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In recent days, much attention in the CBJ universe has been paid to the possible payout coming for goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. It’s a curious story, and one that could leave Columbus without its top netminder next year if things fall the wrong way. Last season, Bob was simply glorious. His work resulted in a well-deserved nod as the 2013 Vezina winner, and we’ve even praised him in this space as the CBJ MVP (a slightly less prestigious award, perhaps).

Unfortunately for Columbus fans, 2012-2013 marked the end of Bob’s contract and left him entering restricted free agency. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen has been working contract negotiations ever since. Far better writers have already covered the contract limbo and its possible fallout including Aaron Portzline at the Columbus Dispatch, Morgan at the Dark Blue Jacket, and Alison at The Union Blue. All three articles linked here are well worth a read.

But the lingering thought has been left in the back of my mind: just how much money should a “top” goalie command? With a lowering salary cap, this is a somewhat pressing concern (albeit less so for the relatively low-spending Blue Jackets). But even outside this new-CBA restriction, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of insight recent history would give us.

To satisfy this curiosity, I compiled the list of the top 10 goalies in even strength save percentage in each season from 2008-2009 through 2012-2013 with a minimum of 20 games played. Then I visited the esteemed CapGeek.com to find the cap hits for each player during their respective performances. I’ve averaged within each year and then overall for the 25 goalies. Standard deviations for each year are included and age for each season (from Hockey Reference) are also included The results are tabulated below. Click to see the full table larger.

Top 10 Even Strength Save Percentage Goalies by Year (min 20 GP). Click to enlarge, data from CapGeek, NHL.com, Hockey Reference

Top 10 Even Strength Save Percentage Goalies by Year (min 20 GP). Click to enlarge, data from CapGeek, NHL.com, Hockey Reference

What can we learn from this information? There are a number of reasonable conclusions to reach. The first is one is the quickest point: with an average cap hit for top ten goalies of only $3.301 million per year, a goalie doesn’t need to be paid a lot to make a huge impact. Money does not suggest success, necessarily, so this isn’t a great endorsement of goalie talent analysis. While it’s hard to say NHL GMs are always the most observant lot (compliance buyouts are a thing this year for a reason), it’s still not encouraging that so few high-money goalies are consistent top performers. Talent valuation (in addition to evaluation) is not well-tuned.

Another noteworthy result? There are few repeat performers on these lists. The only goalies with three or more appearances in the top ten: Lundqvist, Vokoun, Hiller, Luongo, Schneider, Rask. Outside of those six netminders, consistent elite status is hard to find.

More particulars to find in the data: Every year there’s at least one sub-$1 million goalie in the top ten, and at least one with a cap hit over $6 million. With standard deviations for hit ranging from ~1.7 to ~2.5. While each season’s salary cap changes, even at the previous top value ($64.3 million in 11-12), a goalie of $3.3 million dollars is 5.1% of cap, with the deviation of $1.7-2.5 million dollars as 2.6-3.9% of the cap.

On the surface, the average-cost elite goalie doesn’t seem like a problem investment, but that deviation and lack of certainty causes the cap allocation to be troubling. In fact, it’s an issue that has been tackled before in a more thorough statistical exploration. Gabe Desjardins observed that goaltender save percentage is quite random. In fact, he concludes we could need up to four years of data before understanding true talent level of a goalie. Thus, the variation between goalies each year at the elite save percentage level shouldn’t be surprising: we can hardly be sure any single year is representative of the player’s actual ability. (Be sure to check out that Desjardins article and the corresponding graph. It’s quick but exceptionally informative.)

The moral of this story: big-scale investment in a goalie isn’t a guaranteed way to the top unless they’re a unique talent like Lundqvist, Luongo, or Vokoun. Specifically for Columbus? Giving Bobrovsky a significant cap hit contract is a risk, and it seems just as likely that a cheap goalie would result in great save percentage as a an expensive one. Maybe a good trade or a strong enough offer sheet would be a better choice for the Jackets than a $5+ million contract.

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