Pucks in Deep: Why do goalies make so much less than quarterbacks?

by Sam Stockton | 2/4/19 2:10am

In celebration of this weekend’s Super Bowl, this week’s edition of Pucks in Deep will be a National Football League-National Hockey League crossover event. More specifically, I will explore the divergent way in which the two leagues handle the contracts of their most high impact positions.

When discussing team sports, we tend to reject the notion that a single player can decide the outcome of a game on his or her own. And yet, particular players, given the obligations of their position, have a much greater chance to impact a game either positively or negatively. As for hockey and football, both sports allow one player a disproportionate sway on the outcome of a given game. In football, the quarterback, by virtue of touching the ball on every offensive play, clearly boasts an outsized influence on team success. As the Patriots have shown on an annual basis, great coaching and quarterback play can mask quite a few blemishes on a roster and take a team with mediocre talent outside the quarterback position to a championship. Similarly, hockey games tend to come down to which goaltender can better withstand the offensive onslaught of his or her opponents. As Jaroslav Halak’s single-handed smothering of the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in 2010, Tim Thomas’s remarkable play guiding the Boston Bruins to a Stanley Cup championship in 2011 or, more recently, Marc-Andre Fleury’s .947 save percentage for the Las Vegas Golden Knights entering last season’s Cup final can all attest, strong goaltending can carry an imperfect team on a deep playoff run. If you want an explanation as to why an underdog is making a run in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the first place to look is their goalie’s save percentage.

Despite the similarities in impact, the two leagues do not compensate these position groups proportionally. To quantify this statement, the average salary of a starting quarterback on one of the 12 NFL playoff teams this season was approximately $13 million, which is roughly 7.3 percent of the $177.2 million salary cap. Conversely, the average starting goaltender of a 2018 Stanley Cup playoff team made about $5 million, or just 6.7 percent of the roughly $75 million NHL salary cap. That the average playoff starter makes nearly twice the average salary in the NFL than in the NHL is even more staggering when you consider that an NFL roster has 53 players while an NHL one has a max of 23 players. In the NFL, the 14 biggest salary cap hits this season were all quarterbacks. This year in the NHL, the highest paid goaltender in the league, Carey Price, is the third highest player overall, while the second highest paid goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, is 17th.

Out of all of this, the question emerges if one of these leagues is handling the highest impact position group in its sport better than the other. To unpack this question, let’s consider each league individually for a moment.

In recent years, the NFL quarterback market has become laughable in the way that whichever quarterback who has shown himself capable of starting, much less playing well or winning playoff games, is in need of an extension becomes the highest paid quarterback ever. Last offseason, Jimmy Garoppolo became the highest-paid player in the league’s history having started just seven games. I say this not to doubt Garoppolo’s ability or deride the 49ers’ decision makers, but rather to point to the reality of the league’s contract situation — quarterbacks who have shown themselves to be capable of starting earn tremendous paydays.

The NFL salary cap situation today is clouded by the decision to institute a rookie wage scale as part of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. Veteran players, unhappy with seeing contracts like Sam Bradford’s six-year, $78 million deal signed after he was selected first overall in the 2010 draft go to rookies, supported a policy that would set a cap on the contract of a rookie based on the slot in which they were drafted. Now, eight years later, the clear consequence of that move is that players on their rookie contracts (which can last as long as five seasons) are far more valuable than any veterans, dissuading teams from adding veteran free agents unless they are legitimate stars who seldom become available anyway. With this in mind, it is no surprise that several of the playoff teams from this season had a quarterback on his rookie deal, allowing for cap flexibility in a way that a veteran quarterback with an established contract cannot. As popular as the narrative that the Patriots benefit from Tom Brady taking a paycut is, Brady’s cap hit this season is still $22 million, though I suppose it could arguably be a discount for the best quarterback of all-time.

Of course, the idea that teams should pay their star quarterbacks less is a rather dubious proposition. Advocates of this strategy would point to the recent Super Bowl titles of Nick Foles and Joe Flacco as proof that teams do not need a top-end quarterback to win a title. This is true in the same way that people don’t need silverware to eat, but it certainly makes the process a whole lot easier. Not to mention that Foles and Flacco played like top-end QBs during their title runs, and the safest method of guaranteeing great quarterback play is to sign a great quarterback rather than paying less for a mediocre one and hoping he gets hot at the right time.

If there is a way around sending a hefty check to a quarterback, the answer must lie in scheme. As college concepts like the Air Raid offense steadily penetrated the old-fashioned NFL, it seems more plausible that a team could endure turnover at the quarterback position and continue to perform at a high level by virtue of an offense that makes a quarterback’s job that much easier. And yet, the fact remains that the quarterback has the greatest chance to impact a game, and the better quarterback tends to win the game in the end.

All this makes it seem borderline ridiculous that NHL goalies do not take home greater salaries. We can say rather definitively that no individual has a greater chance of guiding a team to postseason success than your goaltender, yet great netminders do not make as much as great skaters. Given this reality, it does not make sense for a general manager to consciously sign a star goaltender to an outsized contract, but, just as there do not seem to be 32 quarterbacks capable of leading an average NFL roster to the Super Bowl, there are not 31 goalies capable of turning their team into a playoff contender. This number gets even worse when considering that injuries to goaltenders are far more common than to NFL quarterbacks, and that even if a starter remains 100 percent healthy, the backup must start a decent chunk of his team’s regular season games.

As ever with professional sports, the answer seems to lie in exploiting inefficiencies. As such, the smart NFL GM has recognized the importance of rookie deals to their team, and the possibility of winning without a top-paid quarterback is quite appealing. Similarly, it seems only a matter of time before NHL GMs finally recognize that, as this year’s Flyers or Panthers show, without goaltending their team cannot go anywhere, prompting a dramatic spike in goalie salaries. So how would a GM exploit the current situation? Perhaps the best option for a team is to lock down a top-tier goaltender to an unusually lucrative contract and then cut cost from the rest of its defensive structure. Of course, a goalie’s numbers will suffer if surrounded by mediocre defense, but this could be masked by going all-in on dynamic offensive players. Here, I don’t mean pay a lot of money to forwards and little money to defensemen but rather to build a roster around dynamic offensive players, whether forwards or defensemen, and trust their goaltending to mask imperfections in their defending.

In the end, the shocking fact is that NHL goalie salaries, despite their obvious importance, are stagnated by the sport’s collective unwillingness to recognize their importance. With this in mind, perhaps another way to attack this feature of the NHL’s marketplace would be to sign not one but two premier goalies to contracts in the $5-7 million range. Perhaps the most interesting question is whether NHL salaries will finally reflect the importance of the goaltender to the sport — and if this change does come, what will spark it?