Statistics Say This Is When NHL Teams Should Pull the Goalie

In the NHL, there’s nothing better than seeing the opposing team pull their goalie, in hopes of getting a game-tying goal. Sure it gives them an extra attacker on the ice, but it leaves the net wide open for a goal if one of your team’s players has a clear shot at scoring.

In a recent article at Big Think, a study showed the optimal time to pull a goalie. Today we will go over the article and determine if that is the best course of action for hockey teams.

When should NHL teams pull their goalie?

The study was conducted last season and used statistics from the 2015-16 NHL season. When most NHL teams are down they normally pull the goalie with about two minutes left. This gives their defense and the goalie more time to keep the game close in case the opposing team tries to go on the attack. 

However, according to the study, the best time to pull the goalie is with six minutes and 10 seconds left. We thought it sounded crazy at first but then we dived deep into the analysis. 

This number was determined through a statistical model created by NYU professor Aaron Brown and hedge fund manager Clifford Asness. The information used included:

  • The probability of scoring with the goalie pulled for an extra attacker
  • The goal differential in the game
  • How much time was remaining
  • The probability of scoring with a goalie in net
  • The probability of scoring with an extra attacker

Do the stats back it up?

With this information available the two determined that NHL teams had a 0.65% chance of scoring at any 10-second interval in the game. This number skyrocketed to 4.30% when an extra attacker was on the ice replacing a goalie.

The risk-reward for scoring to tie up the game wasn’t as bad as going down an extra goal according to the study, although the study clearly doesn’t determine in raw emotions of players who don’t want to suffer tougher defeats.

The 6:10 mark should only be used when a team is down by one goal, and the creators suggest that a team down by two goals should implement the strategy with 13:00 remaining in the game.  

Why won’t teams use this strategy?

The obvious reason we don’t expect teams to use this strategy is because of old-school coaching methods. Coaches are always worried about their portrayal by the media to the fan base and the ownership group, so constantly getting ridiculed for an out of the box strategy isn’t something they would look forward to after every game.

NHL teams should do it

After reading the study, we think it would be a smart idea on paper to pull the goalie when down a goal with roughly six minutes remaining. If you want to give your team the best chance to win and become a trendsetter in coaching strategies, this would be an excellent way to do that.

However, there are a few teams that would be better at it than others. The Calgary Flames had the highest success rate last season, scoring on 4.5% of their empty net chances. The Anaheim Ducks, on the other hand, scored just one empty-net opportunity in 23 chances.

How do you feel about the analysis?

Do you think the NHL will ever adopt this risky strategy? We think pulling the goalie earlier sounded crazy at first, but we would be intrigued to see how it does in an NHL game. For more news from around the hockey world, be sure to check out our NHL section.