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Statistical expectations for a backup NHL goaltender

Looking at the numbers from the past two seasons to determine how a number-two goalie is expected to perform.

NHL: Preseason-Florida Panthers at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot of work involved in being a modern netminder, constantly dropping into the butterfly position and getting back up to contest the next shot. With teams attempting an average of nearly 60 shots per night, that’s a lot of effort even if only half of them require saves.

The majority of NHL teams run with one goaltender for most of an 82-game schedule, but the starter can’t play every night, especially with so many back-to-back games in a season as networks look to capitalize on weekend audiences. As critical as it is for teams to have a quality netminder to man the crease for about 60 games per year, the other quarter to a third of a season’s contests are nearly as important.

Backups may not be regarded as vital pieces of a team’s construction — contracts typically in the $2 million range reflect this thinking — yet having that safety blanket in the event of an injury or feeling confident enough to let your second-best goalie face a relatively tough opponent pays off over the course of a season.

Since they spend the majority of the season sitting on the bench, such things as being a quality teammate in the locker room and a source of support for the starter are also considerations for a general manager. Just having the disposition to go to the rink every day expecting not to play is a necessary trait for those on a team with a bona fide star at the top.

At minimum a team should expect the number-two man to play one of the games of a back-to-back, and see a decent haul of points from those contests that are often against the weaker of the two opponents.

In the current NHL there are 31 teams, requiring a total of 62 goaltenders to man them. The actual number will be higher with injuries and demotions based on poor play, but for this article that looks at a few different statistics to see the range of performance, the number will be limited to the minimum. To get an idea of what should be expecting from a goaltender, the top 62 by ice time were chosen for the sample, and then each stat was sorted individually for ranking purposes.

2018-19 Goaltender Statistics

Rank Minutes SV% HDSV% GAA GSAA Points%
Rank Minutes SV% HDSV% GAA GSAA Points%
1st 3886 0.934 0.885 1.91 32.24 0.817
16th 2992 0.917 0.835 2.57 7.53 0.621
31st 2303 0.911 0.820 2.83 1.68 0.550
47th 1696 0.903 0.799 3.07 -5.68 0.487
62nd 868 0.886 0.760 3.78 -29.22 0.348
SV%: save percentage; HDSV%: save percentage on high-danger shots; GAA: goals-against average; GSAA: goals saved above average (based on average league save percentage); Points%: percentage of available points earned from netminder’s games Stats via Natural Stat Trick

For comparison, or to check the consistency of the values, the same procedure for the top 62 goaltenders from 2017-18 is included below.

2017-18 Goaltender Statistics

Rank Minutes SV% HDSV% GAA GSAA Points%
Rank Minutes SV% HDSV% GAA GSAA Points%
1st 3966 0.934 0.870 2.09 27.56 0.758
16th 3191 0.920 0.836 2.49 10.63 0.633
31st 2298 0.912 0.817 2.75 0.02 0.586
47th 1495 0.907 0.797 3.04 -8.12 0.473
62nd 833 0.868 0.711 3.92 -28.23 0.278

The 16th-ranked values are those for an average starter, while the 47th will be for an average backup, and 31st is the cutoff between the two roles. Note that these ranks aren’t for one goaltender across all metrics, but from sorting each stat separately; no goalie had overall numbers as good as the first-ranked, no netminder was as poor as the 62nd-ranked one listed.

The numbers for an average backup goaltender paint a picture of a player who sees about a third of the playing time throughout a season (compared to the average starter’s minutes), while stopping just slightly more than nine of every 10 shots he faces. With teams regularly getting over 30 shots on goal per night (the median value was 31.6 this season), that works out to just over three goals allowed per contest, while the starters are typically giving up half a goal less.

Winning half the games he plays is often cited as a benchmark for the number-two goalie. Even with the introduction of the point for overtime losses, that is a slightly unrealistic expectation. Projected over 27 games, a team has generally earned 25 to 26 points with the backup in goal in each of the past two years.

Any GM looking at his backup position will be expecting at least such average numbers, and hoping to get lucky by having a secondary option who performs like a first. The Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, and New York Islanders all had two netminders who ranked among the starters in many of the stats categories, leaving few weaknesses to be exploited when one goalie was on the sidelines. For the Stars and Hurricanes specifically, two teams who squeaked in the playoff door as wild cards at the end of the year, they can thank their backups for doing more than their part to get them to where they are now.