Analyzing the goaltender trade market
With the NHL trade deadline approaching, front offices are again on the hunt for potential goaltending acquisitions.
And who can blame them? We know puck stoppers have an outsized impact on performance in both directions, and for every example of a team headed to the postseason on the shoulders of their goalie, there is a competing example of another team being submarined by one.
We understand how critically important the goaltending position is; the riddle has always been solving the inherent volatility at the position, and knowing which goaltenders can provide reliable, sustainable results.
That’s easier said than done, and it’s why we have seen a shift in thinking across some front offices, dressing more cost-effective platoons in lieu of the typical workhorse goaltender who frequently carries a large cap hit.
Neither strategy is perfect. The allure of being able to have a Henrik Lundqvist-type of reliable goalie in your crease is tempting because the outperformance can be so extraordinary; so, too, are the inherent risks with deploying a lot of capital on a singular goaltender.
The cost-effective platoons may look cleaner on the cap and give teams more flexibility, but you still need that platoon to perform – it’s moot if your cheap duo or trio of netminders are equally incapable of stopping shots.
Let’s segment some of the goaltenders rumoured to be available into two groups: theoretical work horses and seasoned veterans that will cost relatively more to acquire (and should produce proportionally), and cheaper platoon options that may be available at a fraction of the cost.
For our workhorses and veterans, let’s isolate to the big four:
- Anaheim’s John Gibson, with a $6.4 million cap hit through 2026-27
- Calgary’s Jacob Markstrom, with a $6 million cap hit through 2025-26
- Columbus’ Elvis Merzlikins, with a $5.4 million cap hit through 2026-27
- Nashville’s Juuse Saros, with a $5 million cap hit through 2024-25
The below graph shows a distribution of goals saved versus expected over the prior three seasons, which allows us to analyze each goaltender in relation to one another without team effects distorting the analysis. Those distributions are as follows:
Travis Yost 1
I was reticent to include Merzlikins in this group, for two reasons: he doesn’t have the pedigree of the other three goaltenders, and the cost to acquire him is a bit more of an unknown, with the 29-year-old Latvian having formally requested a trade out of Columbus last month.
That said, I think juxtaposing his performance against that of Gibson in Anaheim is notable: if Merzlikins has been a slightly below-average starter over the past three seasons, Gibson is just a cut above that. In fact, Gibson’s three-year distribution suggests he’s just as likely to win a game as he is to lose a game for his respective team – the textbook definition of average.
That brings me to Saros and Markstrom, who are the prizes of the trade deadline if a team can nab them. Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck is the current gold standard for goaltending outperformance and stealing games, but neither Saros nor Markstrom are far behind. Over the past three seasons, Hellebuyck’s effectively erased a staggering 72 goals based on the shot profile he faced; Saros (+61, 91.5 per cent stop rate) and Markstrom (+45, 90.8 per cent stop rate) are quality silver medalists and should demand quite a bit by the way of future assets if they’re moved before March 8.
Though save percentages tend to be much more reflective of the totality of defensive play rather than individual goaltending performance, it should not be lost on potential bidders that Saros’ three-year stop rate trails only the aforementioned Hellebuyck, the Boston duo of Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark, and two New York netminders in Ilya Sorokin (Islanders) and Igor Shesterkin (Rangers). That’s an impressive group.
For our cheaper platoon options, let’s isolate to another group of four:
- Arizona’s Karel Vejmelka, with a $2.7 million cap hit through 2024-25
- Detroit’s James Reimer, with a $1.5 million cap hit through 2023-24
- Montreal’s Jake Allen, with a $3.9 million cap hit through 2024-25
- San Jose’s Kaapo Kahkonen, with a $2.8 million cap hit through 2023-24
Let’s look at those same distributions for our second tier of goalies:
Travis Yost 2
There isn’t a lot of daylight between these goaltenders, and to that end, you start to appreciate how difficult a job is for a general manager hunting for goaltending support at this time of the year. That said, going through an exercise like this can reduce error rates and protect meaningful assets from being burned in a bad trade.
For example, how would a general manager justify acquiring Kahkonen out of San Jose – who has struggled immensely independent of the futility found across the Sharks lineup? Kahkonen’s 89.8 per cent stop rate and -16 goals saved versus expected over the past three seasons are just one of several reasons San Jose has struggled has a team.
Compare that to Montreal’s Allen, who does carry a larger cap hit, but whose contract only extends through the 2024-25 season and underpins a goalie who has produced adequately at the NHL level. This season on a rebuilding Canadiens team, Allen has been able to post a 90.2 per cent stop rate (+4 goals erased versus expected), building off of two decent previous seasons (90.0 per cent stop rate; +1 goal erased versus expected) with the Canadiens. All this to say: Allen’s only played 94 games over the past three years, but you should be more confident – and more willing to pay – to acquire him versus a seemingly comparable player like Kahkonen, or even the veteran Reimer from Detroit.
I’ll end with an interesting, higher-risk and higher-reward acquisition target in the form of Arizona’s Vejmelka. The 27-year-old Czech has three seasons under his belt in Arizona, and none look remotely like the other:
-2021-22: An ugly 52-game season, stopping 89.8 per cent of shots and nearly 20 goals worse than expected;
- 2022-23: A much-improved 50-game season, stopping 90.1 per cent of shots but behind a much weaker defensive team. Vejmelka was +7 goals better than expected here; and
- 2023-24: An average season, stopping 89.5 per cent of shots and breaking even on goals versus expectations.
I’m not sure we quite know what Vejmelka is right now, but if you are looking for a more aggressive trade target that shouldn’t cost as much as an Allen and may deliver similar upside, perhaps the Coyotes are worth a call.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference