Are Expensive Goaltenders worth the Money?

One of the recurring topics over at Tyler Dellow's site is goaltending.  Tyler has some great analysis over the years - he showed the extent to which past save percentage predicts future save percentage - and had the right take on the Nikolai Khabibulin signing.  Somewhat tangential to the Khabibulin discussion was his recent post on high-priced, long-term goalie contracts even to younger goaltenders.  Tyler's philosophy:

"If I were making decisions for an NHL team, I might lose the odd guy who really is that good to free agency but I think I’d be far less likely to end up paying a guy $3MM or $4MM+ to sit on the bench. In a league that right now has more competent goalies than it does starting jobs for them, with only a few true elites, making a mistake on a goalie really puts you behind the rest of the league, in terms of the salary that’s committed to someone who isn’t performing."

There are essentially 20 NHL goalies signed to multi-year, high-cost contracts, and 42 goalies age 24 or older who have no such contracts.  The top 20 goalies have posted a .924 save percentage this season; the other 42 have a .918 save percentage.  Over the course of 53 games, that translates to roughly a six-goal difference between the average goalie in each group.  That six-goal difference costs an additional $4.1 million per goaltender, which doesn't compare favorably to the general market for wins:

 

Cost/Win
UFA 2.23M
RFA 1.33M
Entry 0.65M
"Top" goalies 4.1M

 

These are ballpark figures, but I think it's clear that dropping $3M+ for multiple years on a goalie has not had a good rate of return in recent years.  For a variety of reasons - chief among them the short career peaks of goalies and the difficulty teams have in determining a goalie's true talent level - these contracts underperform.  Buying a top goalie is like giving away between half a win and a full win per season.  If your team has a league-average goalie signed to a bargain contract today, you'd better hope they don't decide they need to sign Evgeni Nabokov in the off-season.

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