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A New 'Average' for NHL Goaltenders

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Before the draft last summer, a lot of press was given to the youngsters from the United States. At the end of the day it was one of the most prolific drafts for U.S. youth in a while. Some of the credit was given to players coming from non-hockey hotbeds like California and Florida. Of course the association was made that the expansion Lightning, Panthers, Sharks and Ducks helped fuel this, along with Wayne Gretzky's infamous trade to the Kings, igniting West Coast hockey fever.

Interestingly, that same generation would align almost perfectly with Patrick Roy's and Dominik Hasek's rise as two of the elite goaltenders in the world. While radically different when it comes to style, both players put goaltenders on the map in a way never seen before. Much like how Bobby Orr created a whole generation of offense-orientated defenseman, these two goalies have left behind them a new generation of goaltenders.

Tuesday night saw two game 7s, between arguably two of the best goaltenders in the world and two of the most "average" goaltenders in the league. Yet two completely different results, with the average goalie winning one game and the great goalie winning the other. It comes down to this: In the last almost 20 years the difference between great NHL goalies and average NHL goalies is closer then it's ever been before. This season Islander fans saw it up close as Kevin Poulin and Al Montoya came out of nowhere and posted save percentages above .920 with a questionable defense in front of them.

Now the argument against this is that the clutch and grab zone play of the '90s led to lower scoring. But we aren't talking about a few goalies who got better. We're talking about a league wide change in save percentage. In 92-93 when Roy won the cup with Montreal, there were 5 goalies with a SV% above .900 who played over 35 games. Of those, only two of them were above .910, Felix Potvin (.910) and Curtis Joseph (.911). By the 99-00 season there were 31 players who fit the same criteria and only two of them were below a .900 SV%. Fifteen of them fell between .900 and .910. Thirteen of them were between .911 and league leading .919 (Dominik Hasek, Ed Belfour).

This year though, the league had 33 goalies who fit the criteria. Only 4 goalies were under a .900 SV%, five goalies who were between .901 SV% and .909 SV% and 12 goalies between .910 SV% and .919 SV%. The top 11 goalies in the league this year had a 920 SV% or better. Not even 20 years ago you didn't have anyone getting close to a .920 SV%, and now the league leader has been over a .930 SV% since 08-09.

This means it stands out even more when a goalie struggles. No goalie in the league is asked to stop everything. Defenses have evolved to the point where they try to limit high percentage scoring chances. So when a goalie continually gives up goals on stoppable shots, it stands out more then it did in the past. Goalies with a SV% under .900 just aren't going to get many chances to turn it around, unless teams have no choice.

It is such a tough battle to get to the NHL level for goalies that we are now seeing the best of the best. Think about the number of good goalies across the Canadian Juniors, the American colleges and even the lower leagues of the American hockey system. NHL teams will have at most 2-3 goalies, along with their AHL affiliates having 2-3 goalies. To get a contract with an NHL team means you've proven yourself on multiple levels time and time again. Even then there's no guarantee that you'll be a success on the NHL level.

The difference between the top goalies in the league, and the rest of the goalies in the top half of the league is so small that you can no longer rely on goaltending to get you through. Odds are that you are going to face at least one or two teams during the playoffs with equal goaltending. Bad goaltending though can cost you a series, as the Flyers almost found out the hard way.