Carey Price‘s numbers for the Montreal Canadiens last season were excellent. He was easily the most impactful player in the league. When we account for the difficulty of shots he was facing, a picture is painted of a goaltender that was singlehandedly the difference between his team fighting for a playoff spot and finishing second in the conference with over 100 points.
Price ended the season by winning the Hart, Pearson, Vezina, and Jennings Trophies. He ensured that his name would be in the conversation when discussing the best goalies of this generation. But do his results from a single season warrant the recent comparisons that have been made between him and all-time greats such as Dominik Hasek and Patrick Roy?
It may seem relatively early in his career to debate the point one way or another, but so far the statistical argument would fall heavily on the side of no, he is not deserving of those comparisons.
Last season was the first of Price’s eight-year career where he posted a save percentage of .930 or higher. From 2007-08 through 2014-15, six other goaltenders have hit the .930 mark in at least one season, including Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask, who both managed the feat twice. Dominik Hasek matched or exceeded the .930 plateau five times in his 14 NHL seasons. No other goalie has done it more than twice. So, even at the most superficial level this would suggest that Price needs to post another four seasons of .930 or better goaltending to make this a reasonable comparison.
Unfortunately for those interested in suggesting Price is superior to Hasek, the superficial argument is the best one to be made at this point. If we hope to make a fair assessment of goaltending skill, it also makes sense to account for the current state of the position in any given era. In essence, it would be logical to compare a goaltender to their peers in the league at the time they are playing. When we make that kind of comparison, Price isn’t remotely in the conversation as one of the game’s all-time greats and he has a ways to go to even surpass some of his younger peers currently playing in the NHL.
Most observers are aware NHL save percentages have been rising consistently over time. If we examine the average NHL save percentage over the past 32 years, we can see that it has risen from just above .870 in the early 1980s to .915, where it sat last season. Put another way, the worst goaltender in the NHL last season statistically, 36-year-old Niklas Backstrom, posted an .887 save percentage. His results would have tied Bob Froese and Murray Bannerman for the seventh-best save percentage in the NHL in 1983-84. That would be well ahead of Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr’s .883, Greg Millen’s .878 or Tony Esposito’s .859.
The average goaltender in the NHL last year was essentially Antti Niemi and his .914 save percentage – and his results would have ranked first in the NHL every year before 1991-92. That year, Patrick Roy led the NHL in save percentage for the fourth time in five seasons (also the last time he would do so).
One of the best ways we can compare NHL goalies to their peers in a given year is by comparing their results via the statistical concept of standard deviation. Essentially, in any given year, we can measure how spread out the save percentage results are for the goalies in the league by calculating how far away the average goaltender’s save percentage numbers are from the median, giving us the standard deviation. Then we can assess how many standard deviations above average the goaltender in question is in a given season.
If we weight the results for each year by the number of games a goalie plays and find his career average, we have an era-adjusted measure that lets us compare how skilled goaltenders are relative to their peers across their careers as shown below.
When we look at this ranking a few things become obvious. First, Dominik Hasek and Patrick Roy were amazing. Second, Carey Price really has a long way to go before he should be compared to those two goalies. Tuukka Rask and Cory Schneider are much better names to include in that conversation at this stage of proceedings.
Realistically among active goalies, Price would rank seventh in terms of career results to date in this conversation. If we want to compare him to Hasek he’ll have to first move ahead of the six active goalies with better numbers than Price.
Does Price deserve the recognition he got for the great numbers he posted last year? Absolutely. Do we have reason to assume he’ll continue posting those otherworldly numbers? Maybe, though given how unpredictable goaltender results are I wouldn’t assume it will happen.
Do we have enough information yet to suggest he should be described as an all-time great? No, we don’t. His numbers last year were only 0.342 standard deviations above the average NHL save percentage, while Hasek averaged 0.412 standard deviations above the typical NHL save percentage for his career. Hasek was insanely talented and his results were light years ahead of his peers.
There is really no logical comparison to be made between Hasek’s numbers and any other goalie currently in the NHL, including Carey Price.