Several times each season in the NHL a team will start a goalie out of the minor leagues that is making his first NHL appearance – or at least one of his first. For bettors this provides a real challenge. The assumption is often that these goalies are going to struggle. If a bettor believes that the goalie has a better chance of strong performance than the public does then there is a chance for nice value. That means that it is important for bettors to be able to effectively evaluate these raw goalies. Here are six factors to consider when evaluating new goalies in the NHL:
How old are they? – Goaltending at the NHL level is not a game for young men. It takes a long time for all but the most unique of goaltenders to develop and mature sufficiently to be ready for the rigors of the NHL – far more than at any other position. If a goalie is making his NHL debut in the year or two after he has been drafted, then, it is important to be skeptical. I’m not saying that a young goalie can’t be a success. I’m just saying that it doesn’t happen very often. When a young goalie is being played, then, you need to make sure that it is happening for a good reason, and that the guy is ready to play and perform at a high level. More often than not a young goalie is a cause for alarm for bettors.
Where have they been playing? – The NHL is a big step up for any player. Before you can really begin to evaluate a player you need to know where they have been playing up to this point. There are four basic possibilities here. They could have been in the AHL – the highest level minor league. That’s the most ideal and the easiest to evaluate. They could have been in a lower level minor league like the ECHL. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – sometimes teams will spread their best goalie prospects out between their minor league affiliates so that they can get maximum playing time. They could come straight from junior hockey or college hockey. As I said before, that’s almost always a cause for concern. Finally, they could have played in a pro league in Europe. The advantage there is that they have been playing against pro level competition. In many places that competition is just a small step below the NHL. The problem, though, is that the transition from Europe to the NHL has frequently proven difficult – at least in the short term – for a lot of goalies.
How have they been playing? – Once you look at where they have been playing you obviously need to consider how they have been playing. You can’t get too blinded by the numbers here – the statistics in a lesser league are not going to translate to the NHL. There are two things I really like to focus on, though – progress and relative performance. By progress I mean I want to see that the goalie is improving as a player. Is he getting more playing time? That shows that he is gaining trust form his coaches. Is his save percentage improving? This is one of the better simple measures of how well a performer is playing – far better than goals against average. By relative performance I mean that I want to see how the goalie stacks up against the rest of the league he is in. If a goalie isn’t among the elite goalies wherever he is playing then it would take a leap of faith to assume he’ll be strong in the NHL at this point. It’s important here, though, that you don’t get distracted by stats like wins that are out of the control of the goalie. The best goalie in the world will lose a lot of games if the team in front of him is lousy.
What is their future with the team? – By understanding if the goalie is looked at as the future of the franchise or as just another body in the system you can gain insight into what might be expected of them. If the guy is expected to star for the team in the future then the team isn’t likely to rush him or put him in a position where he won’t thrive unless they need to. A lesser prospect will likely not be protected nearly as much. The hype surrounding the prospect will also have an impact on the public perception – the public will be much happier to bet on a first overall pick than on a guy they have never heard of.
Why have they been called up now? – Sometimes a young goalie will be called up because the team wants to give him an opportunity to experience the NHL level, and because they want to get a better sense of what they have. Other times he’ll be called up because injuries and other circumstances have made them desperate. Chances are much better that the goalie will be ready to shine in the former case than the latter. Other factors to consider here include how long he is likely to be with the big team, and whether he is needed to play or just back-up. You also want to look at how the team is performing. If the team is in the midst of a playoff race then the pressure will be more intense and more will be expected of the player than if the team has struggled and they are just looking towards the future.
What is the team like in front of them? – A goalie can only be as good as the team in front of him. If the defense has struggled, the penalty killing is lousy or the team can’t score then the goalie faces an uphill battle. That’s hard for any goalie, but especially tough for a new guy. What you also need to consider is how well the team plays in front of backup goalies. Some teams just don’t play nearly as well in front of a backup than they do for the starter. It’s as if they know they don’t have the best chance of winning, so they don’t care as much or play as hard. That could be a real problem for a young goalie.