Goalie contracts, variability, and the talent gap

Remember that time Mike Smith had a .930 save percentage? - Rich Lam

Goalies are really variable, and there's some evidence that the gap between the best and worst is shrinking. What does that imply for their value?

CAustin wrote an interesting article at Raw Charge on Monday, arguing against the trend in statland to hate every big contract for a goalie.

I agree with parts of it and disagree with parts. Let's discuss.

Goalies are not all the same

Part of what CAustin was responding to is a common argument that goes like this:

  • Goalies are really variable
  • You never really know who's going to be good in any given year
  • Therefore, you shouldn't pay any of them very much money

I agree that this is a fallacious argument. The first two points are true, but as I've written elsewhere, the third doesn't necessarily follow.

Let's suppose Henrik Lundqvist is 4.5 wins better than a replacement-level goalie, and that the average team's starter is 3 wins better than replacement. Let's further suppose that goalie variability in any given year is plus or minus 2.5 wins -- Lundqvist's performance in any given season might be worth 2 wins or 7, and the average starter's range will go from 0.5 to 5.5 wins.

It's true, then, that the average starter might outperform Lundqvist in any given year, but Lundqvist will still beat him more often than not. The average gap will be 1.5 wins, and Lundqvist should be paid commensurate with that gap.

Arguing otherwise would be like saying you should be just as happy in poker to get a pair of 9's as a pair of aces because either one can win, or that you should always drive on surface streets instead of the highway because every once in a while a traffic jam makes the highway slower.

Just because you sometimes win with the lesser option doesn't mean you shouldn't prefer the better one.

Clarifying a point

Before I get to the part where I disagree, I want to clarify something I wrote last week. Here's how the article on Raw Charge summarized the thesis of my article on Lundqvist's contract:

If there really is only a miniscule difference between a replacement-level goaltender at around $1 million and someone like Henrik Lundqvist at $8.5 million (a difference of about 4.5 wins a season), then a team can in theory save themselves millions of dollars a season in perpetuity by rotating a series of AHL goaltenders in and out of their NHL rosters, paying them almost nothing, and using the extra money on offensive players.

A difference of about 4.5 wins per season isn't a miniscule difference at all!

In saying that Lundqvist is worth 4.5 wins above replacement right now, I was arguing that he was dramatically underpaid for the immediate future, and I judged his contract to be pretty reasonable despite the likely drop-off we'll see as he enters his mid-to-late 30's.

I'm on CAustin's side on this. Goalie variability is an issue if you're doling out a large contract to a goalie who hasn't played much yet, because he might not really be as good as he looks. But there's nothing wrong with giving a large contract to a goalie with a long track record of success.

Where we disagree

Where the article loses me is when it relates this principle to the talent gap.

CAustin's article shows that the save percentage of the best goalies has been fairly flat but that the save percentage of the worst goalies has been improving. It concludes from this...

In other words, the changes in the league's goaltending talent profile don't make the admittedly small differences between goaltenders less important. They make them more important.

This seems like the central thesis of the article, and I'll admit I don't really understand it.

If the difference between the best goalie and an average goalie is huge, then the best goalie is worth a ton of money. Similarly, if the difference between average and replacement level is huge, then the average goalie is worth a lot.

But if the best goalie, the average goalie, and the replacement-level goalie are all about the same, then I don't understand why a GM should pay a huge premium for the best one. The smaller the gap between elite and below-average gets, the less I believe this statement:

So when it comes time to plan for the future, one thing a GM is sure of is that his team cannot be competitive with goaltending that's much below average, no matter how good his offense is.

The closer a below-average goalie gets to an above-average one, the easier it is to be competitive with a below-average goalie.

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