Red Wings 2015-16 Season Preview: The Goalies, Part I of II

If you read my first post for WIIM, you know that goaltending has long been a passion of mine. My favorite player growing up (and subsequent reason I'm a Red Wings fan) was Dominik Hasek, and I've played the equivalent position in soccer for nearing 20 years. Upon joining the site last season, I planned on using analytics to examine the the team's goaltending performance, especially important given we were getting our first extended look at Petr Mrazek's young and potentially budding career. I soon discovered it wasn't to be; MikeMorrisSantaRosa already had it covered and then some. You see, while I do indeed know a thing or two about hockey analytics, Mr. Morris is an actual data scientist. I'm a millwright who knows a few big words. But with season preview season upon us and Mr. Morris moving on to bigger and better projects, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to finally put my passion for goaltending into words.

The are some interesting subplots to the preseason in Detroit this season. Receiving most of the attention are the rookie head coach and the tantalizingly talented first-year pro pushing to make the team, but there is something else bubbling softly under the surface. There are two elephants in the (locker) room. And they're wearing the 40-pound pads. We all know what happened to Jimmy Howard last season. And we're all well aware of how Mrazek responded in his absence. But with a full offseason of training and fresh face behind the bench, nobody seems to have an idea who will be between the pipes, and how often, under Jeff Blashill.

In the second installment of this series I'm going to be taking a closer look at both Howard and Mrazek (with the help of some seriously smart people), but for the purposes of part I of this season preview I am going to keep it relatively simple.

The biggest problem, analytically speaking, in assessing Petr Mrazek's past performance is that we have nowhere near a sufficient amount of data to draw any determinate conclusions. When attempting to issue judgement on a player, we generally want at least two full seasons worth of data to extract from, and ideally three or more. This is especially important with goalies, given the volatile and largely luck-driven nature of the position. In addition to this volatility, much has been written about the way that goalies age. While the studies haven't been unanimous in every aspect of their respective conclusions (few are), there are a few takeaways that are largely the same across the board, all of which are expressed by @petbugs13 in a piece for NHL Numbers: outside of the most elite talents, goalie decline begins around age 30, that declination increases in rate exponentially at 35, and, perhaps most interestingly, NHL goalies generally do not improve over time.

Graph courtesy of @petbugs13, NHL Numbers

That last point is very important when considering where Detroit is as a franchise at the goalie position. We'll discuss this more in detail in part II, but the Red Wings received roughly league-average goaltending last season. They did so by employing a 31-year-old with a cap hit north of $5 million, and a 23-year-old with one south of $1 million. Contrary to what the narrative machine would have you believe, the 23-year-old is entering his prime, while while the 31-year-old is exiting his. The long-accepted theory in the analytics community regarding goalie handling has been that, outside of the elite, top-five level goalies, it doesn't make sense financially to spend significant money on the position. Devan Dubnyk and Braden Holtby are perfect examples from last season of how making shrewd moves in the goalie market can yield both superior results, as well as increased cap flexibility.

Right now the Red Wings have only one cost-effective goalie on the roster. Petr Mrazek has a $737,500 cap hit this year and will be a restricted free agent after the season. We should have a better idea of his career trajectory at that time, and the team will likely have the option to sign him to a fairly low-risk extension. Meanwhile, Jimmy Howard carries a $5,291,665 cap hit for the next four seasons. History tells us that, barring a glaring statistical anomaly, that deal is going to look very bad, and possibly very soon. If Mrazek outplays or even plays to a similar level as Howard this season, don't be surprised if it's Howard's last in Detroit.

Special thanks to @petbugs13 for contributing to this post