Who's the Number One Goalie?

WASHINGTON DC - FEBRUARY 12: Semyon Varlamov #1 of the Washington Capitals warms up before the game against the Los Angeles Kings at the Verizon Center on February 12 2011 in Washington DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Since Michal Neuvirth stepped up to lead the Caps through the first quarter of the season there has been a minor goalie controversy in DC. Most fans have lined up behind either Michal Neuvirth or Semyon Varlamov to be the primary starter, but there is also a small-but-vocal contingent clamoring for an upgrade in goaltending via trade. Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau has done little to limit this discussion, stating that he would withhold determining a number one starter until the final ten games of the season.

Despite the unwillingness of Boudreau to commit to a goalie, if we look at statistical performance the decision may already be made. Let’s start by comparing Varlamov’s and Neuvirth’s "traditional" goaltending stats.

Semyon Varlamov
22 9
1297 .925
Michal Neuvirth
32 16 8 4
2.47 1774

Varlamov has better numbers – a higher save percentage and better GAA – but Neuvirth has a much better points percentage (0.643 vs 0.524). Granted, Neuvirth has received much stronger offensive support than Varlamov (3.15 vs 1.99), likely due to Neuvirth receiving a bulk of the starts at the beginning of the season before the Caps' scoring went dry.

Let’s take this comparison one step further by performing a simple Expected Goals (EG) analysis. This is where we look at each shot-on-goal faced by Caps goaltenders this season and assign a probability of scoring based on its distance. A goalie who lets in more goals than he’s expected to is below-average; conversely, a goalie who lets in fewer goals than his expected output is above-average. (Shot probabilities do not account for shot types - slap shots, wristers, backhands, etc. - hence it’s a simple EG analysis.)

Let’s line up the stats from the Expected Goals analysis and compare the two goalies:

EG Δ Goals
Δ G/60
Semyon Varlamov
1237 48
Michal Neuvirth
1774 73
77.7 -4.7

AG - Actual Goals Against, EG - Expected Goals Against

If the traditional stats lean towards Varlamov as #1 goaltender, the Expected Goals analysis confirms it. Not only does Varlamov have a higher save percentage and lower goals against average than Neuvirth, he’s proven to be a more valuable player. Varlamov saves the Caps 0.52 goals/game over average goaltending, roughly 0.36 more goals than what Neuvirth preserves. That’s a sizable difference and one that validates Semyon Varlamov as the best Caps goaltender this year. (Remove his anomalous 7-0 loss against the Rangers on December 6, and his numbers improve even more.) If the playoffs started today, the stats point to Varly getting the nod. Better yet for Caps fans, Varlamov’s stats show that he’s evolving into one of the NHL’s better goalies.

So what does this say about Michal Neuvirth? A lot of good actually. Neuvirth has saved the Caps roughly 0.16 goals/game, an above-average number. Considering Neuvirth’s a rookie on an entry-level contract who will only improve with experience – let’s work on those rebounds, Michal – Boudreau is right when he says the Caps have two young, starting-caliber goaltenders. Consequently, talk of upgrading goaltending at the deadline is unjustified considering the Caps more pressing needs at forward. Throw in an up-and-coming Braden Holtby in Hershey and the Caps are indeed well-stocked in talent at the goaltender position.

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