NHLN Awards Race: Vezina Trophy

Updated: March 21, 2016 at 9:00 am by Cam Lewis

On paper, this seems like a really easy trophy to hand out. Braden Holtby is challenging the league’s single-season win record, and as a result, he should certainly be running away with the award. While it’s true that he probably will, because those who vote for these awards tend to overvalue basic and meaningless statistics like wins, there are goalies in the league who have had much, much more impressive seasons than Holtby has. 

The Vezina Trophy is meant to be awarded to the goaltender who is adjudged to be the best at the position. With that considered, we need to break down how each goalie fares based on what their team gives them to truly determine who the best goalie in the league is. Last year, Carey Price was magnificent not only because he had a lot of wins and an excellent save percentage, but because the Canadiens didn’t make his life very easy. This year, while the results may be surprising, there are a few goalies who are being overlooked who have been absolutely fantastic despite their teams allowing them to be peppered with high danger chances all the time.

Honourable Mentions

I haven’t done this in any of the other awards races I’ve looked at, but this one was so difficult to narrow down to five candidates that I figured I would put together a “honourable mentions” category to give props to the many excellent performances from goalies around the league this season. I mean, there are 13 goalies right now who have a save percentage somewhere between 0.920 and 0.928 who have played at least 30 games. 

I’ll start the list with Roberto Luongo, who was easily the most difficult for me to keep off my Vezina discussion choices. Luongo has been instrumental in lifting the Panthers from the pits of irrelevancy to the top of the Atlantic Division this season. Florida boasts some of the worst possession numbers in the league, but seem to be getting by on a high PDO, which suggests that their goaltending probably deserves a big pat on the back. And it does. Luongo has posted a 0.921 save percentage and 8.16 goals saved above average this season, which is on par with some of the best seasons of his career. 

Then there’s Brian Elliott and Thomas Greiss, who won’t receive any attention for the award because they simply haven’t seen enough action. Elliot has been hurt for a good chunk of the season, but in his 34 games, he has a 0.931 save percentage, which is tops for any goalie who’s played more than just a handful of games. Amazingly, he also has the third most goals saved above average, which is a stat that generally favours goalies who get the most playing time. So the fact he’s up there despite having missed significant time paints a pretty accurate picture as to how dominant he’s been when healthy. 

Greiss, on the other hand, has only played in 34 games because he’s split the Islanders net with Jaroslav Halak. And while Halak has been decent, Greiss has been Brooklyn’s low-key Most Valuable Payer this season. In his limited action, Greiss has posted a 0.928 save percentage, which puts him ahead of the likes of Ben Bishop, Braden Holtby, and Cory Schneider (aka the guys who are going to get votes for this thing). Like I said, though, he simply hasn’t played enough to garner much attention for the award. 

Finally, we have Marc-Andre Fleury and Henrik Lundqvist, who, as usual, deserve some attention for the Vezina Trophy. Lundqvist and Fleury are first and fourth respectively in adjusted save percentage according to war-on-ice (more on that later), and have been major driving forces all season in their team’s success. 

Honestly, the first three names on this list are pretty interchangeable, and you can easily argue for Fleury and/or Lundqvist to be there instead, but this whole thing is really about the two names at the very end. The first three goalies are there so that I can try to illustrate why the other two are where they are. 

Cory Schneider 

There are two sides to the argument for Cory Schneider. On one hand, he’s probably the only reason the New Jersey Devils were even kinda sorta relevant this season. They have some of the worst underlying numbers in the league, they get hammered game in, game out in shot attempts, yet they manage to win way more games than they probably should thanks largely to Schneider. But on the other hand, the Devils don’t allow many scoring chances against. The reason their possession numbers are so poor isn’t because they’re a team like Colorado who allows the other team to pepper their net consistently, but because they just don’t generate any offence themselves. In terms of shutting other teams down, the Devils are actually really, really good, as only the Nashville Predators are allowing fewer high danger chances against per hour at even strength than they are. 

That said, he’s still tremendously valuable to the team. When you look at backup Keith Kinkaid’s numbers, you start to realize that New Jersey’s defensive acumen this season isn’t solely on their players and their system — a lot of it is because of Schneider. Kinkaid, through 20 games, has a 0.899 save percentage and -8.48 goals saved above average, while Schneider has a 0.923 save percentage and 11.65 goals saved above average. So I guess it isn’t as easy at seems to mind New Jersey’s net. 

Braden Holtby

While he appears to be the frontrunner for the award, Braden Holtby hasn’t been the best goalie in the league this season. He’s been excellent, don’t get me wrong, but to say he’s been better than everyone else simply isn’t true. To be honest, I’m guessing he’ll eventually take the hardware home because of the magnitude of wins that he has, but when you dig deeper, you can pretty clearly tell that there have been better performances this season. 

His 43 wins lead the league by a wide margin, but I think we can say in all fairness this is the result of playing for a really, really good team. There’s no doubt that the Capitals are an elite bunch offensively, as they’ve scored the second most goals in the league this season, but their defensive game is tremendously underrated. They’re in the bottom third of the league for shots against at even strength, and they only allow 10.3 high danger chances against per hour, which puts them with the best of the bunch. 

Of course, a 0.923 save percentage and 11.20 goals saved above average are fantastic numbers for a goalie, but when you use war-on-ice’s adjusted figures — a stat courtesy of war-on-ice that takes into account shots from higher danger location, while in higher pressure situations, and at even strength — Holtby is in the middle of the pack among qualified goalies. It’s when you dig deeper into his numbers that you realize that the Capitals are in fact one of the easier teams in the league to play behind, and that his numbers have been given a boost because of it. 

Ben Bishop

I know that it’s more of a team stat than anything, but wow, Ben Bishop’s 2.02 goals against average really jumps off the page when sorting through goalie stats. Of course, so does his 0.928 save percentage and 18.53 goals saved above average. When adjusting, Bishop is also one of the league’s elite in save percentage at even strength. So all of the numbers are there, but what makes Ben Bishop less impressive than the other two goalies who finished ahead of him on this list? 

It’s pretty much the same as with Holtby — the fact he plays for a team that doesn’t make it all too difficult on him. The Lightning are right there with the Capitals as one of the better teams in the league at suppression of high danger chances and shots at even strength per hour. In fact, these two teams have nearly identical underlying numbers in scoring chances and shots against, the only place they differ is that Tampa Bay is better at suppressing shot attempts. Anyways, Bishop has been excellent this season, but like Holtby, the numbers suggest that hasn’t entirely been his doing. 

Petr Mrazek

Petr Mrazek hasn’t only taken the starting job from Jimmy Howard in Detroit this season, he’s stolen it and buried any chance his predecessor ever has of getting it back deep into the ground. Well, that may be a little hyperbolic, but Mrazek has emerged this season as one of the league’s elite goaltenders, and he’s making people forget about Howard in Detroit. In 49 games this season, Mrazek has a 0.924 save percentage and 11.65 goals saved above average. In contrast, Howard has a 0.909 save percentage and -5.37 goals saved above average, which puts him into the middle-to-bottom tier of goalies in the league. So it’s pretty easy to see here who the hero of the Red Wings has been this season. 

The thing that makes Mrazek really impressive, though, is that his adjusted save percentage is second best in the league, behind only Henrik Lundqvist. That means that Mrazek is thriving in difficult situations with the Wings, and the regular numbers that everybody sees when they browse NHL.com on their iPhone could be bogged down by results on special teams, or from situations that really aren’t all that significant. He’s one of the best in the league at making saves in high danger situations, and he’s well above average in all other situations too. To be honest, there isn’t really anything I can say here to claim that Mrazek isn’t worthy of winning the award, aside from the fact there’s somebody else out there that’s done even better while playing behind a team that surprisingly doesn’t make it easy on him. 

Corey Crawford

When you think of everything that’s good about the Chicago Blackhawks, Corey Crawford probably doesn’t immediately jump to mind. He’s kind of viewed like this generation’s Chris Osgood, good enough for the team to win with, but certainly not the reason they do. To be honest, I think he’s horrifically underrated. He has the third highest adjusted save percentage in the league, and nobody else has as many shutouts as he does. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Playing in net for the Chicago Blackhawks isn’t as easy of a task as people make it out to be. Yeah, they’re an excellent team and all that, but they allow more high danger chances against every game than teams like Arizona, Toronto, and Columbus, and they’re in the bottom third of the league (25th, in fact) in total shots against at even strength. And he responds to it well. Only Jonathan Quick has a better save percentage when facing high danger chances than Crawford, and the only reason Quick has fared better in that realm is because the Kings are unbelievably good at protecting him from those types of chances. Well, obviously that isn’t the only reason, but Crawford has made more high danger saves than anybody else in the league, which is certainly saying something.  

The Hawks are basically the opposite of New Jersey here, in that their underlying numbers are positive because they have such a potent attack that it covers up for the fact they allow their net to be peppered with shots. So while it may seem like Crawford is just along for the ride, he’s actually been a key part of the Hawks’ success this season. And when you really break it down, it’s hard to find a goalie who’s been better than he has. I know, it sounds absurd, but when digging into the numbers, Corey Crawford has been the most impressive goalie in the NHL this season.