NCAA Hockey 101: Making Hobey Baker case for an Army goalie

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Last week in this space we talked about the Hobey Baker race and how very few goaltenders ever appear to warrant consideration for the award.

The only goaltender to win it in recent memory is Ryan Miller, who played almost every second for Michigan State in 2000-01 and had a .950 save percentage when the national average was in the low .900s. Just a bananas season that is basically impossible to replicate under modern goaltending conditions.

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And to that end, it seems that if the task for a goalie who wants to win the Hobey is “make as much of a difference as Ryan Miller,” then Ryan Miller will go down as the last goalie to ever win the Hobey. By comparison a goalie today would probably have to be about .965 or better while playing basically every game for an entire season, which seems physically impossible.

In fact, the introduction of the Mike Richter Award, given annually to the nation’s best goalie, seems to be something of a Cy Young For Hockey. While a goaltender is technically eligible for the Hobey, the existence of the Richter makes it even more difficult (in voters’ minds) to justify awarding the big prize to a netminder. They have their own award now, and it seems that no one can be as transcendent as Miller was a decade and a half ago.

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But with that having been said, it’s very rare that a great goalie isn’t going to at least be one of the two or three most valuable players in college hockey, because there’s often at least one who ends the season up around .940 or at the very least in that neighborhood. The ability to stop that many pucks is going to make a huge difference for a team’s win total, especially in college hockey where percentages play a bigger role than they do in the NHL.


Obviously the Hobey isn’t a most valuable player award in theory, but that only comes into play when voters don’t want to vote for someone because they don’t like him. There is a “character” component that is only ever used to prop up a lesser candidate in the face of a less popular option (or to reward great seniors for sticking around that one last year).

But with all that having been said, I’m going to now make the case for a goalie to be the Hobey winner so far this year.

Earlier this season I talked about Parker Gahagen, the Army goaltender who is dominating his opponents for the second straight season. Last year he finished with a .937 save percentage on a low-skill team that finished with a minus-61 shot differential. He played about 88 percent of the team’s total minutes. And he had the highest 5-on-5 save percentage in the country. He was awesome, but because the Black Knights went 14-15-9, no one really noticed.

This year he’s even upped his game, running his save percentage to .943 behind a team that already had a minus-43 shot differential through just 18 games. You can argue Army got worse, but Gahagen is so good it doesn’t matter. They’re 10-6-2 and seem poised to rumble through their Atlantic Hockey schedule to finish with a fairly high seed in the conference simply because he’s been electrifying.


To illustrate the impact he’s had on the club’s success to this point — and the Black Knights would appear to be in line for their first season above .500 since 2007-08 — it’s important to understand how much of difference great goaltending has in college hockey in general. To do that, you have to understand how much a goal is worth.

In much the same way that the “six goals equals one win” rule applies to the NHL, mathematically speaking, you can crunch the same numbers in college hockey. Every season dating back to 2012-13, every extra goal on your goal differential is worth 0.3 “points” (in a system in which you get two points for a win and one for a tie, obviously).

This year it’s a little lower than that, at 0.29 — 0.2917 if you want to get technical — so every seven goals of differential is worth 2.04 points. As such, let’s call it 3.5 goals equals one point in the standings.

The other number you have to keep in mind, then, is that the national average save percentage is currently .906, and knowing that is vital to measuring Gahagen’s impact for a team that often leaves him under siege. If a national-average goaltender had been between the pipes for Army this whole time, they would have conceded an extra 19.9 goals. Nineteen point nine. In 18 games.


So you run the numbers on all that — 0.9 goals per point, and 19.9 goals saved above the national average — and you find out that only 14 goalies in the whole country have given their teams at least one win above average so far this season. Gahagen is, of course, at the front of the pack:


That’s Gahagen mathematically adding 2.9 wins to Army’s total, effectively taking them from being about 7-9-2 to being four games above .500. I mean, good lord.

You’ll note that most of the top goaltenders in the country in wins added play in the two weaker conferences, which is understandable to some extent. Those conferences tend to attract lower-skill players in general, and given the way skill impacts goal differential in college (that is to say, more heavily than the NHL). But with that having been said, Gahagen actually outperforms his overall save percentage in non-conference games, albeit in a small sample of five games. And moreover, Colgate (twice), UMass, Brown, and Dartmouth aren’t exactly high-octane offensive teams to begin with.


But nevertheless, all you can ask a goalie to do is stop the shots and play as much as possible, and Gahagen has done that better than anyone. Marotte, who’s second in wins above average, has only played about two-thirds of Robert Morris’s minutes. Gahagen has played 99.4 percent, and the six or so minutes he’s been on the bench, it’s been in favor of an empty net.

We’re only about halfway through the season, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone has made a bigger positive impact on his team than Gahagen. A few guys are in the neighborhood of 1.9 points per game, and that’s great. A few defensemen are having huge impacts for their teams in all three zones. That’s also great. But it’s difficult to imagine anyone who has done so much to make his team get to where it is now as Gahagen has.

Things can change, but given that Gahagen is doing this for the second year in a row, it’s probably going to continue. It would be difficult for anyone to even match this kind of an impact, or even come close.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. Minnesota-Duluth (idle)
2. Penn State University (idle)
3. Denver (tied and lost at Providence)
4. UMass Lowell (beat Colgate, won at Dartmouth to win the Ledyard Bank Classic)
5. Boston College (lost to Quinnipiac and tied Ferris State in the Three Rivers Classic)
6. Boston University (idle)
7. Harvard (beat RPI)
8. Notre Dame (swept Alaska Fairbanks)
9. Minnesota (beat Mercyhurst and UMass to win the Mariucci Classic)
10. North Dakota (beat Union)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and occasionally covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here.