NCAA Hockey 101: Who will be the nation's best goalie?

Denver goalie Tanner Jaillet is in a strong position to win the Mike Richer Award. (Getty)

At the highest levels of hockey, you either find success with your goaltending or you don’t find it at all. Teams don’t win the Stanley Cup without a goalie who’s playing well above average.

That’s true in college hockey as well, because if you don’t have at least a .920 goaltender, you’re probably not going to get very far. Save percentage is usually the single biggest determiner of winning percentage, which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s watched this sport for more than 15 minutes, but in college hockey that’s often overlooked when a team has a large win total.

Case in point: Late last week, this year’s “watch list” for the Mike Richter Award, given annually to the best goalie in college hockey, was released. Most of the names on it made sense: Good goalies who played well last year (albeit sometimes in limited roles) who you might therefore reasonably expect will do it again this year. Two others were totally out of left field, based on nothing but the win total of their teams.

The list had exactly zero freshmen on it, which is fair because these kids are unknown quantities and the odds that freshmen do what Jake Oettinger did last year (.927 overall, .932 at 5-on-5) are typically quite small.

Of the 20 guys listed, there were maybe only five or six guys for whom you could say he was more likely than not to follow up last year’s performance with a similarly strong effort this season.

Chief among these is Denver’s Tanner Jaillet, who gets the benefit of playing behind probably the best team and who had the best 5-on-5 save percentage in the group, as well as the fifth-best overall number. You combine his quality, which he has proven over multiple years and not just one, with his team’s obvious quality, and you have to figure he’s the favorite to take down the Richter in much the same way Denver is the favorite to win another national title. That is to say, the odds he does it aren’t exactly overwhelming (i.e. “gimme the field”) but he would need to screw up to let someone else really open the door.

The guy with the best chance to upset him, though, is probably BU’s Jake Oettinger, a Dallas first-round pick who went .927/.932 in his draft year for a strong Terrier club. Oettinger is now a year older and better, and looked good in BU’s two games so far — both of which were against nationally ranked teams — so at this point there’s no reason to think last year was any sort of fluke.

At this point, I have five guys as being the likely finalists for the award, highlighted here (with the save percentages here obviously being from last season, and the red dotted lines denote the national averages in these two stats):

(The two goalies who made this watch list based on nothing but their win totals should be obvious: Cam Johnson and Peyton Jones were both sub-average goalies who had 20 and 23 wins, respectively.)

You see Jaillet and Oettinger in there — and you’d like to see Oettinger get that 5-on-5 number a little higher — but the other guys are all worth discussing as well, for different reasons.

Michael Bitzer is clearly The Guy in Bemidji for another season, and given the quality of both that team (fine) and his own stats (great) he’s likely to get points based on his overall value to the club. Being in a weaker league isn’t going to help him in the long run unless he absolutely goes off for the next five months, but we have no reason to suspect he won’t get huge minutes and turn in another elite performance.

Kyle Hayton is fascinating not just because he’s been a top-flight goaltender for his entire college career, but also because he transferred for his senior season (he’ll be a grad student at Wisconsin) and enters not just a new team, but a whole new conference. The Big Ten isn’t exactly known as a goaltending league and if he can provide any sort of performance at or around what he’s done in his career, he’s going to have a bonkers win total to go with gaudy stats. If that happens, he’ll win the Richter in a walk because you won’t be able to argue with 25-plus wins and a save percentage in the .930s. Worth noting, though, that he’s only .891 with a pair of wins to start the season.

Merrick Madsen at Harvard is another strong candidate here, and with Harvard’s elite defensive unit returning, could be well-positioned to turn in yet another strong season. The only real point of concern is that the Crimson lost so much up front that it might be harder for Madsen to pick up all the wins he might need to really wow voters, but if the numbers hold up, that thinned-out offense might be a benefit; it could convince people he was the real reason Harvard succeeded this season.

The last guy in that far-to-the-right tier of strong goaltenders is Justin Kapelmaster at Ferris State, who put up elite numbers as a freshman last season (.930/.939). Unfortunately for both the Bulldogs and Kapelmaster himself, it’s hard to expect him to follow up that performance if only because his junior numbers don’t portend that sort of long-term performance and — big shocker here — sample size is an issue. He played less than 47 percent of Ferris’s minutes last season and faced just 561 shots against a slate of opponents that was mostly bad. He’ll need to prove worthy of the starter’s job outright before we can even talk about him being a Richter guy in April.

Right now, it’s all weird, though. Mainly because it’s Oct. 10. The most games any team has played is two, and seven of the guys on the short list are currently at or below .908. Another five haven’t played a game yet. Which is to say it’s early, so you only have last year’s results to go on. But with goaltenders, past performance is indicative of future performance far more often than not, so the guys you think are gonna be pretty good this year probably will be.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and is the ONLY HOST of the NCAA hockey podcast Hockey Goes to College (the other guy is only his sidekick). His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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