Thursday, August 14, 2008

The trouble with drafting goaltenders

During my look at the Sutter's draft history as the Flames GM, I commented that I was surprised the club drafted two goalies in a single year (Keetley and Lalande in '05). That and the preponderance of goaltending prospects the organization (the two above plus McElhinney, Irving and James Spratt) has got me wondering about goalies recently, in particular the draft/develop part.

Well, I've come to the shaky but ever strengthening conclusion that drafting goaltenders is just about a complete waste of time.

Bear with me.


Goaltending is a wholly unique position and one that is paradoxical by nature. It is arguably the most difficult role in team sports and probably the most important one in the game. On the other hand, no other position is more team dependent since a goalie can only exert influence on one half of the goal differential equation - goals against. In a game of six goalies versus six skaters, the former loses every single time because the latter can both score and defend. Goalies can only play for the shut-out: they can't check anyone or shoot from the point during the power-play.

A goalies influence is deep, therefore, but narrow. Outside of stopping the puck (which, of course, is a vital function) he is pretty much useless.

Various issues afflict the development of goaltenders. They have vastly different needs and parameters as they progress relative to skaters. The margin of error for prospective 'tenders is slimmer than any other position: there is no hiding a goalie on the 4th line, or with better line mates, or with a couple of shifts a game. A goalie's night is always 60+ minutes long (barring the hook) and the consequences of his mistakes are always significant (goal against). As such, goalies dont get the same opportunity to work their way up through a depth chart like forwards and defenders. There are usually 12 or 13 forwards and 6-8 defensemen on any given team, many with differing roles that are parceled out according to idiosyncratic abilities. Guys who can't score, defend. Guys who can't defend, score. Some do both. Others fight, draw penalties or pester. A few are only good at special teams. What's more, skaters can slowly grow into their roles, cushioned by the soft bosom of "depth", meaning older and better guys are there to carry the mail while the kid gains experience.

There are no such options for Mr.Sieve: if he can't reliably stop the puck, he's finished. Even those goalies relegated to back-up, playing a few contests a year, are mercilessly alone in the crease when the game starts. A single bad mistake - a slap shot from center ice that squeaks through your trapper - can end night or a career.

I can identify two resultant difficulties goalie developments:

1.) there is only 2 roster spots for goaltenders at each level - starter and back-up. An organization can't have a lot of goalies on hand with the hope of culling the few sharp ones from a wide field like they can with skaters. Brent Krahn, a Flames former first rounder into whom the club has sunk a bunch of time and money, is out the door this year because there just isn't any room for him anymore.

2.) High pressure development. Small number of spots + low margin for error = brutal development environment.

For an up-and-comer, displacing an established starter is very difficult. The nature of the position means teams are rarely willing or able to experiment with a new 'tender or allow him to "find his legs". No, a goalie has to be at least as good or better than the guy ahead of him in order to get the time and opportunity to play.

What all this means is:

- Excess goalies in a system are basically useless.

- Working your way up through a system as a goalie is a long, difficult, pressure-filled process.

- There are way more goalies than there are roster spots for goalies.


Another apparent paradox: goalies are worth next to nothing on the trade market. Anything outside of an honest-to-goodness established top 5 puck-stopper might get you a prospect, a draft pick or even nothing at all. Again, despite the relative difficulty and importance of the position, the league-wide need is strictly limited. There are around 700 players in the NHL currently...several hundred forwards, several hundred defensemen and about 50 or 60 goalies. And a bunch of those are superfluous back-ups that could likely be swapped out for a whole host of prospects that are bubbling underneath (right Andrew Raycroft?). Maybe half of those are starters in the league. And maybe a small percentage of those guys have results that are worth trading for. And those guys are almost never available, meaning there's a median class of goaltenders that are good enough to be better than their back-ups, but virtually inter-changable with each other. Again, a team can always be looking for more scoring or more defense or the like...but there really isn't such a thing as "more goaltending". There's only better goaltending and a new goalie has to be a significant improvement above the current guy to garner any interest at all. Even then, a team that supplants their starter with someone else is almost always stuck with a player and contract that are suddenly expendable (Nikolai Khabibulin and Dwayne Roloson are good examples) but is worth jack squat on the trade market. Ilya Bryzgalov, Manny Legace and Manny Fernandez are all capable goalies who were acquired for little to nothing by their current teams. The former was actually 10th in the league in terms of SV% last year and the Ducks handed him to the Coyotes via waivers*.

*(tangentially related, how stupid was it for Brian Burke to go out and sign Jonas Hiller to a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract when he already had two capable puck-stoppers on the roster? He spent money he didn't need to and rendered an asset of already dubious value even more worthless)

If NHL caliber goalies aren't worth much, goalie prospects are worth even less (as much as that's possible). If the Flames decide to trade any of their current crop (including Leland Irving) they'd be lucky to find an interested partner, let alone any kind of return. Because, again, spots and opportunities are extremely limited. I'd be willing to wager pretty much every single NHL franchise has their own Keetleys and Spratts and Lalandes and Irvings. With a batch of undrafted back-stops in various junior, minor and European leagues to choose from besides.

Because of the various unique issues afflicting the goaltender position, draft order seems to have less predictive power in terms of future success. I say "seems" because I haven't done a thorough investigation on the topic, but the conclusion strikes me as intuitive. I did take a look at last year's results with an interest in how well a players draft position matched with his performance. First skaters:

This is fairly simple. I took the top 30 scorers from last year and looked at where each guy got drafted. Turns out, 21 of the top 30 scorers (70%) were former first rounders. Only four of the thirty were chosen outside the first 4 rounds.

This suggests that GMs significantly improve the chances of landing a viable scorer earlier the draft. Which, of course, makes perfect sense. Higher pick, better player.

Now goalies:

Much different results. Only 8 of the top 30 (27%) SV% guys were picked in the first round. Thirteen of the 30, however, were chosen in the 5th round or below (43%). In fact, Ty Conklin and Tim Thomas, who placed inside the top 5, weren't even drafted at all (I have a "9" beside them because I wanted to stick values. Plus, the 9th round doesn't even exist anymore, so the effect is the same). Tomas Vokoun and Henrik Lundqvist were two of the best goalies in the league last year: they were 9th round and 7th round picks, respectively.

This is a very basic and cursory look at the predictive value of draft order for goalies, but this first glance suggests it is significantly reduced for goalies versus skaters.


- Goalies are very important but have a low utility relative to skaters. There are only a precious few positions for goalies in an organization and they can't differentiate themselves from competitors for the spots, outside of simply being better at stopping the puck.

- Having lots of goalies in a system is rather pointless since goaltending isn't additive like scoring.

- A goalies development path is often difficult and long.

- Goalie supply far outweighs demand.

- Outside of the best in the biz, goalies have very little value as trade assets. Goalie prospects are worth even less by several orders of magnitude.

- It is very difficult to predict a goalie prospects future success. Current SV% leaders were liberally sprinkled through-out the draft.

Based on all this Im forced to conclude that drafting goalies is next to pointless. Trading even a first round pick for, say, a decent NHL goaltender whenever you need one (which isn't that often) seems to make WAY more sense than drafting a goalie prospect with the same pick. The first option is proven at the NHL level and ready to contribute now. The prospect probably wont be ready for many years and may not be a viable NHL back-stopper anyhow. Meaning a GM in that position has to address the need immediately anyways (trade, sign, waiver wire) and chances are his first round goalie will turn out to be an un-tradable dud a few years down the road.

This is a sensible strategy, because, as established, goalies can be had cheaply. The Leafs moved a couple of draft picks for Toskala. Martin Biron, Alex Auld, Nicklas Backstrom...all acquired for picks or nothing at all. The best goalie to play in LA colors last year was Erik Ersberg (in terms of SV%). He was an unsigned Swedish 'tender the Kings turned to in desperation. He put together far superior numbers in his brief stint than their former first round pick Jonanthan Bernier.

It's hard to develop goalies and hard to determine whether young goalies will turn into bona fide NHLers. And there's a whole bunch of them out there, to the degree that there are always seems to be quality guys looking for work every year.

Were I a NHL GM, I would focus on skaters and forbid the drafting of goalies, aside from perhaps the odd perfunctory 6th or 7th rounder every 4 years or so...

Am I out in left field here?