Back in 1953-54, Chicago Blackhawks goalie Al Rollins won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player despite the fact that he was the only goalie in the NHL to allow 200 goals and the only regular who had a goals-against average above three. Even though Rollins was brilliant for a truly awful Chicago Blackhawks outfit, the award was basically in recognition of the fact he had performed admirably behind such a bad team.
Which brings us to 65 years later and the case of John Gibson and the Anaheim Ducks. Gibson is regarded as one of the best goaltenders on the planet, one who regularly faces a barrage of 10-bell chances and still manages to keep his team in games. But the chances of Gibson winning the Vezina Trophy this season diminish with every passing game. The Ducks are currently in the mother of all tailspins and are proving themselves to be one of the worst teams in the NHL. And they’re dragging Gibson down with them. After a 6-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs Monday night, the Ducks have lost their past three games by a combined score of 20-5. Gibson has allowed 16 of those goals and been pulled in each of those games. His combined save percentage in those games is .800. Combine that with the All-Star Game when Gibson gave up seven goals on nine shots and it has not been a good couple of weeks for him.
The game against the Leafs was actually a microcosm of his season. Through the first period and the first two minutes of the second, Gibson stopped all 14 Toronto shots he faced, many of them of the high quality variety, but once he allowed a goal on a high wrister from John Tavares, that seemed to burst the dam, starting a spree in which he gave up five goals on 21 shots.
“There are some signs of fatigue for sure,” acknowledged Ducks coach Randy Carlyle after the game. Carlyle pointed to the third goal of the game, the one he said sealed his team’s fate, which was scored by Jake Muzzin on the power play after Nick Ritchie took an undisciplined crosschecking minor after the whistle in response to a perfectly clean hit by Muzzin on Corey Perry. “Gibson wasn’t at the top of his crease on the one-timer,” Carlyle said. “There was blue paint in front of his skates and that’s not Gibby. Those are the kinds of signs you watch for that you notice. Historically he works the top of that crease and there’s white ice and he’s in it. And if he’s in that tonight, it might hit him. It might have not, though, but you don’t know.”
A return of Ryan Miller, who was also having a wonderful season before he got hurt in mid-December, would help. Since he sprained his knee, the Ducks have lost 15 of 21 games and Gibson has seen his chances of winning the Vezina dissolve under a mountain of work. Only Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights has had more starts and played more minutes than Gibson has this season. According to Corsica, Gibson’s expected five-on-five save percentage this season is just .912, the fifth-lowest in the league, largely because of the number of dangerous shots he faces. His actual save percentage in those situations is .926. Only David Rittich of the Calgary Flames and Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss of the New York Islanders have a bigger difference between their expected and actual save percentages.
“You know what? I have nothing against Gibby, but I don’t care about the Vezina right now, I care about this team and turning this ship around,” said Ducks defenseman Josh Manson. “Gibby is part of this team and unfortunately he’s played his heart out for us and he’s come up big a lot of the year for us and has pretty much singlehandedly won games for us. We know what he can do. Obviously, the Vezina is a great feather in your cap, but the main thing is for this team to get building again and make a push for the playoffs. Because we’re not that far out of it.”
It says a lot more about the dismal state of the bottom of the Western Conference than it does about the Ducks that they’re only three points out of a playoff spot at the moment. But they also have five teams between them and the second wildcard position. But this is a fragile team, one that doesn’t sound an awful lot like there’s a surge of confidence around the corner.
“We could really use some confidence right now,” said Ducks winger Rickard Rackell. “You get the feeling every time you step on the ice you’re trying not to get scored on instead of the other way around. You want to be a difference maker and go get it and create scoring chances, but that’s not the case. Maybe one or two guys are doing it every shift, but the other three guys are scared to play.”