The Opportunity Cost of Drafting a Goalie

Why goaltenders are approaching first-round extinction

Everyone knows you need a good goalie in order to win games. But what you may not know is that many of today’s star goaltenders weren’t always the cat’s pajamas. In fact, many of them came from relative obscurity.

In the 5-year period from 1997-2001, 14 goalies were drafted in the first round. Apparently this number satisfied some type of equilibrium, because it stayed exactly the same from 2002-2006. Then suddenly things changed. In 2007, not a single goalie was taken in the first round – the first time this had occurred since 1992. Then it happened again in 2009, and again this past year. Collectively, only 4 goalies were drafted in the first round between 2007-2011. Why?

It turns out that this trend coincides fairly directly with the rise of free agent goalie signings out of Europe. Since 2006, a tremendous number of undrafted goalies have come from the European leagues, including starters like Niklas Backstrom, Jonas Hiller, and Antti Niemi, as well as capable backups Sergei Bobrovsky, Alexander Salak, Jonas Gustavsson, and Henrik Karlsson. There’s one very common attribute that most of these European imports share: advanced age. Backstrom was 28 when first he came to the NHL; Karlsson was 27; Hiller, Gustavsson, and Niemi were 25, while Salak is just starting his rookie year at age 24. Bobrovsky is the youngest of them all, beginning last year at just 22. In a league where we expect many players to jump into the league in their early 20’s, most goalies are barely getting their toes wet till well into their mid 20’s.

Goalies Develop by Sundial

The average NHL goalie is 29 years of age. That means that a goalie drafted today likely won’t be ready to play for 11 years, or until the year 2022. Former first-round picks like Cam Ward and Carey Price may buck this trend by playing at a high level in their early 20’s, but they are extreme cases. Furthermore, there’s very little assurance that a goalie who’s selected in the 1st round pick will be better than his draft lagging peers. Here are the 4 goalies who have won the last 6 Vezina Trophies, along with their draft position:

2006                           Kiprusoff                   5th round

2007, 2008                Brodeur                     1st round

2010                            Miller                         5th round

2009, 2011                 Thomas                      9th round

And here are the only other goalies to finish in the top-3 in Vezina voting since ‘06:

2006, 2007, 2008      Lundqvist                  7th round

2007, 2011                  Luongo                       1st round

2008                            Nabokov                     9th round

2009                            Backstrom                  Undrafted

2009                            S. Mason                     3rd round

2010                            Bryzgalov                    2nd round

2011                            Rinne                           8th round

Notice how only two of these goalies were drafted in the first round? In fact, of the 11 listed, 7 of them were drafted after the 5th round (or not at all). In my opinion, the three best goalies in the league today are Tim Thomas, Ryan Miller, and Henrik Lundqvist, and none of them were drafted in the top 100 picks of the draft. And of the top-20 or so goalies in the league, only 5 of them were drafted in the first round. (See appendix for complete list).

Based on all this evidence, it’s no wonder that NHL General Managers aren’t using their prized early picks to select goaltenders. As I mentioned in this post last week, of the top-20 goal scorers in the NHL last year, only one was selected outside of the first round. If you can potentially acquire an excellent goaltender in the 5th round or later, but can only get a great forward in the first round of the draft, then you’ll learn quickly that forwards are of far greater value at the draft since goaltenders can be easily acquired with later (historically less valuable) picks. In the world of finance, they call this ‘opportunity cost’ – i.e, if you pay $10 for something, that’s $10 you don’t have to spend somewhere else. Similarly, if you use a first round pick on a goalie, that’s a first round pick you can’t use on a forward.

Taking this even further, if you can acquire a solid #1 goalie like Tomas Vokoun in free agency for 1 year at $1.5M, (somewhat unique circumstances, but it did happen) while an *average, 31-year-old 1st line centre like Brad Richards gets a mammoth 9 year, $60M contract in unrestricted free agency, this will further entice you to draft a forward early. This underpayment for a quality NHL goaltender and subsequent overpayment, albeit for a quality NHL centre, suggests that the supply of capable goaltenders exceeds demand, while the demand for highly skilled forwards exceeds supply. As is usually the case, supply and demand rules. NHL GM’s adjust accordingly.

(*To call Richards an average centre iceman is no disrespect, it is only to say that when compared to the other 30 ‘first-line centres’ in the league, it’s hard to argue that he’s in the top-10 with guys like Crosby, Datsyuk, Thornton, Toews, Staal, Getzlaf,  etc. If falling outside the top-10, he is by default, average.)

So what of defencemen? Well that’s another post. For now, suffice to say that the only players to win the Norris Trophy since the lockout (aside from Nick Lidstrom – himself a 3rd round pick) are Duncan Keith (2nd round pick) and Zdeno Chara (3rd round pick).

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Appendix

Here is a complete list of the 64 goalies – 60 of whom are expected to play in the NHL this year, and 4 other veteran goalies who are currently without a team (Nabokov, Turco, Emery, Conklin). There are no hard rankings per se, but Vezina voting results and cup wins/appearances were taken into consideration when ordering them.

Starters Vezina Voting *Conn Smythe
Goalie Team Age Rd Pick 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 Cup Winner Cup Finalist
#1G Thomas Bos 37 9 217 T-9 1st 1st *2011
#1G Miller Buf 31 5 138 7th 1st
#1G Lundqvist Nyr 29 7 205 3rd T-3 3rd 6th 6th 4th
#1G Brodeur Njd 39 1 20 2nd 1st 1st 3rd ’95, ’00, ’03 2001
#1G Ward Car 27 1 25 7th 7th *2006
#1G Luongo Van 32 1 4 T-7 2nd 7th 4th T-10 3rd 2011
#1G Kiprusoff Cgy 35 5 116 1st T-3 5th 8th T-8 2004
#1G Fleury Pit 27 1 1 T-8 2009 2008
#1G Price Mtl 24 1 5 T-9 5th
#1G Rinne Nas 29 8 258 2nd
#1G Bryzgalov Phi 31 2 44 2nd 6th
#1G Backstrom Min 33 undrafted 6th 6th 3rd
#1G Vokoun Was 35 9 226 4th 9th
#1G Niemi Sjs 28 undrafted T-8 2010
#1G Roloson Tby 42 undrafted 2006
#1G Anderson Ott 30 3 73 5th
#1G Quick Lak 25 3 72 T-8
#1G Hiller Ana 29 undrafted
#1G Halak Stl 26 9 271 T-10
#1G Howard Det 27 2 64 T-8
#1G Crawford Chi 27 2 52
#1G Lehtonen Dal 28 1 2
Iffy #1 Smith Phx 29 5 161
Iffy #1 Theodore Fla 35 2 44
Iffy #1 Dipietro Nyi 30 1 1 8th
Young #1 S. Mason Clb 23 3 69 2nd
Young #1 Pavelec Wpg 24 2 41
Young #1 Reimer Tor 23 4 99
Young #1 Varlamov Col 23 1 23
Young #1 Dubnyk Edm 25 1 14
Back-Ups Vezina Voting *Conn Smythe
Goalie Team Age Rd Pick 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 Cup Winner Cup Finalist
Future #1 Rask Bos 24 1 21 7th
Future #1 Bernier Lak 23 1 11
Future #1 Schneider Van 25 1 26
Future #1 Neuvirth Was 23 2 34
Former #1 Giguere Col 34 1 13 9th 4th 2007 *2003
Former #1 Khabibulin Edm 38 9 204 2004
Former #1 C. Mason Wpg 35 5 122 10th
Former #1 Biron Nyr 34 1 16
Former #1 Niittymaki Sjs 31 6 168
Former #1 Nabokov 36 9 219 2nd 5th 4th
Former #1 Turco 36 5 124 6th
Former #1 Emery 29 4 99 2007
Young #2 Bobrovsky Phi 23 undrafted
Young #2 Gustavsson Tor 27 undrafted
Young #2 Salak Chi 24 undrafted
Young #2 Enroth Buf 23 2 46
Young #2 Harding Min 27 2 38
Young #2 Lindback Nas 23 7 207
Young #2 Montoya Nyi 26 1 6
Young #2 Elliot Stl 26 9 291
Young #2 Dekanich Clb 25 5 146
Vet #2 Boucher Car 34 1 22
Vet #2 Garon Tby 33 2 44

3 thoughts on “The Opportunity Cost of Drafting a Goalie

  1. Pingback: You Can’t Draft Goalies And Neither Can Anybody Else | Edmonton Journal

  2. Pingback: Zach Fucale and Drafting A Goaltender in the First Round | The Hockey Writers

  3. Pingback: Musings on the Draft Position 1, 2, + - Part 4 - Union and Blue - A Columbus Blue Jackets Fan Site - News, Blogs, Opinion and More

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