Are the Ottawa Senators a ‘Goalie Factory’?

Image credit: Julie Oliver/Ottawa Citizen

Image credit: Julie Oliver/Ottawa Citizen


With former Ottawa Senators’ goalies Ben Bishop, Ray Emery, and Brian Elliott all experiencing bouts of success, and current Ottawa goalies Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner having good years, Ian Mendes wrote the following about the Sens’ new-found ability to produce top hockey goalies:

For years, goaltenders that played for Ottawa had been followed by a black cloud. But over the past couple of weeks, it suddenly feels like there are brighter days ahead for this group of netminders.

Current and former Senators goaltenders have been collecting shutouts around the league and exorcising the demons of a long-standing crease curse in this city. Ottawa – which used to recycle goalies at a rate only equaled by Philadelphia – has turned into a goaltending factory.

While it’s an appealing narrative, it’s also not very accurate. The truth of the matter is that NHL goalies don’t really matter  (quick update:  to be more specific… the data suggests that there is very little difference in the performance of most NHL goalies over time), as their performance is highly variable from year to year.

Allow me to quote from Dave Berri and Stacey Brook:

Stacey Brook and I published “On the Evaluation of the “Most Important” Position in Professional Sports.” in the Journal of Sports Economics. This article makes the following observations (readers of Stumbling on Wins should find much of this to be familiar):

  • Decision-makers in hockey primarily consider past save percentage — as opposed to a goalies past performance with respect to Goals Against Average (GAA) or wins — in evaluating goalies. Because GAA and wins clearly depend upon teammates (since GAA depends on shots faced and wins… well, it is pretty clear goalies can’t win games by themselves), save percentage would seem to be a better measure of goalie performance.
  • Goalies, though, are very similar with respect to save percentage. In the population we examined for our study of salaries the average save percentage was 90.6% with a standard deviation of 1.2%.
  • Not only are goalies quite similar with respect to performance, goalies also are quite inconsistent across time. We found that only 6% of a goalies save percentage in the current season was explained by the goalies save percentage the previous season.
  • Because goalies are so inconsistent, a goalies current save percentage is completely unrelated to a goalies current salary.

Dave and Stacey went on to note that the top five goalies from the 2009-10 season — Ryan Miller, Tomas Vokoun, Tuukka Rask, Jimmy Howard, Evgeni Nabokov — did not remain the top five goalies in the 2010-11 season (Tim Thomas, Jonas Hiller, Ondrej Pavelec, Pekka Rinne, and Henrik Lundqvist were the top five that year). Furthermore, Martin Brodeur — who is widely regarded as one of the top NHL goalies of all-time — has only produced about two more wins a season than an average goalie. If you replaced him with an average goalie, that average goalie would rank second all-time in career wins! The performance of NHL goalies is quite random, and largely depends on the defense around them.

How do this year’s rankings look? Here are the current top 15 goalies for the 2012-13 season, as sorted by Wins produced Above Average (WAA):

Rank Player Team WAA Save %
1 Craig Anderson Ottawa Senators 3.09 0.949
2 Sergei Bobrovsky Columbus Blue Jackets 2.85 0.931
3 Henrik Lundqvist New York Rangers 2.51 0.928
4 Tuukka Rask Boston Bruins 2.15 0.929
5 Antti Niemi San Jose Sharks 2.12 0.925
6 James Reimer Toronto Maple Leafs 1.66 0.925
7 Devan Dubnyk Edmonton Oilers 1.61 0.922
8 Cory Schneider Vancouver Canucks 1.49 0.925
9 Corey Crawford Chicago Blackhawks 1.45 0.926
10 Robin Lehner Ottawa Senators 1.42 0.936
11 Jimmy Howard Detroit Red Wings 1.28 0.920
12 Victor Fasth Anaheim Ducks 0.94 0.922
13 Marc-Andre Fleury Pittsburgh Penguins 0.83 0.919
14 Ray Emery Chicago Blackhawks 0.75 0.923
15 Ben Bishop Ottawa Senators 0.65 0.922

Current Sens goalie Craig Anderson is having an excellent season, ranking #1 in the NHL this season. His teammate Robin Lehner is ranked #10, and former Sens goalies Ray Emery and Ben Bishop are ranked #14 and #15, respectively (Bishop’s numbers at #15 are those he accumulated while playing in Ottawa this season). Since Bishop has moved to the Tampa Bay Lightning, he’s only ranked #30, and former Sen Brian Elliott of the St. Louis Blues is ranked #74 out of 83 NHL goalies this season.

So it’s true, NHL goalies with ties to the Senators have done rather well this season. But don’t expect this to carry forward to next season: it’s very possible for any (or even all!) of these five goalies with ties to the Senators suffer a complete reversal during the 2013-14 NHL season. Consequently, it’s not really accurate to say that Ottawa is now a “goalie factory”. Really, all it is is random luck!

– Devin

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