Fantasy Hockey: Avoid Goaltenders Who Blow Up Your Head To Head Teams

Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen
Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen
Apr 25 2013 Dallas TX USA Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen 32 faces the Columbus Blue Jackets attack during the third period at the American Airlines Center The Blue Jackets defeated the Stars 3 1 Jerome Miron USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday I wrote about how a team’s possession rates probably won’t make a goalie’s stats much worse unless the goalie was terrible to begin with (Steve Mason), but how a team’s penalty killing can affect just about any goaltender for better (James Reimer in 2013) or for worse (James Reimer from 2010-2012).

There’s a concept I came across a few years ago and was recently expanded upon by a blogger at the ‘Nucks Misconduct section of SBNation—this concept was that of goaltender blow-ups.

A goaltender blow-up in general is when a goaltender performs so poorly that it gives his team a very low chance at actually winning the game. This stands to reason in other sports as well; I would doubt a football team’s winning percentage is very good if their quarterback throws four interceptions just as a team in baseball wouldn’t have much of a chance of winning if their starting pitcher gives up six runs in the first two innings.

Specifically, a goaltender blow-up is when a goalie achieves either of the following conditions:

  1. A save percentage under .850 for a specific game.
  2. Allowing five goals or more while facing less than 40 shots in a given game.
  3. To avoid double-counting, games where a goalie allows 5-plus goals on less than 40 shots and has a save percentage under .850 is only counted as one blow-up, not two.

There’s a reason for this. In the blog I linked earlier, the writer states that if a goalie suffers a blow-up, this gives his team a 15 percent chance of winning the game. The eighth seed in both conferences (the play-off cutoff) the last two years won 131 of a possible 260 games, slightly over 50 percent. So if a mediocre team has their all-things-equal chance of winning a game cut by more than two-thirds simply because their goaltender had an off-night, it’s worth exploring from a fantasy perspective.

However, all this is at the macro level e.g. how a goalie performed last year or a two-year average. The problem with fantasy hockey is that a macro-level analysis doesn’t necessarily translate and this is the pitfall of small sample sizes. This is not more evident anywhere than in head-to-head fantasy hockey.

This seems like a huge tangent to essentially say this: you can estimate who will be a leader in goalie wins (Corey Crawford-CHI) and who won’t (Jacob Markstrom-FLA), but you don’t know when they will happen. A goalie who wins 60 percent of their starts should help your team more than a goalie who wins 50 percent of his starts, but if that 60 percent-goalie goes 0-3 in your fantasy hockey championship week, it’s all for nothing.

So we can’t predict when a goalie will get their wins, but we can estimate how many they will get. We also can’t avoid goalie blow-ups, but we can track their frequency as well.

As anyone who has played head-to-head fantasy hockey or baseball can attest to, one terrible start by a goalie or pitcher can ruin a week. In a league that has 10 categories, a goalie’s save percentage and Goals Against Average will account for 20 percent of your stats. One horrendous start can eliminate you immediately from winning 20 percent of the categories. That is a pretty hefty price.

While we can’t predict when these blow-ups will happen there are three indicators I use when looking to project how many blow-ups there might be:

  • A goaltender’s track record. If a goalie has a history of seven or eight blow-ups a year, it’s pretty safe to say we can expect four or five next year.
  • Teams that take a lot of penalties. There were 11 teams that were short-handed at least 167 times last year and four of those teams were under 80 percent on the penalty kill. As I showed on Thursday, team penalty killing has a good correlation with a goaltender’s overall save percentage. A bad penalty killing night can lead to a blow-up even if the goaltender is “on his game”.
  • Team possession. While good goalies are typically good wherever they play, bad goalies need a good team in order to have good numbers. It may not correlate strongly with save percentage but it will in goals allowed; of the bottom nine teams in goals allowed at even-strength/60 minutes in 2013, all but one (Carolina) were a sub-50 percent possession team. The year before, of the bottom 12 teams in GA/60 again, four were a plus possession team. In short, if a team has bad possession numbers, the odds are overwhelmingly against the goalie to post a good goals against average.

That last point is most important. A bad possession team will give up more shots, which can actually help a goalie’s save percentage, but won’t be conducive to winning. I’ll give you an example of a hypothetical game:

  • Goalie A saves 50/55 shots, giving him a .909 save percentage but a goals against of 5.00 (assuming a full 60 minutes).
  • Goalie B saves 25/29 shots, giving him a save percentage of .862 but a goals against of just 4.00 and in a head to head match-up, the win.
  • Despite Goalie A having a better game than Goalie B, Goalie B would “win” two out of three head-to-head categories.

This isn’t a random example. This happened to Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov on February 16 of this year against Edmonton. The combination of Devan Dubnyk (who got pulled) and Nikolai Khabibulin performed much worse than Varlamov, yet skated away with a better combined goals against average and the win.

What this tells us is that you can’t predict goaltending outcomes on a specific day/week, but if your goalie(s) play well you should win at least 1/3 goaltending categories, and that’s better than 0/3. You run into the problem of going 0/3 when your goalie blows up.

With that in mind, here are the blow-up rates for goalies that were their team’s starter in 2012-2013 over the last three years:


Player Starts 5+ Goal Blow-Ups < .850 SV% Blow-Ups Starts per 5+ Goal BU Starts Per <.850 SV% BU Starts/BU Team CorsiFor%
Quick (LAK) 165 7 16 23.6 10.3 7.2 53.9%
Crawford (CHI) 138 8 16 17.2 8.6 5.8 53.1%
Halak (STL) 118 4 11 29.5 10.7 7.9 52.5%
Niemi (SJS) 171 6 16 28.5 10.7 7.8 52.3%
Luongo (VAN) 132 6 10 22.0 13.2 8.3 52.3%
Smith (TBL/PHX) 121 9 15 13.4 8.6 5.0 50.8%
Varlamov (WSH/COL) 110 9 9 12.2 12.2 6.1 50.7%
Pavelec (WPG) 164 15 14 10.9 11.7 5.7 49.5%
Kiprusoff (CGY) 163 17 15 9.6 10.9 5.1 49.1%
Lehtonen (DAL) 162 7 14 23.1 11.6 7.7 48.9%
Rinne (NSH) 178 12 16 14.8 11.1 6.4 47.6%
Hiller (ANA) 144 7 15 20.6 9.6 6.6 46.8%
Dubnyk (EDM) 112 9 11 12.4 10.2 5.6 46.3%
Backstrom (MIN) 136 9 16 15.1 8.5 5.4 45.8%

Sorted by Team CorsiFor% (the percentage of all shot attempts by both teams in a game that belong to one specific team. This percentage shown tallies for the last three seasons)

There are some very interesting findings here:

  • Players in green are those that performed well, those in red did not perform well and those left in black performed around what we should expect, all this considering the quality of the team.
  • Not very surprisingly, the rates of Starts/Blow Up get lower as the teams gets worse. Even the veritable Pekka Rinne is affected by his team’s poor possession rates.
  • You can make the argument that, with this information and what I found on Thursday about his even-strength save percentages, Kari Lehtonen is a top-five goaltender in the NHL.
  • If you want to talk about a goalie who “gives a chance for his team to win every night”, Roberto Luongo should be one of the first names off your tongue.
  • Ondrej Pavelec doesn’t seem to be a very good goaltender while Mike Smith is overrated.
  • The rate at which a goalie lets in 5-plus goals on less than 40 shots is related to the quality of his team. Only two goalies of the minus-possession teams (Lehtonen, Hiller) averaged at least 20 games between 5-plus goal blowups. There are twice as many goalies that averaged at least 20 games between 5-plus goal blowups of plus-possession teams (Quick, Halak, Niemi, Luongo).
  • On the other hand, there are two goalies from both plus-possession and minus-possession teams that averaged single-digits for “< .850 SV%” blow-ups (Crawford+Smith, Hiller+Backstrom). This goes back to a point I made on Thursday: good goalies (Hiller, Backstrom) will be good goalies usually, but lesser goalies might not perform well on superior teams (Crawford, Smith). Thus, a goalie’s goals against average will probably be at the mercy of the quality of his team, but the goalie himself will be able to control his save percentage to some degree.

You can’t predict the future but you can mitigate some of the risk that you will face. Drafts are very fluid and you won’t always get the guy you are targeting (that’s what tiered rankings are for), but you have an idea of what to look for when drafting your goalies in head-to-head leagues.

I will do the same thing for the East and will have the findings in the next couple of days.

author avatar
Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada and is a graduate of the Unviersity of New Brunswick. He writes about fantasy hockey and baseball for XNSports and He can be reached on Twitter @SlimCliffy for any fantasy hockey questions. !function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?'http':'https';if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src=p+'://';fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, 'script', 'twitter-wjs');