There was a time, one not at all beyond recollection, when debate raged about John Gibson’s Vezina Trophy candidacy. The arguments on the side of the Anaheim Ducks starter were strong, too.
While his record wasn’t up to snuff with your standard Vezina contender around the midpoint of the campaign, Gibson had faced the second-heaviest workload of any starter and had been the backbone of any and all success the Ducks had had this season. That he was somehow four games above .500 despite Anaheim’s inconsistencies and deficiencies spoke volumes about his play, as did his then-.924 save percentage and 2.61 goals-against average. Diving deeper, the Ducks starter’s underlying numbers were impeccable. His .937 SP at 5-on-5 was among the league’s best, his 14.0 goals-saved above average mark at five-a-side was tops among all keepers. Put it all together, and if Gibson wasn’t the frontrunner, he was definitely in the conversation with some figuring it was his award to lose.
But the second half of the season — and the play of the free-falling Anaheim group in front of him — has broken Gibson. That’s both figuratively and literally true.
Since the turn of the calendar, Gibson’s numbers are a far cry from what they once were. In a dozen appearances, he’s mustered a mere .884 SP and boasts an inflated 3.95 GAA. His .892 SP at 5-on-5 is the third-worst mark among all netminders with at least 500 minutes played in the back half of the slate. And his minus-7.1 GSAA is second-worst over the same span. If that isn’t enough of a gut punch for Gibson, not to mention his Vezina candidacy, then his recent trip to the injured reserve will certainly deliver a blow that buckles the keeper’s hopes of snapping up the top goaltender honors. Gibson left last Thursday’s tilt against the Ottawa Senators and was placed on the IR Wednesday. He hasn’t skated and there’s no timetable for his return as he nurses back, neck and head injuries.
With the downturn in Gibson’s performance, one that is hardly the fault of one of the most overworked netminders in the NHL this season, and the physical maladies plaguing his ability to round back into form, it can safely be said that he’s watched his Vezina case go up in smoke as we enter the final-third of the campaign.
If Gibson isn’t the top choice for the hardware, though, and if he’s slid off the radar altogether, who then is? With the deadline approaching and the homestretch of the season in the offing, here’s a look at the five top contenders for the Vezina:
Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
You might not know it from the near-consistent cries out of Boston that Rask isn’t good enough to get the job done, but the Bruins starting netminder has been lights out this season. Based purely on all-strengths statistics alone, one has to imagine Rask captures the attention of the GMs voting for the award. His .920 SP is currently the seventh-best mark among netminders with at least 25 games played and his 2.38 GAA ranks fifth. Better yet, at 5-on-5, Rask’s .935 SP is the third-best mark among keepers with at least 25 games played. His pair of shutouts certainly isn’t going to hurt his case, either.
Where Rask’s candidacy gets tricky, though, is in the win column. Again, it’s GMs who vote for the Vezina, and they love them some wins. And with only 18 victories on his resume this season, which ranks 14th among keepers entering Thursday’s action, some may decide to keep him off their ballot. That would be a real shame, too, because Rask has earned his keep in every other fashion. Goaltenders can’t control wins and losses as much as one might think.
Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars
There were no regrets about acquiring Bishop and signing him long-term ahead of last season. Let’s make that much clear. But instead of returning to form as one of the elite goaltenders in the game, Bishop was only average last season in Dallas. Granted, that’s a vast improvement from where the Stars were prior to the towering netminder’s arrival, but one wouldn’t fault the Stars for feeling Bishop had a bit more to give. And he’s given it this season.
While Dallas has had their shortcoming, the crease hasn’t been one, and Bishop is turning in one of the best seasons of his career. His .924 SP ranks fifth at all strengths, his 2.30 GAA third and his three shutouts tie him for third, as well. At 5-on-5, Bishop’s .926 SP ranks 14th and is significantly better than his expected SP total. Meanwhile, his 5.5 GSAA is the ninth-best total.
Much like Rask, the one aspect of Bishop’s resume that could hold him back is victories. He has 19 on a Stars club that is in a battle for a playoff position. That might result in Bishop getting overlooked in a pick ‘em against a netminder with more wins to his name.
Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
Prior to Shea Weber’s return, Price wasn’t even on the long list of Vezina contenders. From the beginning of the season to Nov. 26, the day before Weber’s return, Price had an .897 SP and 3.17 GAA through 17 games.
But that’s hard to fathom now that Price has seemingly returned to his former all-world self, rising to a .915 SP on the season while watching his GAA dip to 2.55 in part thanks to the two shutouts he’s posted in his past 25 games. Price’s 5-on-5 numbers have also exploded since Weber’s return. Once struggling, Price now boasts a .929 SP at five-a-side, the ninth-best total among 25-game goaltenders, and his GSAA has risen to 2.6, which ranks 15th.
Unlike the two netminders listed above, too, Price has the wins statistic in his back pocket. His 23 victories are tied for the fifth-most in the NHL and he’s on pace to win 34 games this season. That’s going to matter to the GMs who vote for the award, as will the fact he’s backstopping a team that was perceived to be more of a pretender than playoff contender this campaign.
Robin Lehner, New York Islanders
Speaking of backstopping a projected basement team, the Islanders were supposed to be in the mix for the first-overall pick, not first place in the Metropolitan Division. The play of both of their goaltenders has helped New York buck all expectations, though.
Lehner, signed in the summer after the Buffalo Sabres passed on qualifying him as a restricted free agent, has been nothing short of incredible in the Islanders crease. His .929 SP is the best all-strengths mark in the NHL. His 2.08 GAA is also tops among keepers with 25 games played. His three shutouts tie him for third. And Lehner also boasts the fourth-best 5-on-5 SP (.935), the second-largest deviation from his expected SP (.012) and the fifth-highest GSAA (8.4) of any goaltender. Add in the comeback tale that Lehner has woven and it’s hard not to root for him from a pure narrative perspective.
Here’s the thing, though: Lehner could fall victim to vote splitting due to his shared duties with Thomas Greiss, who has been equally as impressive and has numbers to support a candidacy of his own. Only two starts, one victory, two-thousandths of a SP point and one-fifth of a goal against separate Lehner and Greiss. And given neither has really owned the crease, it could result in one or both falling out of the top three, as ridiculous as that would be.
Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs
Andersen was exceptional last season, facing more shots and making more saves than any other keeper, all the while posting an .918 SP, 2.81 GAA, five shutouts and nearly winning 40 games. His reward? A fourth-place finish in Vezina voting. Ouch.
Don’t go thinking Andersen is about to suffer the same fate this year, though. With one-third of the campaign remaining, the Maple Leafs starter appears a lock for the top-three, at least. His all-strengths statistics might not be all that stunning — sixth with a .923 SP, 11th with a 2.56 GAA and one shutout — but his 5-on-5 numbers — seventh-best .933 SP, which is .08 better than his expected mark, and a fourth-best 8.8 GSAA — put him right among the top contenders.
What catapults Andersen into the upper echelon of the Vezina race, though, is his win total. His 26 wins are the third-most in the NHL and he’s on pace to win another 38 games this season and could very well cross the 40-win mark depending on how the Maple Leafs play down the stretch. He could be one of the only 40-win keepers in the league this season, too. The GMs who vote for the award would certainly reward him for that.
(All advanced statistics via Corsica)