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Breaking down one of the tightest Vezina Trophy races in recent memory

After three straight seasons of crowning a clear-cut winner, the Vezina Trophy race is tighter than ever, with the frontrunner seemingly changing every week.

Over the past few seasons, there has tended to be a clear separation between the true Vezina frontrunner and the rest of the pack. And if that separation hasn’t appeared at some point in the early season, it’s usually easy enough to pinpoint who will take home the hardware as the league’s top goaltender by some point shortly after the all-star break.

Take last season, for instance. Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was dominant through the early part of the campaign, continued that through midseason and finish the year as the no-brainer choice for the Vezina. It came as no surprise that he received 25 of the 30 first-place nods and won the award with 92 percent of the total vote.

The year prior was much of the same, too. In 2015-16, Braden Holtby was nearly unbeatable for the Washington Capitals. He posted an impressive .922 save percentage, rock-solid 2.22 goals-against average and three shutouts en route to an incredible 48-win season. So, not only did Holtby finish fourth in Hart Trophy balloting, but he captured the Vezina with 26 of the 30 first-place votes and more than 93 percent of the total vote. And to further make the point, the wins for Bobrovsky and Holtby came on the heels of Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price taking home the hardware after an all-world season in which he led the league in SP, GAA and wins. Price won the Vezina with 96 percent of the vote.

This season, however, has brought with it a much tighter race. In fact, it has felt as though the frontrunner for the award has changed on an almost weekly basis. So, with little more than two months remaining in the schedule, who remains in the race and what will make or break their candidacy going forward?

ANDREI VASILEVSKIY, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
The Case For:
Vasilevskiy was our mid-season pick and is widely recognized as the current frontrunner. In the Professional Hockey Writers Association’s mid-season voting, Vasilevskiy also got the nod over his other masked counterparts. He might very well be the easiest goaltender to make a case for, too. Statistically, Vasilevskiy ranks first in wins, fourth in SP, fifth in GAA and first in shutouts among goaltenders to play at least 20 games this season. It also doesn’t hurt his case that he’s backstopping the league’s top team, nor does it hurt that his underlying numbers are among the best in the league. At 5-on-5, Vasilevskiy’s .939 SP is the second-best mark among netminders to play at least 900 minutes.

The Case Against: Wins are a team statistic, and that Vasilevskiy leads in that category won’t necessarily ensure he lands in the top spot in voting. In addition, one has to wonder if Vasilevskiy won’t suffer from the fact the Lightning have one of the league’s most complete rosters from top to bottom. Consider that despite strong performances in recent years, Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford has finished no higher than fifth in Vezina voting. The quality of a goaltender’s team can work against him, and if voters feel Vasilevskiy’s numbers are a result of a remarkable Lightning roster as much as his own strong play, the voting could sway in another direction.

CONNOR HELLEBUYCK, WINNIPEG JETS
The Case For:
Hellebuyck has had a remarkable bounce-back season. Like Vasilevskiy, Hellebuyck has a strong statistical case. He ranks second in the league in wins, has the seventh-best SP, sixth-best GAA and is tied for second in the league with five shutouts. What could separate him from his competition, however, is his importance to Winnipeg’s success. There were very few changes made to the Jets’ roster in the off-season, which put the onus on Hellebuyck to improve if Winnipeg was to compete for a playoff spot this season. He has done just that, and then some. If the award was given to the most valuable goaltender, Hellebuyck’s case would be that much better.

The Case Against: It comes down to statistics. Hellebuyck remains just outside the top five in two of the most important statistical categories for goaltenders, and, again, wins can’t be considered a purely goaltender-driven statistic. It’s also worth noting that Vasilevskiy has faced 56 more shots against yet has surrendered two fewer goals. Advanced statistics might come into play here, too. At 5-on-5, Hellebuyck has been steady, but his .931 SP ranks 10th among netminders who have played at least 900 minutes. 

PEKKA RINNE, NASHVILLE PREDATORS
The Case For:
A three-time finalist for the award, Rinne is still seeking his first win. He’s definitely among the frontrunners, too. To this point, the 2017-18 campaign has been the best statistical year Rinne has had in several seasons, with his .926 SP and 2.32 GAA among the best marks of his career. Both marks also happen to rank among the best in the league. The former puts him fifth, while the latter is tied for sixth. In addition, Rinne is tied for second with five shutouts this season. His most impressive feat, though, is his excellent .937 SP at 5-on-5. He ranks third in the league among netminders who have played 900 minutes this season.

The Case Against: Rinne could also face a bias. Not only due to the strength of the Predators’ overall roster, mind you, but because he’s insulated by an all-world blueline. Voters may look at a defense that is arguably the best in the league and decide that Rinne is thus given an easier workload than his counterparts. However, that won’t be the only thing that potentially works against Rinne. If voters take all strengths into account, Rinne’s unsatisfactory penalty kill performance might impact his standing. Of the 35 goaltenders to play at least 100 minutes down a man, Rinne’s .865 SP is the eighth-worst mark. 

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TUUKKA RASK, BOSTON BRUINS
The Case For:
Early in the season, Rask wouldn’t have even been in consideration. In fact, there was a point when it appeared he was on the cusp of losing his starting job to backup Anton Khudobin. But since mid-November, Rask has been the top goaltender in the league. His .936 SP, 1.77 GAA and mere 42 goals against are all the best marks in the NHL since Nov. 15. That’s not to mention he’s registered two shutouts over that span, as well. His run over the past two-plus months has put him right in the thick of the Vezina race. He ranks sixth in SP, third in GAA and has 22 wins to his name. And if the Bruins can overtake the Lightning for top spot in the Atlantic, Rask’s play will be a big reason why, which would only be another feather in his cap.

The Case Against: Of all the teams that have been defensively sound this season, none have insulated their goaltender better than Boston. There are 36 goaltenders who have played at least 900 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, and not a single one has faced fewer shots against per 60 minutes of play than Rask. The Bruins’ keeper has only had to stop 26.3 shots per 60 minutes, which is two fewer than Hellebuyck, four fewer than Rinne and five fewer than Vasilevskiy. Rask’s games played total may also come into account. He’s several starts back of other top netminders in the league.

SERGEI BOBROVSKY, COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
The Case For:
There has not been a back-to-back winner of the Vezina since Martin Brodeur won the 2006-07 and 2007-08 awards. But in the early season, it appeared that Bobrovsky was on his way to repeating. Reason being is that by the end of November Bobrovsky had an outstanding .935 SP, 1.92 GAA and three shutouts. His play has leveled off since then, however, but he still has impressive numbers. His .920 SP is just outside the top 10 in the league, his 2.48 GAA ranks 10th and he’s tied for fourth with four shutouts. It should also be noted that Bobrovsky has the widest deviation in actual 5-on-5 SP compared to expected SP of any starting goaltender. His .936 5-on-5 SP is .018 better than what underlying statistics would predict for a goaltender facing the quality of shot he has this season.

The Case Against: The biggest knock against Bobrovsky isn’t that he’s barely clinging to spot among the top 10 netminders in two of the key statistical categories, although that certainly doesn’t help his case. Rather, it’s that Columbus is fighting for their playoff lives. And while it’s been said above that wins are a team statistic, there is a certain element of team success that goes into winning the Vezina. If the Blue Jackets fall back any further and wind up outside of the playoff picture by the time voting rolls around, chances are Bobrovsky will slide down — or entirely off — of several ballots.

MARC-ANDRE FLEURY, VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
The Case For:
Who would’ve guessed that Fleury would have the best season of his career not playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but rather strapping on the pads for an expansion team made up of players plucked from around league? His .935 SP and 1.99 GAA across 22 games are far and away the best numbers of his career. Among goaltenders to play at least 20 games, both marks rank second in the league and Fleury has been a big part of the Golden Knights’ ability to pile up wins in their inaugural campaign. 

The Case Against: Fleury is Vegas’ starter, but his absence due to injury in the early part of the campaign is going to work against him. There’s no doubt that, barring injury, Fleury will get the bulk of the starts the rest of the way, which should allow him to play somewhere in the 45-game range by the time the campaign concludes. That would only amount to little more than half of the season, and that will likely cost Fleury a handful of votes that he may have otherwise received. 

CARTER HUTTON, ST. LOUIS BLUES
The Case For:
There seems to be one of these goaltenders every season. He’s not necessarily a starter, but he breaks the mold of a typical backup. This year, it’s Hutton. Based on pure numbers alone, he’s impossible to overlook. He leads the league with an amazing .943 SP, his 1.74 GAA is tops among goaltenders to play at least 20 games and he has three shutouts to boot. Hutton seems to be stealing the crease away from Jake Allen, as well. He has started all but three of the past 15 games for the Blues. If that continues, Hutton’s candidacy will become increasingly hard to ignore.

The Case Against: It comes down to games played and whether or not Hutton sees enough action before the end of the season. Barring the lockout-shortened season, no goaltender has won the Vezina with fewer than 36 wins in the post-lockout era. At present, Hutton is on pace to win 21 games this season, which likely wouldn’t be enough to garner him enough top consideration to win the award. We’ve seen a similar scenario before, too. In 2014-15, Andrew Hammond backstopped the Ottawa Senators to a remarkable finish. However, Hammond’s 20-1-2 record, .941 SP, 1.79 GAA and three shutouts in 24 games were only good enough for him to finish seventh in voting. He appeared on just one ballot, receiving a third-place vote.

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