The Importance of a Goalie's First 15 Games

LONDON,ON - SEPTEMBER 23: James Reimer #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs gets set to stop a shot from Scott Hartnell #19 of the Philadelphia Flyers in a preseason game on September 23,2010 at the John Labatt Centre in London Ontario. The Leafs defeated the Flyers 3-2 in a shoot-out. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

After watching ten games from the Leafs' bench, James Reimer has put up stellar numbers in his first 15 games in the NHL. But can we draw any conclusions from his .932 save percentage to start his career?

Games 1-15 16-30 31-45 46-60 61-75 75-90
Reimer 932
13 Comps 931 909 906 903 906 914

We have 13 comps since 1995 - goalies who were called up and posted a .925 save percentage or better in their first 15 games. But over their next 60 games, they posted a very pedestrian .906 save percentage, which would seem to be a huge disappointment for guys who started out so hot. Given that the difference between an All-Star .920 goaltender and a replacement level .900 goaltender is one goal every other game, 15 games is not a large enough sample size to be confident in a goaltender's abilities - one out of every six .900 goalies will out-perform a .920 goalie over a 15-game stretch.

What's interesting is how coaches perceive those hot starts. The typical hot-starting goalie gets 12.2 starts in his first 15 appearances - and after posting those huge numbers, gets 13.5 starts in the 15 following games. And even though his performance is poor over that next 15-game stretch, he gets to keep playing:

Games 1-15 16-30 31-45 46-60 61-75 75-90
Reimer 13
13 Comps 12.2 13.5 12.8 12.6 14.2 14.3

After 60 games, we get some amount of attrition as coaches realize that the goalie's hot start was really nothing, and so the weaker goalies are no longer playing, while the stronger ones play better and keep their starting jobs.

None of this should be even remotely surprising - if you're looking at a goalie's cumulative save percentage, that hot start makes him look above-average even if he's been awful recently:

Cumul. Sv%
1-15 16-30 31-45 46-60 61-75 75-90
13 Comps 931 920 915 913 911 912

It's an interesting effect - 15 good games get you another 45 games to prove that you're not good. In terms of determining a goalie's talent level, it doesn't matter when he plays well and when he plays poorly. But if he wants a chance to play, he'd better put up ridiculously good numbers when he gets his opportunity.

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