Goalie Equivalencies and the Goalie Equivalency Track

grayscale photo of ice hockey player

League translations (aka equivalencies or NHLes) have long been used to project how a player will produce when making the jump from one league to the NHL. Specifically to this very site, equivalencies have been used to project out whether drafted and potentially drafted forwards and defensemen will make the NHL and/or turn into offensive stars in the NHL. There’s a lot that equivalencies can tell you about a player. Hitting higher equivalencies earlier and moving rapidly through different thresholds is key to a player making the NHL and outperforming their peers once they get there.

One thing that has always been missing from this type of research is an equivalent measurement for goalies. Naturally, goalies don’t have an equivalency like a forward or a defenseman would, as they don’t produce points. However, is there a way to generate a similar score with a similar translation approach? The simple answer is yes.

Goalies are widely regarded as the hardest position to properly project. Unlike forwards and defensemen, the first goalies taken each year aren’t always locks to make the NHL. The overall success rates for F, D and G are all about the same (~25% for F and D and 23% for goalies), although goalies take much longer to make it and they also have much more of a runway before you can say they’ve busted or not. The NHL success rate of 1st round drafted goalies is only ~50% compared to ~75% for forwards and defensemen. Conversely, the success rate in later rounds (4 through 7) for goalies is much higher than forwards and defensemen. Goalies take 3 to 7 years to develop after being drafted, compared to 2 to 5 for F and D. Their prime hits when they are about 25-27 years of age. Projecting out that far and picking the goalies that will be great that far down the road has always been a very difficult task. Hence, why the position is often referred to as ‘voodoo’.

While voodoo remains, Hockey Prospecting has identified a way to significantly reduce the risk of goalie picks and increase the odds of finding an NHL goaltender. Through the GOALIE EQUIVALENCY TRACK.

What Is the Goalie Equivalency Track?

The equivalency is based on the save percentage of the goalie by league, standardized by era, applying a standard adder to each score (to make them positive) and applying the league translation to the score. We use that score and track the goalie the same way we track forwards and defensemen, by watching how the score grows from their pre-draft season through multiple post draft seasons. Because the development path is much longer, we track goalies until their D5 (five seasons after their first eligible draft year) – seven years in total. Forwards and defensemen are only tracked to their D3 (three seasons after their first eligible draft year)

The model works in a way that it adds up the goalie’s equivalency score from their D-1 to D7, giving the user a look at their probability at each moment of the development curve (D0 to D7). The model works differently from the forwards and defensemen models in that goalies won’t have a probability of NHL greater than ~60% in the draft year. This is because of the additive nature of the score. Whereas a forward or defensemen, if they’ve already hit the highest equivalency groups at the time of the draft, could have more of a guarantee and higher probability.

As well, the goalie receive more points and it’s more partial to goalies if they’re getting starts in the NHL (obviously) or in a top tier Euro league (e.g., KHL, SHL, Liiga, Czech, Swiss). This is because they have higher translations. But the logic here makes sense as well. There’s so very few goalie positions at the highest level and it’s such an important position. In most cases, a goalie that makes the NHL needs to see progressively harder competition and shots. Goalies that tend to do well in in Europe, facing men, and especially early on (i.e., u20), tend to make the NHL much more than CHL goalies.

In most cases, the goalies that the model predicts will make the NHL have the highest aggregate ‘goalie equivalency’ score at each stage. What’s also important to note here is a goalie needs a path to rack up the higher scores or their chances really drop off. The truly elite CHLers have a simple path. They will play in the CHL for 1 to 3 years after being drafted and then they quickly go straight to the NHL (Carey Price, MAF, Carter Hart). If a goalie is not elite enough they will spend 2 or 3 years in the CHL or lower tier. Then bounce between the AHL and ECHL, where the translation isn’t near NHL or elite Euro league level. Most of these goalies never make the NHL and don’t rack up a high score in the model.

Part of this is their circumstances. Unless they make the NHL right away, which happens about once a decade with goalies, they’re legally stuck in the CHL until they’re about 20 years of age. So they can’t go on to college or the AHL and start to increase their score through better leagues. Euro goalies do not have this problem.

Goalies in Europe don’t have to follow little age eligibility protocols. A Russian goalie can be in the second tier league (i.e., VHL) or top tier league (i.e., KHL) as early as their pre-draft year. Same for Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic and other European goalies. Therefore, they can start to add up high scores, from Euro Men’s league starts, nearly immediately in their cycle. The model favors them more because of this but also these Euro goalies are being groomed in a different, better way. They’re facing tougher competition, competition that is closer in mimicking what they’ll face in the NHL. But it also favors them because they have more success in the NHL compared to North American goalies.

Here’s a look at the success rates within North American and Euro Groups…

The success rates with Euro goalies is obvious and substantial. From 1990 to 2010 they had by far the greatest success rates and this continues to hold with goalies drafted post-2010 as well. Yet the Euro goalies are not often the first ones to go. It’s not uncommon for many North American goalies to be drafted before Euro goalies. But look what happens if we split the Euro group into the ones that are playing in a men’s league in their D1 vs. the ones that aren’t. The better the goalie is (i.e., the quicker they’re playing high-caliber competition, the better their chances of making the NHL).

As I mentioned above, North American goalies, specifically CHL goalies, don’t have the same access to elite competition based on how North America is structured and how their deals with their respective CHL clubs work. So is there a way to find the best ones from the CHL using this method as well. If we follow the principles of “better than most at an early age” we can get somewhere.

The success rate overall for the CHL is 23%. But let’s split the groups up a bit more. If we look at goalies that were in the CHL already in their pre-draft year vs. goalies that just made the CHL in their draft year the success rates are 27% and 22% respectively. So we see a bit of a lift. But what if the goalie is not only in the CHL in their pre-draft year, they’re a starter or at least a 1A/1B (e.g., get into 25 games minimum in their pre-draft year) and only focus on the goalies that have at least an average or better save percentage by era (i.e., equivalency score). Now that percentage shifts to 35%.

All that to say, the goalie equivalency track isn’t perfect but it does help point us in the direction of finding goalies at the draft that have a higher chance of making the NHL. Here’s the NHLer success rates of goalies drafted between 1990 and 2010, broken up by probability percentile groups for D3 to D5. The results get better and better each year at predicting the goalies that are going to make it, as more data about the goalie can be gathered. But we already have a good idea by the D3 of a goalie’s chances. Sometimes even before (e.g., Euro goalies that are immediately having success in men’s leagues).

With that, the Goalie Comparison Tool is now live (members can find it in the tools section).

Not a member yet? Sign up here…

Let’s wet your whistle with a few examples…

Yaroslav Askarov – Askarov was the prized goalie piece of the 2020 draft and was the highest drafted goalie since Carey Price (2005). Askarov, to his credit, looks every bit as good, via the model, as he was advertised (by scouting and draft projections). Askarov has everything. He’s young, athletic, tall and already excelling in a men’s Euro league (VHL). I would compare him most closely to Kari Lehtonen. He’s also already putting up an insane save percentage in the KHL in his D1. Askarov is one of the best looking goalies in the entire model (as of their first eligible draft year). It looks like there’s little chance Nashville doesn’t hit on Askarov. Goalies that look like this make the NHL almost every time.

Spencer Knight – Knight, a product of the USDP program, currently sits at a 45% chance of becoming an NHL goalie. Knight, the first goalie taken in the 2019 draft, has been progressing well and you might think that’s a low projection. However, again, North American goalies aren’t benefited the same track as Euro goalies and don’t have as much success. As well, if you look at all goalies drafted from the USDP program over the past 30 or so years, only really John Gibson and Jack Campbell (to some degree) have made the NHL. So that 45% probability (as of his D1 results) seems perfectly in line and is actually pretty good, for NA goalies after their D1. You’ll see below, Knight is trending very similar to Gibson to this point. Like Gibson, if Knight sees good to great results in his first season in the AHL he’ll be up in the NHL before you know it. With moderate results with NHL starts (even in a back-up role), his score will skyrocket, just like Gibson.

Ilya Konovalov – Konovalov was taken as a 3+ overager in 2019 (his first eligible draft year was in 2016). Normally a 3+ overager at any position is a write-off but it looks like there’s something here. He was drafted after having a very good year in the KHL but he was putting together good work in the VHL a few seasons before (the VHL is essentially the KHL’s AHL league and has an equivalency similar to the Liiga). Konovalov has a similar profile to a guy like Nabokov. Drafted as an overager, putting up good results in Russia for years before coming over. He isn’t really talked about but Konovalov could be a big, big piece for the Oilers. He’s set to come over to North America shortly. If he has good results early in the AHL, I think we’re going to see him in the NHL very soon.

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