a brief rise in 2011-12 followed by a dip in 2012-13. ESSV was at a high of .9224 in 2011-12 and has not yet regained that mark. On the penalty kill, save percentages have gone from .8740 to .8782, a gain of about twice as much as the overall or ESSV, but the number of penalties has varied a great deal during that time as well, generally declining on a per game basis.
As I’ve shown before this rise is occurring mostly at the bottom of the save percentage range rather than at the top. Which is to say that the lowest save percentages in the league are getting higher much faster than the highest save percentages are, and there are a few reasons for that to occur. One of the biggest is the glut of well-trained young goaltenders for teams to turn to. There is simply more competition among players coming into the league and teams don’t have to stick with a player who isn’t performing well.
Another is that as older goaltenders leave the league, younger goalies with more intense technical training are making up a greater subset of the population. There is reason to think that this change will level off at some point as improvements in technique saturate the market. Eventually, all goaltenders from top to bottom will have similar training and the bottom of the league tables will stabilize.
That leads to the question of who is average right now. Taking all goaltenders who played at least 50 games over the course of the past five years, here are the top, middle and bottom ten in even-strength save percentage and overall save percentage. Fifty games is really too low a threshold for save percentage to even out, but this has the benefit of leaving in some of the younger goalies who simply don’t have many years in the league but who are worth keeping an eye on (such as Ben Scrivens, for instance.)
Not in the top ten in either category: Jonathan Quick, Corey Crawford, Sergei Bobrovsky, Ryan Miller, or Semyon Varlamov, which may surprise some people. Increasing the Games Played threshold to 100 games adds Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer to the ESSV top 10 and Jonathan Bernier to the Overall top 10.
|Top 10||GP||ESSV||Middle 10||GP||ESSV||Bottom 10||GP||ESSV|
|Tuukka Rask||191||0.9355||Ben Scrivens||72||0.9225||Nikolai Khabibulin||215||0.9095|
|Tim Thomas||321||0.9344||Niklas Backstrom||322||0.9225||Justin Peters||80||0.9094|
|Anton Khudobin||61||0.9340||Craig Anderson||364||0.9221||Dan Ellis||124||0.9091|
|Henrik Lundqvist||445||0.9305||Jimmy Howard||402||0.9215||Kevin Poulin||59||0.9083|
|Roberto Luongo||379||0.9295||Jose Theodore||147||0.9214||Jonas Gustavsson||141||0.9083|
|Braden Holtby||119||0.9294||Jason LaBarbera||75||0.9209||Curtis McElhinney||78||0.9082|
|Pekka Rinne||390||0.9282||Evgeni Nabokov||194||0.9203||Chris Mason||125||0.9079|
|Thomas Greiss||66||0.9281||Ray Emery||132||0.9201||Andrew Raycroft||50||0.9079|
|Carey Price||420||0.9276||Michal Neuvirth||227||0.9200||Jeff Deslauriers||52||0.9069|
|Cory Schneider||135||0.9275||Marc-Andre Fleury||426||0.9198||Pascal Leclaire||62||0.9014|
|Top 10||GP||Overall SV%||Middle 10||GP||Overall SV%||Bottom 10||GP||Overall SV%|
|Anton Khudobin||61||0.9285||Mike Smith||227||0.9138||Martin Biron||75||0.9021|
|Tuukka Rask||191||0.9272||Craig Anderson||364||0.9137||Chris Mason||125||0.9013|
|Tim Thomas||321||0.9267||Jimmy Howard||402||0.9130||Jeff Deslauriers||52||0.9007|
|Cory Schneider||135||0.9264||Jason LaBarbera||75||0.9129||Dan Ellis||124||0.8995|
|Henrik Lundqvist||445||0.9226||Evgeni Nabokov||194||0.9128||Mathieu Garon||137||0.8990|
|Roberto Luongo||379||0.9214||Michal Neuvirth||227||0.9124||Jonas Gustavsson||141||0.8985|
|Pekka Rinne||390||0.9210||Niklas Backstrom||322||0.9121||Peter Budaj||204||0.8982|
|Tomas Vokoun||302||0.9205||Jhonas Enroth||81||0.9110||Justin Peters||80||0.8982|
|Ben Bishop||109||0.9198||Jose Theodore||147||0.9102||Pascal Leclaire||62||0.8958|
|Braden Holtby||119||0.9197||Johan Hedberg||127||0.9101||Nikolai Khabibulin||215||0.8957|
If you are interested, you can see complete data for all 69 goalies with at least 50 games in the past five years here:
This doesn’t really decide the question of who is an elite goalie in the NHL and who is average, as save percentage should only be part of the analysis. It’s not really a great measure of goaltender performance as has been noted in this space and elsewhere, but this does shed some light on how the numbers tend to go.