NCAA Hockey 101: Who was the NCAA's best goalie this year?

Canisius College

Last week in this space we talked all about how Zach Aston-Reese is the best candidate for the Hobey Baker award in the country.

This week, with the release of the 10 semifinalists for the Mike Richter Award, given annually to the best goalie in the country, it’s worth taking a look at who’s had the best season in the crease.

The semifinalists represent all of the various conferences except the Big Ten (this is the second year in a row Big Ten goaltending has been an absolute horror show; only two goalies in the conference have played more than 30 games and they have save percentages of .906 and .899). There are three(!) from Atlantic Hockey; two each from Hockey East, the NCHC, and the ECAC; and one from the WCHA.

It’s difficult to take into account issues like strength of schedule when assessing goaltending talent, or at least it’s difficult to quantify it. With that having been said, we can safely surmise that Hockey East and the NCHC in particular put their representatives under different, more difficult tests than those in the WCHA or Atlantic Hockey. Nonetheless it must be said that the two national save percentage leaders are from Atlantic Hockey, and the third-ranked goalie with more than 80 percent of his team’s minutes played (i.e. a bona fide starter) is in the WCHA.

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With all that having been said this is my third year voting for the award and, while I’m not going to give you my ballot outright today, I will give you some insight into my process for determining who was the best goalie in the country. While votes aren’t due until next Tuesday, I can’t imagine my opinions on many of these goalies are going to change based on the result of, at most, two more games for each.

I think the two most important stats for determining a goaltender’s quality are their overall and 5-on-5 save percentages. Obviously the former is going to be heavily dependent on the latter, but looking at both takes into account special teams factors without overly penalizing goalies whose teams are not effective at killing penalties. When considering who should be eligible for the award, as inferred above, I also like to look at who played at least 80 percent of their teams’ minutes and how many shots they generally faced in a given night.

The latter there is important because in college, there are a lot of teams that are very good at suppressing shots, and absent shot-quality metrics in general (which probably won’t exist in college hockey for years or more, if they ever do at all), I think the volume of work goalies are asked to put in plays a role in determining how good they were as well.

When you look at all these statistics in concert, there are a few guys you can weed out immediately: those with save percentages below .920 are right out. Everyone else in the group is at at least .925, so Merrick Madsen and Hunter Miska, please pack your knives and go. Same goes for Shane Starrett, who had the lowest 5-on-5 save percentage of the group by a decent margin.

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When you look at the numbers just written down in front of you, it can be a little tough to differentiate, but when you view them in chart form, one clear Best Goalie emerges very quickly (with the size of the circles varying slightly, based on the number of shots faced per 60 minutes in all situations):

Yahoo

Canisius’s Charles Williams has far and away the best 5-on-5 and overall save percentages in the country, at .954 and .946, respectively. You can see everyone else in this semifinalist group is pretty tightly bunched together, but Williams is on an entirely different planet. What’s more, he may only be fifth in minutes played, but he’s second in the number of shots he faced total, and therefore also saw the most shots per 60 minutes (32.4).

Williams allowed more than two goals just twice since Christmas, which allowed his save percentage to catapult from .935 — merely high-end — to the highest level seen by a goalie with this much ice time since Ryan Miller. Fair or not (and it’s not fair, by the way), the standard for a Hobey Baker goalie is set at “.950 while playing 95 percent of your team’s season,” as a result of that being the number at which Miller won the award in 2000-01. Miller played 2,448 of his team’s approximately 2,575 minutes that year and stopped 19 of every 20 shots he faced.

To put into context how difficult that is, this weekend in the Atlantic Hockey tournament, Williams would need to face a minimum of 76 shots and stop all of them to hit .950. And again, he’s already the busiest goalie in the country. If he allows even one goal, he would need to face 96 shots on goal in two games and only allow one goal.

This — and the strength of his conference, which is extremely low — is why Williams will not win the Hobey. It’s basically an impossible standard to set, but he should come as close as anyone in the crease has since 2001.

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Other guys on the list worth looking at in-depth include Tanner Jaillet, who played for the best team in the country this year and turned in high-quality numbers, but also faced the lowest number of shots per 60 in the group.

Cal Petersen was low-key excellent for a team that struggled at times but finished one point out of a four-way tie for first in Hockey East. In the same conference, Jake Oettinger had maybe the best season by a freshman goalie in his draft year I’ve ever seen.

St. Lawrence kept Kyle Hayton incredibly busy (32 shots against per 60) and he rose to the challenge most of the time. Parker Gahagen looked like a guy who might make a run at Miller’s standard himself, but he kind of collapsed — to the extent that a .933 goalie “collapsed” at any point — down the stretch.

Finally, Michael Bitzer’s season was one in which he played a ton of minutes, the most of this group by far at more than 2,355, and had some great numbers (.932/.940) but faced the fewest shots per 60 in this group, in the weakest conference in the country.

So there’s a lot to consider here, but one thing is incredibly clear: Any ballot that doesn’t have “Charles Williams” at the top of it in big, bold, double-underlined, all-capital letters is flat-out wrong.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. Denver (swept Colorado College)
2. Harvard (swept Yale)
3. Minnesota-Duluth (swept Miami)
4. UMass Lowell (eliminated UNH in three games)
5. BU (swept Northeastern)
6. Western Michigan (eliminated UNH in three games)
7. Notre Dame (swept Providence)
8. Union (swept Princeton)
9. Cornell (swept Clarkson)
10. Providence (swept by Notre Dame)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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