How much does a backup goalie really affect the game’s outcome? We’ll look at numbers from the 2019-20 season to find out.
You’ve heard it many times before. “So-and-so team is in a really good spot tonight because they’re getting to shoot against the backup goalie.” But have you ever dove into what kind of impact backups really have on the game? Yeah, me neither.
I will use data from the 2019-20 season to show what types of differences we should expect in pace, scoring chances, save percentages, and of course, goals against, when a team puts their backup – or even third-string – goaltender in between the pipes.
For this research, I separated goalies into one of five categories: starter, co-starters, backups, depth/minor leaguers, emergency.
The list of emergency goalies begins and ends with David Ayres – we’ll forget about him for this project.
Depth/minor league goalies are any names that don’t fit into the lists below. Guys like Adin Hill, Michael Hutchinson, Chris Driedger, Marcus Hogberg, Calvin Pickard, etc. Essentially, these are goalies that would be in the minor leagues if it weren’t for injury.
Starters & Backups
ANH: John Gibson – Ryan Miller
BOS: Tuukka Rask – Jaroslav Halak
CAR: Petr Mrazek – James Reimer
CGY: David Rittich – Cam Talbot
DAL: Ben Bishop – Anton Khudobin
DET: Jonathan Bernier – Jimmy Howard
FLA: Sergei Bobrovsky
LA: Jonathan Quick – Calvin Petersen/Jack Campbell
MON: Carey Price – Keith Kinkaid
NJ: Mackenzie Blackwood – Louis Domingue/Corey Schneider
NYI: Semyon Varlamov – Thomas Greiss
NYR: Alexandar Georgiev – Henrik Lundqvist/Igor Shesterkin
OTT: Craig Anderson – Anders Nilsson
PHI: Carter Hart – Brian Elliott
SJ: Martin Jones – Aaron Dell
STL: Jordan Binnington – Jake Allen
TB: Andrei Vasilevskiy – Curtis McElhinney
TOR: Frederik Andersen – Jack Campbell
VAN: Jacob Markstrom – Thatcher Demko
VGK: Marc-Andre Fleury – Malcolm Subban
WPG: Connor Hellebuyck – Laurent Brossoit
WSH: Braden Holtby – Ilya Samsonov
Darcy Kuemper & Antti Raanta (ARI)
Linus Ullmark & Carter Hutton (BUF)
Elvis Merzlikins & Joonas Korpisalo (CBJ)
Corey Crawford & Robin Lehner (CHI)
Pavel Francouz & Philipp Grubauer (COL)
Mikko Koskinen & Mike Smith (EDM)
Alex Stalock & Devan Dubnyk (MIN)
Juuse Saros & Pekka Rinne (NSH)
Tristan Jarry & Matt Murray (PIT)
The simplest measure of a goaltender’s production would be his save percentage. Goals against can be inflated by high shot volume, but save percentage is save percentage. Let’s see how the different groups fare:
This is probably what we would’ve expected. Starters and co-starters are saving a higher percentage of shots faced than backups, and backups save more than the depth or minor league guys.
However, we need to see if the backups and depth guys are facing more or less shots. Are teams firing the puck more than usual if they know the goaltender isn’t as good? Is the defense in front of a minor-league recall playing harder to prevent shots against?
Have a look at the average number of shots faced (per 60 minutes) for goalies of each group:
The table is slightly misleading here – the difference between the highest and lowest figure is less than 1 shot on goal. However, it is interesting to see that the better goalies are facing fewer shots, on average, even marginally. More shots against plus a worse save percentage probably equals a higher GAA, but let’s look at quality (high-danger) shots against by group, to see if they help tell the story more.
So, backups are not only facing more shots, but predictably they are seeing more high-danger shots, as well. Again, these numbers are marginal.
The most important aspect of all games is the bottom line. In hockey, that equates to goals. The team that scores more of them wins, thus, the goalie that allows more loses.
But, are the backup and depth/minor league goalies allowing more on average than the starters? How much more are we talking? I think we can probably assume before looking at the data that it could be a substantial difference, as backups and depth goalies are seeing not only more shots, but they’re saving a smaller percentage of them.
Well, here’s how it breaks down this season:
There is no question that the NHL starting-caliber goaltenders are allowing fewer goals against per game than their backups, and even more goals are being allowed by the depth guys that get called upon in times of injury.
So what does it all mean? Well, in the grand scheme of things, not much, to be honest. Let’s look at a player like Max Pacioretty. He’s scored 32 goals this season, which equals about 14% of the Vegas Golden Knights scoring this season.
In an average game against a starting-caliber goaltender, you’ll generally see Pacioretty projected for about 0.39 goals. For DFS purposes, this breaks down to 3.32 fantasy points on DraftKings, or 4.68 points on FanDuel.
In an average game against a depth/minor league goalie, Pacioretty will be projected for about 0.45 goals – 3.83 DK points or 5.40 FD points.
The figures for an NHL backup would be somewhere between there, but you can see that it only changes fractionally at the individual player level – anywhere from 0.50 to 0.75 fantasy points for an elite scorer like Pacioretty.
Even when you account for assists, the top players in the league probably only see their projections move up no more than 1 point.
So, my conclusion is the same as its always been – I wouldn’t put too much stock into a player’s matchup against a backup or depth goalie. At the individual level, it just doesn’t make that much of an impact. It could be used as the deciding factor between two close players, perhaps, but I wouldn’t go overboard and start saying a guy like Anze Kopitar is a better play than Connor McDavid because Kopitar will be shooting on Garret Sparks.