Will a newcomer steal goaltending’s top honor from the usual suspects this year?
Our awards prediction series opened last week with the Calder Trophy and continues with the Vezina Trophy, the lone major NHL award voted on by the teams’ GMs.
It felt like we’d see Carey Price and Braden Holtby trade the award for years to come after their dominant, Vezina-winning turns in 2014-15 and 2015-16, respectively. Sergei Bobrovsky swooped in to snatch it thanks to an amazing comeback year, however, giving him two Vezinas for his career. Holtby and Price finished second and third in voting and should contend for the award again in 2017-18. Don’t sleep on the up-and-comers, however. The conditions are right for a newbie to win his first Vezina. Here are my top 10 candidates.
1. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins
Murray is a risky pick, no doubt. He’s dealt with a litany of injuries over the first couple seasons of his career, including a broken hand and a groin strain last year. The latter is particularly concerning for his position. Still, he’s just 23, so it’s too early to call him injury prone. And he’s been as good as any goalie in the game when in the lineup. Over his first two seasons, Murray has appeared in 62 games, equating to a typical NHL starter’s workload in one full year. His numbers: 32-10-4, 2.41 goals-against average, .923 save percentage, four shutouts. That immediately puts him in the top tier of goaltenders, and Murray is theoretically still ascending.
According to firstlinestats.com, Murray had the best adjusted save percentage of any starting goalie in the NHL last year, even ranking ahead of Bobrovsky. Murray is only getting better, he already has two Stanley Cup rings, and he shows the poise of a young Price. Murray plays on the league’s best team and should be set up to post monster numbers, especially with Marc-Andre Fleury no longer around to siphon starts.
2. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
Is it just me or was Price somehow under the radar last year? It never really felt like he’d win the Vezina, and his .923 SP was his lowest since 2012-13, but that really shows how high his standard is, doesn’t it? He, like the Habs, wasn’t consistent month to month, but he got his typically sparkling numbers in the end. He also had the best 5-on-5 high-danger SP of any goalie who appeared in more than 35 games last season. Price makes the difficult saves look easy thanks to his calmness and positioning.
Potentially working against Price this year: the Habs’ defense is different. Nathan Beaulieu, Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin are gone, replaced with Karl Alzner, David Schlemko and Mark Streit. The analytics suggest Alzner was overrated and overmatched last year, so it’s debatable that Price actually has an improved group in front of him. Still, he’s proven capable of carrying a team on his own. He can still contend for the Vezina with even an average blueline.
3. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
What an interesting pick Holtby is this year. He’s typically the safest bet for the award, as he’s remarkably consistent and plays for a powerhouse team, but we suddenly don’t know what to expect from the Caps anymore. They’ve lost Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and Nate Schmidt from their blueline and must rely on youngsters like Madison Bowey to elevate their play to NHL-ready levels. Even departed forwards Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams had strong two-way acumen.
So there’s a least a chance Holtby’s numbers regress with a weaker team playing in front of him. But we shouldn’t downgrade him too much. Even with its losses, Washington remains a talent-rich franchise. It still has Matt Niskanen and John Carlson to log big minutes on defense, and we know the high-octane Caps forwards will keep the puck in the other team’s end a lot, too. And coach Barry Trotz’s teams always play defensively sound hockey. Holtby should still challenge for the Vezina.
4. Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets
By almost every statistical metric, ‘Bob’ was hockey’s best goalie last season. He led the league in GAA and SP and earned 25 of 30 first-place Vezina votes. It was an easy pick.
That Bobrovsky accomplished such an impressive comeback after a couple down years works for and against him going forward. He’d struggled with groin injury after groin injury and finally altered his training regimen for 2016-17, losing almost 20 pounds to give his body more flexibility. It worked beautifully. A healthy Bob will have as good a shot as anyone to win the Vezina in 2017-18. Still, one injury-free season doesn’t erase the past. I’d like to see him do it twice in a row before removing his injury-risk label.
5. John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks
Doesn’t it feel like Gibson’s been around forever? He was starting Game 7 of a playoff series in 2014, after all, and he seemed to top our prospect goalie rankings for years. Injuries have kept him from truly spreading his wings in the NHL, but he did appear in a career-high 52 games last year. That the Ducks signed Ryan Miller, a high-end backup, suggests they know Gibson isn’t built for a 70-game workload. But Gibson is so good, his stats so sublime, that he could challenge for the Vezina even if he plays just 55 games. He posted a 2.22 GAA, .924 SP and six shutouts last year and plays behind a great young defense corps.
6. Cam Talbot, Edmonton Oilers
Good on the voters for recognizing Talbot with a fourth-place Vezina finish. He played more minutes and saw more shots than any another tender last season and still managed impressive numbers, which is encouraging given he had such a big sample size. It’s possible Talbot’s 2016-17 was his peak – he’s already 30 even though he’s only been a starter for two seasons – but it’s quite a nice peak. The Oilers should continue winning as they ascend in the Connor McDavid era, making Talbot a great pick to lead the league in victories.
7. Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild
Dubnyk would already own a couple of Vezinas if he just shut down his season at the all-star break. In 2015-16 and especially in 2016-17, his numbers wowed through late January. He headed to L.A.’s All-Star Game with an amazing 1.88 GAA and .936 SP last season. But the 6-foot-6, 213-pound Dubnyk tends to tire as the season reaches its dog days. Since he’s done it two consecutive years, there’s reason to believe he continues that pattern, keeping him just outside the elite tier of NHL goalies.
8. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks
Crawford has set quite the standard of excellence. A 2.55 GAA and .918 SP felt like a “down” year after he recorded a 2.25 GAA and .922 SP over his previous four seasons. Crawford, though, has never played 60 games in a season or finished higher than fifth in Vezina voting. He turns 33 this December as well. This year will tell us whether 2016-17 was an anomaly or the start of a decline. The defense in front of him loses Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brian Campbell, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Johnny Oduya, too.
9. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs
Andersen is the sleeper of this group. He was embarrassingly bad in his first five games as a Leaf, prompting laughter at the five-year, $25-million deal he’d signed despite never being a full-time starter in Anaheim. But Andersen, a big-time workhorse in Year 1 with the Leafs, locked things down with a .923 SP over his next 61 games. To contend for the Vezina, he’ll need the young Leafs to improve their wobbly defensive play, but the fact he still played as well as he did with such an inexperienced group in front of him says a lot.
10. Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues
Man oh man, was Allen ever a monster from February on, posting a .938 SP last season. That preceded a first half so disappointing it got him sent home for a mental break. The turnaround coincided with Martin Brodeur swooping down to mentor Allen after goalie coach Jim Corsi’s firing. Brodeur, though, won’t be Allen’s goalie coach this year, as he returns to his front office role with the Blues. Which version of Allen do we get, then?
Other Vezina Trophy candidates:
Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks; Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars; Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins; Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning; Mike Smith, Calgary Flames; Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators; Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers.