The Art Ross Trophy race is the easiest to forecast in 2018-19. Maybe the Norris Trophy race has the tightest competition. But the least predictable major player award, year to year? It’s tough to beat the Vezina Trophy.
In a 14-season stretch from 1993-94 to 2007-08, two goaltenders nabbed 10 Vezinas: Dominik Hasek with six and Martin Brodeur with four. Brodeur got his four in a five-season stretch. Since he won his last two in 2006-07 and 2007-08, however, we haven’t seen a single goalie win the Vezina and defend it with a second in a row. Tim Thomas and Sergei Bobrovsky are the only netminders to win it twice over the past 10 seasons.
It’s far more common for the award to change hands rather emphatically. Between his two Vezinas, Thomas spent a year platooning with Tuukka Rask in Boston. Ryan Miller, Henrik Lundqvist, Rask, Carey Price and Braden Holtby all look back on their Vezina years as high watermarks they haven’t been able to match.
It’s thus anyone’s guess who takes the award in 2018-19. But we should keep an eye on two young stars who rose up from part-time roles two years ago to become finalists in 2017-18.
1. SERGEI BOBROVSKY, COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
After all my talk of the Vezina being so tough to predict, I tab ‘Bob’ to take home his third Vezina. Oops. But he’s been one of the only consistently elite goaltenders across the past two seasons. He followed his Vezina-winning 2016-17 by leading NHL goalies by a mile in goals saved above average, a stat that tells you how many goals a goaltender prevents compared to what a league-average goaltender would allow facing the same number of shots.
Among netminders who started more than half their teams’ games, ‘Bob’ had the third-best save percentage at even strength in the NHL. Ever since he lost weight a couple seasons back to improve his flexibility and prevent injury, he’s been a horse, so you know he’ll also play roughly 65 games on a team that should help him get many wins – a stat that, fair or not, often sways the Vezina voting panel, a.k.a the NHL team GMs.
“You look at his body last year and the body composition, and all his body fats and all that, you’d say it was impossible,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen told me when Bobrovsky lost 20 pounds before his second Vezina season. “But he did it. He basically sculpted his body into a different form in the off-season, and it wasn’t fat that was coming off his body, I can tell you that. That just tells you about his dedication and how serious he is about his professionalism and how he approaches every day.”
Kekalainen also described Bobrovsky as the first and last player in the gym every day – and that’s on a team with sky-high fitness standards given John Tortorella coaches it. Mix Bobrovsky’s peerless dedication with the fact he’s in a contract year, set to walk as a UFA…and a monster season is a smart bet. It doesn’t matter that he hasn’t shown he can win in the spring yet. The award ballots are cast before Game 1 of the playoffs.
2. ANDREI VASILEVSKIY, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
The good-but-not-great 2.62 goals-against average and .920 SP to finish the season mask the fact Vasilevskiy practically had the Vezina sitting on his shelf by the all-star break, at which point he had a sublime 2.18 GAA, .931 SP and seven of his eight shutouts. He spun out in the second half, no doubt, and that’s a big reason why he rated as merely OK across advanced metrics such as low-, medium- and high-danger SP and goals saved above average. Vasilevskiy, however, was manning the Lightning crease as the unquestioned starter for his first full season. His career high in appearances was 50. He ended up with 65 last year, and from Game 51 onward, he posted an .893 SP. Vasilevskiy likely grew fatigued.
He still co-led the NHL with 44 victories, and he was good for the most part in Tampa’s run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. He’s mentally strong and should handle a full season’s worth of starts better this time around. There’s no denying his size, explosive strength and all-around talent. He has a long career ahead of him that should include some individual hardware.
3. CONNOR HELLEBUYCK, WINNIPEG JETS
Hellebuyck rose up the Jets’ system as an appealing prospect: big, confident, poised, athletic…the total package. So even when he faltered while sharing the crease with Michael Hutchinson two years ago, I personally never worried about Hellebuyck, nor was I surprised when he broke out as a star last year, tying Vasilevskiy with 44 wins and finishing second in Vezina voting. That said, if these rankings judged goalies based purely on performance, Hellebuyck might be a bit high. He was very good last year – but that’s it. He wasn’t elevating the team in front of him. The team in front of him was elite and did a great job making sure the chances he did face were low-quality. More than 52 percent of the shots on Hellebuyck at even strength were low-danger, placing him among the league-leaders in percentage of low-danger shots faced. He also saw one of the lowest high-danger concentrations at about 15 percent – and had a below-average HD SP among the 28 goalies with at least 2,000 minutes at 5-on-5 last year.
My point: Hellebuyck was merely good on a great team last year. His performance was actually a little bit overrated. That said, he’s still talented enough to keep piling up wins again on the team I expect to win the Stanley Cup, and it’s clear voters value wins more than any other stat, so I can’t rank Hellebuyck outside the top three. The league wins leaders were the three Vezina finalists last season
4. JOHN GIBSON, ANAHEIM DUCKS
Looking at pure individual performance, there’s a case to be made that Gibson is hockey’s best goalie right now. That’s right. Only Bobrovsky finished higher in goals saved above average, and Gibson ranked in the league’s top third in all the major advanced metrics. In that group of 28 goalies with 2,000 or more minutes – call it the “true starter” sample – Gibson faced by far the lowest concentration of low-danger shots last season at about 39 percent. More than 60 percent of the chances on him were medium-to-high danger, and Gibson still graded out as an elite puck-stopper. He was the anti-Hellebuyck, elevating the team in front of him.
That said, even if the stats crowd love Gibson, it doesn’t mean the voters will. He only finished sixth in Vezina voting last season. The Ducks don’t look much different as a team than they did a year ago, and Gibson’s propensity for injuries makes him less likely than most starters to hit 65 games, so his win total should land in the 30s, not the 40s. His career best thus far is 31. The last goalie to win fewer than 35 games in a non-lockout season and take home the Vezina: Jose Theodore in 2001-02.
5. BRADEN HOLTBY, WASHINGTON CAPITALS
A bit high for Holtby? He was, let’s face it, bad in the 2017-18 regular season. But he found a groove in the playoffs and returned to his dominant form. It wasn’t a lucky performance, either – the advanced metrics graded him out as excellent. Stealing the job back after Philipp Grubauer struggled in Games 1 and 2 of the playoffs, Holtby became HoltBeast again. Considering he’d finished fourth, first and second in Vezina voting the three seasons prior, last year’s regular season looks like the anomaly. With no Grubauer leaning on him, he should log one of the league’s biggest workloads this season. Ilya Samsonov, a top-two goalie prospect in the world, has made the trek to North America but will toil in AHL Hershey. He’s not a threat to Holtby’s job…yet.
6. PEKKA RINNE, NASHVILLE PREDATORS
Rarely has a netminder so decorated been so routinely slammed by the analytics crowd. The big, athletic Rinne has typically posted mediocre under-the-hood numbers, making him the poster child for the eye test vs. the spreadsheet. But, honestly? He earned that Vezina last year. He was possessed after the all-star break and, even in the fancy stats, graded out as pretty decent on top of co-leading the league in shutouts with eight.
That said, I’ve ranked Rinne conservatively. We all remember the playoffs. He got pulled three times Round 2 before his Nashville Predators bowed out against the Winnipeg Jets in seven games. Rinne turns 36 in November, is in the final year of his contract and has Juuse Saros pushing him for starts. The Predators showed their faith in the small, talented Saros by giving him a three-year contract extension this summer, setting him up to be their long-term starter. Even if Rinne enjoys another great regular season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him play less as the Predators try to keep him fresher for the spring – while also expanding Saros’ role to give him a longer look as a starter and make sure they know what they have in him. If Rinne’s workload gets cut to 50 or 55 games, it’ll suppress that win total and hurt his Vezina chances.
7. FREDERIK ANDERSEN, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
If Andersen could shake those uber-slow starts, he might put together a truly special season. Over his first two campaigns as the Leafs’ No. 1, he’s posted October SPs of .876 and .896. When he heats up, he stays sturdy and extremely tough to beat for months at a time despite shouldering one of the league’s heaviest workloads. Over the past two years, Andersen started the second-most games and faced the most shots – 110 more than the closest goaltender. And, like Gibson, Andersen faces more medium- and high-danger chances than low-danger ones, so Andersen getz blitzed and with dangerous shots. On a stacked Toronto team, he has as good a chance as any goalie to lead the league in wins this season. If he does that while turning aside his usual mountain of pucks and ups his save percentage over the .920 mark for the first time, Vezina voters will take notice. That said, Andersen is 28. That’s not very old for a goalie, but it’s also possible he’s as good as he’ll ever be.
8. MARC-ANDRE FLEURY, VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Fleury’s 2018-19 Vezina forecast reflects the entire Golden Knights’ outlook: can they repeat last year’s magic? Not only was Fleury one of the NHL’s best goalies on a per-game basis, he was an elite puck thief throughout the playoffs, seemingly destined to win the Conn Smythe Trophy before Holtby outduelled him in the final. Working against Fleury is sample size for sure. He played and started just 46 games last season. No goalie has won the Vezina in a non-lockout season playing fewer than 50 games since Patrick Roy 30 years ago. There’s a decent chance Fleury’s workload remains smaller than the average starter’s, as his multiple concussions are becoming a problem. Even if he doesn’t get hurt again, the Knights may limit his games to keep him safe. When he’s in the lineup, though, he should be one of the NHL’s best again. That makes him a fringe Vezina candidate.
9. ANTTI RAANTA, ARIZONA COYOTES
Wow. Raanta sneakily enjoyed an absolutely monstrous season in his debut as a full-time starting goaltender. The season-long .930 SP was impressive enough, but how about the .945 mark in 19 games after the all-star break? Raanta was Rinne-good over the season’s final two months. In fact, Rinne was the only goalie with a higher even-strength SP than Raanta among goalies who played more than half their teams’ games last year. The biggest hurdle for Raanta in a Vezina push, of course, is the win total. Even if the Coyotes make tremendous strides this season after gaining momentum in the second half of 2017-18, that might only puff Raanta’s win total into the 30s, so he’ll have to be as amazing as he was last season to capture the award.
10. TUUKKA RASK, BOSTON BRUINS
Rask, the 2013-14 Vezina winner, has a great setup for another Vezina-caliber season. He has a great team in front of him that happens to be play extremely responsible defensive hockey. Rask, however, has slightly underachieved in recent seasons. He’s known for tiring in the second half – his pre-break SP is .925 versus .916 post-break for his career – and the Bruins reduced his workload to 53 starts. After they signed Jaroslav Halak in the off-season, it’s pretty clear they intend to do the same with Rask this year. He should have perfectly solid overall numbers again but is unlikely to post league-best counting stats with Halak likely starting 25 to 30 times.
Other Vezina Trophy candidates to consider: Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings; Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins; Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks; Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild; Mike Smith, Calgary Flames; Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens; Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers; Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars