For obvious reasons, Carey Price’s incredible Hart and Vezina Trophy winning season in 2014-15 will always draw comparisons to the year Jose Theodore had in Montreal more than a decade earlier. When Price was dominating the NHL last season, putting up MVP-calibre numbers, people immediately looked back to 2001-02 to create a benchmark for what a Hart Trophy season for a goalie should look like. Jose Theodore had far an away the best season of his career, posting video game numbers on a relatively underwhelming Habs squad that he ultimately led to the second round of the playoffs. Sound familiar?
Let’s take a look back at Jose Theodore’s unforgettable 2001-02 season in Montreal.
Like I said, the Canadiens were a pretty underwhelming team that year. Back then, there weren’t really any advanced analytics used to express how the team performed in terms of possession, how they did at even strength specifically, or analytics that could truly isolate one player from the rest of his team. All we have have to look back on are the traditional, nuts and bolts stats, which usually wouldn’t be all too helpful, but in this situation, I think one number can paint a picture of how poor the 2001-02 Canadiens were.
They allowed far and away the most shots on net of any team in the NHL that season. Over the course of the season, they allowed 3030 shots to be fired on their net, which is an average of roughly 37 shots against per game. After them, the closest team was the Atlanta Thrashers, but the Habs had them beat by more than 100 total shots against. Now that’s really saying something because we all know just how bad those early 2000s Thrashers teams were. The other hilarious thing about that is the fact the Canadiens were almost never in the penalty box. I can’t isolate their numbers for even strength, but the fact they took the third fewest penalties in the league that season suggests they were absolutely eaten alive at even strength. You would think that a team who allows that many shots would have taken their fair share of penalties, but the Habs only gave up 277 power play opportunities over the season, or 3.4 per game, well below the league average which was 338, or 4.1 per game.
Who was on this team? Well, Yanic Perreault led the way with 27 goals and 29 assists, followed by Richard Zednik and Oleg Petrov who scored 22 and 24 goals respectively, while a 38-year old Doug Gilmour managed 41 points. Mind-way through the season, the Habs acquired Donald Audette from the Dallas Stars, giving them some more depth offensively. Their defensive core was anchored by Patrice Brisebois, who averaged just under 24 minutes of ice time per game. After Brisebois, only Karl Dykhuis, Stephane Quintal, and Craig Rivet played significant minutes on the blue line for the entire season. 2001-02 was also the year in which Saku Koivu missed the majority of the season due to a fight with Burkitt’s Lymphoma. After missing nearly the entire season, Koivu returned to an eight-minute standing ovation from the crowd at the Molson Centre.
The Habs managed to score 207 goals while allowing 209 goals against. Despite the negative goal differential, they grabbed the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with s 36-31-12-3 record, where they managed to take down the top seeded Boston Bruins in six games before losing to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.
This was obviously largely due to the work of Theodore. Offensively, the team was average. They finished in the middle of the pack in terms of shots on goal and goals for despite having just a 14.95 power play percentage. Defensively, the team was a wreck. They allowed roughly 37 shots against per game even though they were almost never in the box. Theodore was peppered with 1972 shots over the course of the season, and he managed to save 1836 of them. As a result, he boasted a league leading 0.931 save percentage, and a ridiculous 45.91 goals saved above average. For the sake of comparison, Patrick Roy finished with a similar 0.925 save percentage, but he only managed 28.27 goals saved above average due to the Avalanche being a vastly superior team and him facing significantly less shots than Theodore did.
Of course, this wasn’t the greatest goaltending performance of all time or anything, but it was still amazing largely because of how bad the Canadiens were. If they had an average goalie in net, there’s no way they would have come even close to making the playoffs that season. Hypothetically, if they had a goalie who amassed 0 goals saved above average, they likely would have finished with somewhere around 240 goals against, which would have resulted in them having a huge negative goal differential. Theodore also had a league leading 17.40 point shares according to Hockey Reference, meaning his performance accounted for nearly 20 per cent of his team’s points in the standings.
This is why Theodore was truly the Most Valuable Player in 2001-02. He beat out Jerome Iginla, who had arguably the best season of his career, posting a league leading 52 goals to go along with 44 assists on a pretty weak Flames team. Patrick Roy and Sean Burke also received votes for the Hart that year but neither of them had as incredible of a season as Theodore did. Roy and Burke posted 0.925 and 0.920 save percentages respectively, but they both faced substantially less shots on goal on a nightly basis than Theodore did.