Minnesota's Josh Harding entered this season third in relief appearances over the past two seasons, stopping 96.5% of shots and allowing just 0.86 goals per 60 minutes, which are both far, far better than anyone who played in relief even half as many times. Whenever Niklas Backstrom faltered, the Wild were fortunate enough to have someone on the bench who could apparently enter a game cold and put up a brick wall. Unfortunately, Harding suffered a seriously knee injury in the preseason, leaving this year's "Relief Goalie of the Year" race wide open.
Each year, we at Hockey Prospectus take a look through some of the dustier corners of the game, looking for even the smallest details that can improve our understanding of the sportsometimes we find something useful, sometimes we don't. Given the small sample sizes, the jury is still out whether you can reach any meaningful conclusions about relief goaltending, but it certainly doesn't hurt to review our findings.
For example, we've discovered that goalies stop just 89.9% of the shots in relief, compared with 91.3% when starting. Two years ago in this article we discovered that the starting goalie finishes the game 93% of the time, and barring injury are only relieved if they allow three or four goals, and stop fewer than 80% of the shots. Of course, we also discovered that this varies wildly from team to team, so there's obviously no league-wide consensus on when goalies should be replaced.
Part of the decision to switch goalies might be based on whether or not the coach feels that his alternate has the ability to come in cold and play well enough to give his team the opportunity to come back. There must be goalies that are particularly good or bad in relief situations, so every year we take a look at the numbers.
In 2010-11, there were 18 goalies that relieved the starting goalies at least four times. Of them, Detroit's Joey MacDonald was their definite king, stopping almost every single puck when playing in relief of Jimmy Howard.
Best relief goaltenders, 2010-11
Goaltender Team GR GA Save percentage
Joey MacDonald DET 6 0.63 .974
Scott Clemmensen FLA 6 1.46 .948
Andrew Raycroft DAL 5 1.90 .947
Anders Lindback NSH 4 1.21 .938
Henrik Karlsson CGY 6 2.21 .923
Curtis McElhinney ANA, OTT 6 2.18 .919
Mathieu Garon CBJ 7 2.15 .917
Brian Boucher PHI 5 2.44 .911
Ty Conklin STL 5 2.37 .905
Peter Budaj COL 6 2.32 .902
While MacDonald, along with first-year goalies Lindback and Karlsson, may be new to our list, the others are not. In fact, McElhinney leads the NHL with 20 relief appearances over the past three seasons, and for three different teams, just like Garon and Raycroft who are close behind with 18 and 16, respectively. It seems relief goalies need to have plenty "change of address" cards!
Before you get too excited about Raycroft, McElhinney and Garon, consider the case of New Jersey's Johan Hedberg. Hedberg is perhaps the perfect example of how you can't really trust small sample sizes. Even if playing effectively in relief were a true skill, random fluctuations would be enough to sufficiently disguise it from season to season. Observe the established veteran's numbers in relief over the past three seasons:
Johan Hedberg in relief
Season GR Save percentage
2008-09 5 .887
2009-10 6 .944
2010-11 7 .841
So is Hedberg a good relief goaltender, or isn't he? He's made 18 relief appearances in the past three seasons, less than only McElhinney, and either he's among the league leaders, or the basement. There's a lot left to chance!
Back to Joey MacDonald. Part of the fun of looking at relief goalies is that it gives us an opportunity to celebrate those whose achievements go otherwise unnoticed. This year's relief goalie of the year fought every step of the way, playing on some truly awful teams in the juniors and minors, often competing for scarce opportunities to start. Just when he finally had his breakout season, a 34-win, .926 save percentage season for the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins, the Red Wings practically flooded their system with young goaliesincluding a young Jimmy Howardand boasted legends Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek in the NHL.
Over the next couple of seasons, MacDonald floated from Boston to the Islanders, to Toronto, to Anaheim and eventually back to the Detroit last offseason. His only real chance to play in the NHL was with a horrible Islanders team in 2008-09, a team that used 13 different defensemen in front of him, only one of whom he'd want to write home about. He wasn't even expected to play for Detroit last season, until an injury to Osgood, and an inability for a cap-tight team to land another goalielike the KHL's Evgeny Nabokovgave him a few months.
Congratulations to Joey MacDonald for becoming 2010-11's Relief Goalie Of The Year. Hopefully, like Garon, Hedberg, McElhinney and Raycroft, it will get him another NHL job this yearjust in a different uniform.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.