Save Percentage & How to Apply When Handicapping NHL Matchups

Ross Benjamin

Wednesday, August 19, 2015 2:48 PM UTC

Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015 2:48 PM UTC

SBR's expert shares some of his personal NHL handicapping theories during these long hot months of summer. In this article he addresses the topic of goaltending save percentage.

Understanding Save Percentage in the NHL
The NHL season isn’t that far away with training camps set to open in about three weeks. For those of you who have followed me here at SBR, you’re well aware that handicapping and writing about the NHL is one of my fortes. I’m going to be discussing one of my key handicapping components pertaining to the NHL, and it involves goaltenders save percentage.


Numbers not Names are the Keys to Success
I have stated on numerous occasions throughout my career, I don’t care who’s on both sides of the ball or ice for this matter. My main goal and livelihood depends on beating a number. That number may be a point spread, money line, or total. Player names, injuries, and weather during the majority of instances are trivial and not useful in my daily pursuit of picking winners. Quite simply, all of those factors are already incorporated in to the line by major Sportsbooks. Trust me, if you’re away of that information, then the books are more than on top of it. However, there are exceptions to every rule, and without a few antithesis to your firm beliefs, the probability of winning lessens. Such is the when accounting for starting pitchers in baseball, and the more applicable to this discussion, starting goaltenders in the NHL.


Save Percentage versus GAA
There was a long period of time in the rich history of the National Hockey League when the most important statistic pertaining to a goaltender was his goals against average (GAA). I personally believe that save percentage is vastly more significant than GAA. Some may say that one coincides with the other, and in some particular instances, that very well may be the case. Casting that notion aside, let’s look at some specific examples from this past season, when GAA can be a misleading statistic, and save percentage provides a more realistic performance line of a goaltender.


James Reimer
The Toronto Maple Leafs backup to Jonathan Bernier, James Reimer, made 26 starts, and appeared in 35 games for Toronto last season. His GAA of 3.16 would be considered as poor by modern day NHL standards. Contrarily, he compiled a solid .909 save percentage. Now let’s look deeper into his numbers. He faced 1001 shots on goal last season in 1767 minutes of ice time. That equates to 34 shots on goal per 60 minutes played, and that’s an extremely high number with all things being considered. It only stands to reason, the more shots on net, higher probability of more goals being scored increases. My conclusion is quite simple regarding Reimer. He performed well in a backup capacity with a poor defensive team in front of him.  


Jaroslav Halak
Jaroslav Halak received more credit than he was deserving of last season in my personal perception. Unlike Reimer, Halak had a defensively disciplined Islanders team in front of him, and more importantly, received generous scoring support from his teammates.  Now let’s go inside his numbers in order to prove my point. Halak posted a 2.43 GAA average last year, and that certainly appears as a more impressive figure than the previously mentioned Reimer (3.16 GAA).  However, his save percentage of .914 wasn’t drastically better than Reimer’s .909. Here’s the key point to be made, Halak faced an average of just 28.7 shots on goal per 60 minutes played. That’s 5.3 shots on goal less per 60 minutes played than Reimer faced. Hence, in my handicapping perspective, given these raw numbers, my conclusion is that Halak was a vastly overvalued goaltender, and was a beneficiary of a having a far superior Islanders team in front of him, than the overpriced in addition to underachieving club that Reimer had at his disposal.


Final Take
Realistically, if you asked any Leafs fan at the end of last season, would they trade Reimer for Halak, you can be rest assured that 99.9% of them would sign up for that deal. I’m not going to go out on a limb and say that sentiment would be wrong on their part.  What I will say is, from a handicapping perspective, and not through the eyes of a general manager or NHL fantasy team owner, those two goaltenders performance lines from a statistical standpoint are more similar than appears on the surface.

There are several examples from last season that I could make when comparing goaltender betting value and this may not have been the best example of them all. However, starting in less than two months and through the Stanley Cup Finals in June of 2016, I’ll be able to present more specific examples that apply directly to making my NHL picks.

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