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Study Shows Little Difference Between Good, Great NHL Goalies

Martin Brodeur is considered one of the best NHL goaltenders of all time, certainly the best of his era, but a new study from The University of Iowa suggests that there's not much difference between Brodeur and an average NHL goalie.

In a new study, "On the Evaluation of the 'Most Important' Position in Professional Sports," Stacey Brook, an economics researcher at the Tippie College of Business, said those small differences between a good goalie and a great one lead NHL teams to overpay for the position.

Brook said that in setting the market for goaltenders, general managers are hamstrung by the fact that goaltenders are notoriously streaky and can go from brick wall to sieve in a single season. It's also not unusual for an average goalie to suddenly put together one or two great seasons, only to quickly revert to his less than stellar form.

But Brook points out that there is surprisingly little difference between an average goalie and a future Hall of Famer like Brodeur, the New Jersey Devils legend and three-time Stanley Cup winner who has won more games than any other NHL goalie. He notes that Brodeur's save percentage of 91.4 percent is only 1 percentage point better than the NHL average of 90.4 percent, a difference of only 216.9 goals.

Using a formula that converts a goalie's save percentage into his teams' points in the standings, Brook's research suggests that Brodeur has won only 33.5 more regular season games over the course of his 17-season NHL career than an average goalie, or two games a season.

Given such a small difference between legendary and average, Brook said it's difficult for a GM to predict with any accuracy how a free agent goaltender will perform and pay him accordingly. As a result, they wind up overpaying for average goaltenders, which makes the market less efficient, driving up the prices for all goalies, especially the great ones like Brodeur.

Ironically, he said general managers do an excellent job of identifying outstanding past performance, as evidenced by the awarding of the Vezina Trophy, voted on by the GM's and presented to the best goalie of the year. Between the 2000-01 and 2007-08 seasons, the Vezina trophy balloting aligned with the goalies who had the best save percentages. The results showed the general managers understand that statistics such as save percentage are better indicators of a goalie's performance than statistics like win-loss record.

However, he said given all the factors at work, using this season's statistics to predict next season's performance is difficult.

Brooks' paper, coauthored with David J. Berri, associate professor of economics at Southern Utah University, was published recently in the Journal of Sports Economics.


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