The market for NHL goaltending has undergone a significant shift over the last few years as total goaltender salary has dropped over 20%. Teams have been able to find quality goaltenders like Jonas Hiller and Niklas Backstrom for nothing and are no longer willing to pay top dollar to average- to below-average goaltenders like Evgeni Nabokov and Marty Turco. Based on what GMs have been willing to pay for goaltending, what do they perceive replacement-level goaltending to be?
In order to figure this out, we need to know two things: 1) team replacement level; 2) replacement-level save percentage. This is non-trivial - team replacement level is the subject of much debate; is it 56 points, the worst single-season total since the lockout? Is it 39, Atlanta's total in its first season? It turns out that it doesn't much matter:
|Repl||Marg Pts||Marg Goals||8%||10%||Marg Sv%|
Remember that 3 goals = 1 point in the NHL standings. If we set replacement at 56 points and goaltending at 8%, we find that a league-average goaltending tandem is 6.2 goals better than a marginal one. If we set it at 39 points and 10%, then goaltending is 12.9 goals above replacement. The true answer falls somewhere in the middle, which implies that replacement-level save percentage is approximately 907.8.
What does this say about goaltender salaries? The best goaltender in the league might have a true talent save percentage of 920. If he could consistently play 74 full games in a season, he'd be approximately 25 goals above replacement, which translate to just slightly over four wins, and approximately $11M on the free agent market. (No such goalie exists.)
Could replacement save percentage be higher? I'm open to this idea, and the downward pressure on goaltender salaries suggests that GMs are too. And could replacement level be significantly lower? This doesn't seem likely - it would imply that 1) goaltenders are systematically underpaid; 2) GMs should have difficulty finding league-average goaltending and 3) many goaltenders should be paid the league maximum because the value of their talents exceeds $7M. That's simply not true - ask Evgeni Nabokov if he felt like there was a lot of demand for his services in the off-season!
The bottom line: goaltenders drive something like 8-10% of winning in the NHL. You could probably even come up with a system that said they were worth 1/6 of all wins. But significantly more than that, say 27%? Not a chance.