Mid-round goaltenders are playing big NHL minutes
National Hockey League franchises have been reticent to invest valuable draft picks at the goaltending position in the modern era – even for blue-chip prospects. There are any number of reasons for this, but chief among them is the volatility at the position relative to forwards or defencemen.
Get 32 general managers into a room, and they will all tell you the same thing. If it’s hard to evaluate forwards and defencemen at the junior or international level, it can be impossible for goaltenders.
Skaters (forwards in particular) have much more control over their single-game production than a goaltender, who is largely beholden to the quality and structure of the defence in front of him. A forward who scores 50 goals in a single season at any level of competition below the NHL is going to see his stock rise. A goaltender who stops many shots may as well, but with those saves will come a typical question: Was it the goaltender, the defence in front of him, or a combination of the two?
The NHL has also benefited from a significant rise in available talent at the goaltending position, thanks in large part to European imports over the past two decades. It’s given front offices optionality, and it’s also made their investment decisions easier when it comes to the deployment of assets or utilization of cap space.
Said another way, not only are teams less likely to burn high draft picks on goaltenders, they are also more likely to consider cheaper platoon options at the NHL level, mitigating the downside risk some teams (think Florida with Sergei Bobrovsky, or Montreal with Carey Price) are currently struggling to manage. It’s why just three goaltenders (Spencer Knight, Yaroslav Askarov, and Sebastian Cossa) have been selected in the first round of the past five drafts.
Because cap management goes hand in hand with draft strategy, I’ve noticed in the past few seasons just how many mid-round goaltenders are eating up big minutes at the NHL level. Some of this is survivorship bias – if you just go through a brief period where, by chance, a few great goaltenders emerge from the same or similar draft rounds, you can see skews in the data.
But look at what has happened over the past few seasons concurrent with a shift in general goaltending strategy – we will use qualified goaltenders (min. 1,000 attempts faced) to avoid diluting the data:
Qualified goaltenders selected in the first round and still active in the NHL were playing under 15 per cent of available minutes in the 2021-22 season, that number cut in half from where it was during the 2007-08 regular season.
Qualified goaltenders selected in the fifth round or later (including undrafted free agents) were playing about 28 per cent of available minutes, also cut in half from where it was during the 2007-08 regular season. And goaltenders selected in those middle rounds? They saw an explosive move to the upside last season, playing nearly 60 per cent of available minutes – triple where they were during the 2007-08 season.
So, what’s going on here? Reasonable inference would be that teams simultaneously understand good goaltending is paramount to building a playoff-calibre club, but that the cost of investing in goaltenders with premium draft picks and/or large contracts is significant.
How better to solve the goaltending problem than to go after second-tier goaltenders in the middle rounds of the draft? Teams can get aggressive on guys they may have scouted and liked in this window; they also can take a volume-based approach, grabbing multiple goaltenders over a longer period with the hopes of hitting on just one.
Consider a table of last season’s goaltenders and where they came from. You’ll see how much has consolidated into this middle tier:
Being selected high in the draft continues to mean very little as it comes to forecasting future performance, and this is true even subset to just the players who manage to entrench themselves on an NHL roster. Look at the premium picks category: Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is arguably the best goaltender in the world, but there are plenty of other first-round picks who struggled relative to their peers around the league.
And that’s performance – that’s what we are measuring after coaching staffs work their way through a lineup and decide who to dress. That’s another important distinction: coaches were more willing to dress goaltenders from the second and third round last season than their first-round counterparts, and the fourth- and fifth-round selections were comparable by usage as well.
For as long as franchises struggle to understand the trajectory of goaltenders, I think you are going to see a continued doubling down on this approach. They will use picks more surgically to address the goaltending position, generally in the middle rounds of the draft. They will hope that one or two of the goalies selected in that window will develop to become full-time NHL goaltenders.
When these goalies do make the jump, they will be a good bet to enter a platoon that may be more friendly on the salary cap than paying one goaltender $11 million annually – an important cap-savings mechanism that allows front offices to focus more on finding scoring talent to fill out the top of their lineups.
So, if you’re a top 2023 draft class goalie prospect like United States National Team Development Program’s Trey Augustine, Brandon’s Carson Bjarnason, Sweden’s Noah Erliden, or Finland’s Manu Lukkarinen, you probably won’t need to turn on the television until the middle of day two.
Data via Evolving Hockey, NHL.com, Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference