Breaking Down What a Heavy Workload Means for Goalies in Stanley Cup Playoffs

Dave Lozo@@davelozoNHL National Lead WriterApril 14, 2015

CALGARY, AB - FEBRUARY 18: Devan Dubnyk #40 of the Minnesota Wild sprawls to make a save against the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome on February 18, 2015 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)
Gerry Thomas/Getty Images

During a furious, unrelenting push for a playoff spot, sometimes coaches are forced to ride their No. 1 goaltender all the way to the finish line. With points at a premium and/or a less than reliable backup, it's difficult to find rest for the starter.

While that's a perfectly acceptable blueprint for reaching the postseason, it's generally not a recipe for playoff success.

Meet Devan Dubnyk of the Minnesota Wild, Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals and Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators.

They are three excellent goaltenders having seasons worthy of Hart Trophy or Vezina Trophy consideration. The other thing they have in common is they have all been ridden extremely hard down the stretch, so hard that if they were horses and their coaches were jockeys they'd be receiving strongly worded letters from ASPCA in the coming days.

What can we learn, if anything, from the recent past about what a goaltender's workload near the end of the season means for the postseason? Because I have nothing better to do, I looked through the numbers for the past five regular seasons and postseasons to see if a heavy/light/medium workload has any bearing on playoff success.

For 82-game seasons without Olympic breaks (2011-12, 2010-11), I looked at the final 30 regular-season games; for Olympic break seasons (2009-10, 2013-14), I looked at each team's games after the break, and for the lockout season (2013), I looked at the final two months of the season.

The sample size for this is 69 goaltenders, not 80, only because there were some situations where late-season injuries (Ben Bishop/Anders Lindback) or time-shares (Cory Schneider/Roberto Luongo, Brian Boucher/Michael Leighton) made it impossible to really study anything. 

Heavy workloads = zero Stanley Cups

The last goaltender to win a Stanley Cup while playing at least 70 regular-season games was Martin Brodeur for the New Jersey Devils in 2003. Quick made 69 starts for the Kings in 2012, although he played a mere 20 postseason games while facing just 538 shots, so his playoff workload was as light as it gets for someone playing four rounds.

But 70 out of 82 is 85.3 percent; in the past five seasons, no goaltender to play at least 85 percent of his team's late-season games has won a Stanley Cup.

It doesn't mean that goaltenders fitting that category have all done poorly or had their games dip dramatically, but overall, the effect of playing all those games in February-March-April has a negative effect on games in April-May-June.

Before we look at everyone 85 percent and higher, let's look at the heaviest of the heavy workloads. There have been 20 goaltenders that have played at least 85 percent of their team's final stretch of games over the past five seasons.  

85%+ workload playoff goaltenders since 2009-10
GoaltenderSeasonPct. of gamesRegSv%POSv%Result
Pekka Rinne201197% (29 of 30).930.9072nd round loss
Antti Niemi201197% (29 of 30).920.8963rd round loss
Corey Crawford201197% (29 of 30).917.9271st round loss
Jimmy Howard201095% (20 of 21).924.9152nd round loss
Ilya Bryzgalov201193% (28 of 30).921.8791st round loss
Henrik Lundqvist201193% (28 of 30).923.9271st round loss
Henrik Lundqvist201393% (27 of 29).926.9342nd round loss
Antti Niemi201393% (27 of 29).924.9302nd round loss
Martin Brodeur201090% (19 of 21).916.8811st round loss
Evgeni Nabokov201090% (18 of 20).922.9073rd round loss
Antti Niemi201290% (27 of 30).915.9141st round loss
Mike Smith201290% (27 of 30).930.9443rd round loss
Pekka Rinne201290% (27 of 30).923.9292nd round loss
Jimmy Howard201389% (24 of 27).923.9242nd round loss
Evgeni Nabokov201389% (24 of 27).910.8421st round loss
Carey Price201187% (26 of 30).923.9341st round loss
Craig Anderson201086% (18 of 21).917.9331st round loss
Pekka Rinne201086% (18 of 21).9110.91061st round loss
Marc-Andre Fleury201085% (17 of 20).905.8912nd round loss
James Reimer201385% (22 of 26).924.9231st round loss
Totals------>------>.920.914No Cup Finals

On average, there's a six-point drop in save percentage in the postseason for the most overused goaltenders. Of those 20 goaltenders, 11 had a decline, which isn't a vast majority, but on the whole, there's a significant decrease in save percentage for those goaltenders with none having reached the Stanley Cup final.

Weirdly enough, two of the three times a goaltender reached the conference finals were both with the San Jose Sharks (Nabokov, Niemi). In 2010, Nabokov went 0-4 in the conference finals (against Niemi) with a .905 save percentage; in 2011, Niemi went 1-4 in the conference finals with an abhorrent .869 save percentage.

Phoenix's Mike Smith in 2012 went 1-4 in the conference finals but with a splendid .936 save percentage; his problem was going against a more-rested Quick, who had a .939 save percentage in the series, and a Kings team that was just objectively better.

As good as that .936 is, it's still an eight-point drop from what Smith posted total in three rounds.

If we only include the 15 goaltenders to play 89 percent or more of their team's late-season games, there's an even bigger drop in save percentage, from .922 to .914.

It seems only logical that the more worn-down the goaltender becomes in March and April, the greater the likelihood his performance will take a dip during the second season. Of the nine goaltenders to post better numbers in the playoffs despite that, eight didn't get out of the second round. Sure, maybe they weren't to blame in most of those cases, but what would they have done if called up to play another 10-14 games?

What can we learn of those goaltenders that did reach the Stanley Cup final?

Stanley Cup finalists and workloads

Here are nine of the 10 goaltenders (the Boucher/Leighton split excludes them) to reach a Stanley Cup final since 2009-10 and their pertinent numbers. 

Stanley Cup final goaltenders since 2009-10
SeasonGoaltenderPct. of gamesRegSv%POSv%Result
2010Antti Niemi81% (17 of 21).912.910Won Cup
2011Tim Thomas67% (20 of 30).938.940Won Cup
2011Roberto Luongo70% (21 of 30).928.914Lost Cup
2012Jonathan Quick83% (25 of 30).929.946Won Cup
2012Martin Brodeur83% (25 of 30).908.917Lost Cup
2013Corey Crawford64% (18 of 28).926.932Won Cup
2013Tuukka Rask71% (21 of 31).929.940Lost Cup
2014Jonathan Quick74% (17 of 23).915.911Won Cup
2014Henrik Lundqvist83% (19 of 23).922.927Lost Cup

Quite the difference, no? Only three goaltenders saw their numbers drop in the postseason and overall, the group's save percentage increased by two points. That's fascinating to me, because in the numbers involving 85 percent and above goaltenders, we're talking about a regular-season sample size that's around six times greater than the postseason numbers; here, it's only about a 2-to-1 difference between regular season and postseason.

But the small sample size is somewhat problematic, since if Niemi in 2010, Quick and Brodeur in 2012 and Lundqvist in 2013 play one more regular-season game, they reach our boogeyman number of 85 percent. Are we to believe that if they all played 60 more regular-season minutes, history would be different? Would the Flyers have won the Cup in 2010?

What am I, a time traveler with access to parallel universes? And if I was, you think I'm changing outcomes of hockey games and not telling myself to change my college major to business? Or investing in tech stocks in the late-90s? Come on, people. 

Since my time machine is not completed, all I can do is expand the field to look at all goaltenders that fall around that magic 74 percent number of Cup final goaltenders and see if there's anything to learn.

That 70s (percent) Show

Is the ideal percentage of games to play down the stretch in the 70s? 

70-79% workload goaltenders since 2009-10
GoaltenderSeasonPct. of gamesRegSv%POSv%Result
Braden Holtby201379% (23 of 29).920.9221st round loss
Jaroslav Halak201079% (15 of 19).924.9233rd round loss
Brian Elliott201079% (15 of 19).909.8531st round loss
Ilya Bryzgalov201079% (15 of 19).920.9061st round loss
Steve Mason201478% (18 of 23).917.9391st round loss
Corey Crawford201477% (17 of 22).917.9123rd round loss
Henrik Lundqvist201277% (23 of 30).930.9313rd round loss
Marc-Andre Fleury201277% (23 of 30).913.8341st round loss
Jonathan Quick201377% (23 of 30).902.9343rd round loss
Ryan Miller201177% (23 of 30).916.9171st round loss
Dwayne Roloson201177% (23 of 30).914.9243rd round loss
Roberto Luongo201076% (16 of 21).913.8952nd round loss
Jonathan Quick201474% (17 of 23).915.911Won Cup
Jose Theodore201273% (22 of 30).917.9191st round loss
Jonathan Quick201173% (22 of 30).918.9131st round loss
Ilya Bryzgalov201273% (22 of 30).909.8872nd round loss
Tuukka Rask201073% (16 of 22).931.9122nd round loss
Tuukka Rask201371% (22 of 31).929.940Lost Cup
Jimmy Howard201471% (17 of 24).910.9311st round loss
Kari Lehtonen201471% (17 of 24).919.8851st round loss
Marc-Andre Fleury201471% (17 of 24).9154.91532nd round loss
Roberto Luongo201170% (21 of 30).928.914Lost Cup
Antti Niemi201470% (16 of 23).913.8841st round loss

There's still a decline, but it's only two percentage points compared to the six percentage points in the 85 percent and higher group. Each group of goaltenders came to rest at .914, so are we, and by we I mean I, wasting your time and my time by looking into this? Is goaltending just a crap shoot that can't be predicted in especially small sample sizes?

Well, yeah, sort of. Maybe. But one thing to consider is how all these goaltenders that get knocked out in the first round tend to skew the overall number. Of the 34 goaltenders under consideration to lose in the first round, 22 had worse playoff save percentages compared to their regular-season numbers. That's just a normal part of playing one playoff series and going home.

Even though that's a lot of goaltenders, it's just a bunch of small samples, almost all negative, that don't tell us anything we don't know — if you lose in seven games or fewer, your numbers aren't going to look at all that good most times.

Do the goaltenders who reach the conference finals have any shared characteristics that can tell us something about workloads?

Final Four Goaltenders

There's some overlap with the previous charts, but here are the goaltenders that reached conference finals since 2010. 

Conference finals goaltenders since 2009-10
SeasonGoaltenderPct. of gamesRegSv%POSv%Result
2010Antti Niemi81% (17 of 21).912.910Won Cup
2010Evgeni Nabokov90% (18 of 20).922.9073rd round loss
2010Jaroslav Halak79% (15 of 19).924.9233rd round loss
2011Tim Thomas67% (20 of 30).938.940Won Cup
2011Roberto Luongo70% (21 of 30).928.914Lost Cup
2011Antti Niemi97% (29 of 30).920.8963rd round loss
2011Dwayne Roloson77% (23 of 30).914.9243rd round loss
2012Jonathan Quick83% (25 of 30).929.946Won Cup
2012Martin Brodeur83% (25 of 30).908.917Lost Cup
2012Henrik Lundqvist77% (23 of 30).930.9313rd round loss
2012Mike Smith90% (27 of 30).930.9443rd round loss
2013Corey Crawford64% (18 of 28).926.932Won Cup
2013Tuukka Rask71% (21 of 31).929.940Lost Cup
2013Jonathan Quick77% (23 of 30).902.9343rd round loss
2014Jonathan Quick74% (17 of 23).915.911Won Cup
2014Henrik Lundqvist83% (19 of 23).922.927Lost Cup
2014Carey Price48% (11 of 23).927.9193rd round loss
2014Corey Crawford77% (17 of 22).917.9123rd round loss

There's no Marc-Andre Fleury or Tomas Vokoun from the Penguins' 2013 run to the conference finals, because I wasn't sure which goaltender to use. Fleury was, of course, terrible, and he only played 19 of 27 down the stretch. Vokoun appeared in nine of those 27 games and improved dramatically in the postseason. Instead of choosing one or the other to skew the numbers one way, neither makes the chart. Too bad!

The average late-season workloads of goaltenders to reach the final four since 2010 is 76.8 percent; as you may recall the average late-season workloads of goaltenders to reach the final since 2010 is 74.3. 

Five of the eight goaltenders to have their numbers take a dive in the postseason were 76.8 percent of higher; Quick (74%) was making his third deep run into the postseason, so maybe there was a cumulative fatigue effect on him. Price was injured at the start of the conference finals and spent a chunk of the post-Olympic break rehabbing an injury.

Of the 10 goaltenders to see a rise in save percentage, nine were below 85 percent in late-season workload. Consider Smith your ray of hope if you cheer for a team that overworked its goaltender over the final 30 games of this season.

It seems that no matter how the numbers are sliced, parsed and massaged, goaltenders that find themselves above the 85 percent threshold aren't as successful as those below it, even if the difference is minimal. The more-rested goaltenders have better track records while the outliers tend to be perennially elite goaltenders, so there's some more hope.

Here are the 69 goaltenders categorized by the round in which their seasons ended, and to me, it really highlights how the heavier workloads down the stretch can be a problem.

Goaltender Round-by-round, workloads, save percentages
Season ended in...Pct. of gamesRegSv%POSv%Difference
Round 177.2%.917.908-.009
Round 273.2%.921.915-.004
Round 376.8%.923.924+.001
Round 474.3%.924.926+.002

The second-round numbers appear to put a dent in the workload theory, but the rest factor looks greater because Craig Anderson (2013), Braden Holtby (2012) and Brian Elliott (2012) combined to play 34.5 percent of their teams' games down the stretch due to injuries or a late-season emergence. Remove that trio from the equation and goaltenders that lost second-round series the past five years combined to play 82.3 percent of their team's homestretch games.

The 2014-15 season

Let's wrap this up by looking at the 16 probable postseason starters for each team (some goaltending situations are messy as the playoffs approach, as Vancouver and St. Louis have yet to name a starter) and figure out who is in likely trouble and who finds themselves in more ideal situations.

2014-15 Playoff Goaltenders' Workloads
GoaltenderGPPct. of final 30RegSv%
Devan Dubnyk5829 of 30 (96.7%).929
Braden Holtby7328 of 30 (93.3%).923
Pekka Rinne6425 of 30 (83.3%).923
Eddie Lack4125 of 30 (83.3%).921
Carey Price6624 of 30 (80%).933
Andrew Hammond2424 of 30 (80%).941
Corey Crawford5723 of 30 (76.7%).924
Marc-Andre Fleury6422 of 30 (73.3%).920
Ben Bishop6221 of 30 (70%).916
Jimmy Howard5321 of 30 (70%).910
Jaroslav Halak5921 of 30 (70%).914
Brian Elliott4621 of 30 (70%).917
Ondrej Pavelec5018 of 30 (60%).920
Jonas Hiller5217 of 30 (56.7%).918
Jake Allen3713 of 30 (43.3%).913
Frederik Andersen5411 of 30 (36.7%).914
Henrik Lundqvist467 of 30 (23.3%).922
Ryan Miller455 of 30 (16.7%).911

What a weird year for goaltending! So many time shares and so many goaltenders sidelined by injury during the second half of the season. What can we take from this?

• Braden Holtby and Devan Dubnyk are clearly the goalies we should be worried about. But they have two things going for them: Holtby is only 25 years old, and young people can do amazing things, or so I've heard and vaguely remember, and Dubnyk only played 58 games, as he spent part of the season as a backup in Arizona.

• The flip side of that is all those goaltenders that played 60 percent or fewer of their teams' late-season games. Nine of the past 10 Cup Final goaltenders were above that threshold, with only the weirdness of the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers bucking that trend. Lundqvist won't be sharing time, so maybe this doesn't apply to him, but there's a chance the other five goaltenders will give way to backups before the playoffs are over.

• Everyone else is right in that sweet spot for getting in their work without overdoing it. Maybe Rinne at age 32 playing that many games is worrisome. Then again, he's in almost the same place Lundqvist was for his Cup Final run last year. But if you're a fan of the Blackhawks and Islanders, you have to feel pretty good about everything involving Corey Crawford and Jaroslav Halak.

This has been a really strange year in the NHL, so maybe the recent history won't matter. Maybe Holtby has a .945 in 26 games and wins the Cup; maybe Jake Allen grabs the reins and brings St. Louis a title or perhaps two goaltenders somewhere from the middle of that last chart meet in the Final.

However, the numbers show Holtby and Dubnyk are in the danger zone. Rinne isn't far off. 

Be wary the overworked goaltender during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

All statistics via NHL.com. Advanced stats via Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com and Puck On Net.

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.