Trending Topics: Connor Hellebuyck and paying for goaltending

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/5820/" data-ylk="slk:Connor Hellebuyck">Connor Hellebuyck</a> just made himself some serious coin. (Jason Halstead/Getty Images)
Connor Hellebuyck just made himself some serious coin. (Jason Halstead/Getty Images)

Connor Hellebuyck became the first of Winnipeg’s notable restricted free agents to get a new contract this summer, signing Thursday for six years at $6.167 million AAV.

It’s a perfectly reasonable number for a 25-year-old goaltender who was a couple years away from UFA status and who was a Vezina finalist this season. The deal puts him sixth in cap hits among goalies, which might seem a little high given that Hellebuyck has exactly one season as a starter under his belt. But teams always pay out the nose for big contract years, and he’s probably still improving given that he’s only 25.

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The fact is, though, that from the Jets’ perspective, a .920-plus save percentage seems like a reasonable expectation based on his complete CV, from college to the AHL to his career .917 as an NHLer who played his early years behind a notoriously leaky defense.

Yes, .920 is a lofty expectation in reality; over the last five seasons, only seven goaltenders have played at least 120 games and also posted a .920 save percentage or better. That Hellebuyck is now the sixth-highest-paid netminder in the league says that’s what the Jets want from him.

For reference, the seven goalies north of that number are John Gibson, Carey Price, Antti Raanta, Corey Crawford, Sergei Bobrovsky, Roberto Luongo (what a marvel!), and Tuukka Rask. And to give you an idea of how tight things are at the very top of the league, the gap between Gibson and Rask is about three extra goals per 1,000 shots faced. Of course, the gap between that and the league average is an additional five pucks per 1,000 shots, so margins are already pretty thin.

Which is, I guess, the issue with teams giving goaltenders big money. The guys who are the absolute very best make a huge difference for their teams, but the margins are closer than you might think. Take Price, for example. It’s reasonable to say he’s the best goalie of the last five years: .923 over 248 games behind a team that hasn’t been that good.

He allowed just 574 goals on more than 7,400 shots, but over a five-year period, he only prevented the Canadiens’ opponents from scoring about 46 goals versus what an average goaltender would have done with the exact same workload. This is a guy who gets paid $10 million against the cap, and when healthy is probably worth that. Winning and losing in hockey is done on razor-thin margins, so a guy who saves you fewer than 10 goals a season versus an average player is surprising valuable.

Plus, as the old saying goes, “Goalies are voodoo.” Which is to say that their performance is very difficult to predict. Let’s circle back to Hellebuyck: He was .918 in limited appearances as a 22-year-old and looked for all the world like he was the Jets’ surefire starter. Except he sucked in his first chance at the No. 1 job, going .907 in 56 appearances simply because Winnipeg didn’t have any better options. But then last season, he rebounded to be .924 in 67 games and was a big part of the reason the Jets were so difficult to play against from October to May.

So the Jets just gave their goalie with fewer than 150 games of NHL experience the sixth-biggest cap hit in the league, and are clearly counting on him to be the goalie he was most recently, instead of the one whose career save percentage before 2017-18 was well below the league average.

On the surface, most of the goaltending stats (save percentage minus expected save percentage, goals saved above average, etc.) kind of indicate that among NHL starters, Hellebuyck is pretty good — certainly in the top 15 in the world — but maybe not worth as much as this new contract.

No one can know what the Jets are really getting here, but they’re making an educated guess that the nearly 4,300 shots Hellebuyck has faced tells the story regardless of the most recent performance, and that based on aging curves and all that, the team will get more of the .920 version than the .910. And sure, plenty of goalies have had a good year or two then flamed out; the Penguins have to be concerned about that with Matt Murray, whose performance this year versus that of Marc-Andre Fleury’s unrepeatable .930 with Vegas led to a lot of tiresome “did the Penguins choose the right goalie” pieces.

But a reasonable basis for comparison here is to compare Hellebuyck to his peer group. Take all the U-25 goalies in the league over the last three seasons and say “What does Hellebuyck look like there?” Again, aging curves are important to keep in mind, because U-25s are technically still improving, and finding ones with the kind of workload Hellebuyck has shouldered in his two-plus seasons is not all that common. In fact, he’s second among U-25 goalies in terms of minutes played, only about 240 behind John Gibson.

And he’s tied for third in save percentage among the group of seven U-25 goaltenders who played at least 80 games over the last three seasons. His .917 is dead even with Andrei Vasilevskiy and Matt Murray, both of whom I think we’d say are really good goalies (though again, Murray was abysmal this past season), behind Gibson and Robin Lehner, who clock in at .923 and .921, respectively.

But in the end, the reason you pay a lot of money for star players is that they drive goal difference in your direction more heavily than anyone else, right? And because goalies are more valuable in terms of doing that, based on the amount of minutes they play, it’s reasonable to argue that all but the highest-paid goalies are, in fact, undervalued in the market.

Gibson is likely to cash in when his contract is up next summer, probably to a greater extent than Hellebuyck, and Tampa can still expect strong value from the Vasilevskiy deal for the next two seasons before he gets insanely expensive. Murray’s current deal also lasts for two more years and I’d probably bet on a bounce back season, though to what extent is hard to guess; his early career numbers behind an elite team are so good that to set them as a good expectation is probably unfair to him.

As a general rule, if you’re posting any save percentage at or above Hellebuyck’s career average of .917, you’re probably worth a boatload of money. But it’s also easy to understand why anyone would look at any goalie contract over $5 million and say, “Ehh, that’s risky.” But in terms of the raw cost of every point in the standings, any performance resembling another Vezina-worthy campaign will pay for itself very, very quickly

Murray showed this year that the bottom can drop out at any second and there’s no guarantee that it ever comes back, and the reams of criticism Rask has absorbed for half a decade despite being one of the best goaltenders of his generation, show that unless a goalie is .920-plus literally every year, people are always going to have their doubts.

Hell, that kind of performance wasn’t even enough to keep Roberto Luongo in Vancouver, and it took a second Stanley Cup before anyone acknowledged that Corey Crawford was anything close to an elite goaltender.

So again, I get the due caution people want to pay a goalie contract, but if you have a goalie you like, you gotta pay to keep him around. And Hellebuyck has given Winnipeg relatively little reason to dislike him both in his first three seasons and for the next six.

It may seem like a little too much money for a goalie that might just be a little better than average, but maybe overpaying is preferable than the alternative. And based on its goaltending history, Winnipeg should know that better than anyone.

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

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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