When staffers at The Hockey News cobbled together our mid-season award winners back in early January, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was the clear-cut frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy, and we were far from alone in our assertion that the Tampa Bay Lightning keeper had been the league’s best. It was widely accepted that Vasilevskiy was ahead of the pack, and the Pro Hockey Writers Association’s collective selection of the 23-year-old netminder as the best masked man in late January was yet another indication that he was well on his way to having the award sewn up.
The reality of mid-season awards, however, is that they’re that: faux honors and pseudo-distinctions decided with half a campaign to go. They’re by no means set in stone, and every mid-season accolade has to come with an asterisk as each leaves plenty of runway for another candidate to sneak in and steal the hardware. Our own awards offer some great examples. For one, Nikita Kucherov’s stranglehold on the Hart Trophy has loosened. Meanwhile, Mathew Barzal, who was 12 points back of Brock Boeser in our Calder poll, leads the rookie scoring race by 13 points. And Gerard Gallant … actually, scratch that, there's no way he doesn't win the Jack Adams Award this year.
With the final quarter of the campaign underway, though, the Vezina is one award where the odds-on favorite hasn't changed all that much. To be sure, the consensus would almost certainly still be that Tampa Bay’s No. 1 is the netminder most deserving of the end-of-season award. After all, among goaltenders to play 41 games this season, Vasilevskiy is the league leader in wins, save percentage, shutouts and sits third in goals-against average. Helping his case, of course, is that the Lightning are the top team in the Eastern Conference, leading the Presidents’ Trophy race and arguably the favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Team-based success is always going to make a netminder’s case shine brighter.
But the truth is the margin between Vasilevskiy and the next-best netminder in the league might be more razor-thin than early-season, mid-season or three-quarter-mark awards might lead us to believe, and there’s a case to be made that Nashville’s Pekka Rinne is right there alongside Vasilevskiy. Truth be told, should the Predators veteran continue to stand tall the rest of the way, he could even make a late charge and surpass the Lightning keeper by season’s end.
As noted, Vasilevskiy is near or leading most of the major base statistical categories the season, but Rinne isn’t far behind and, in some cases, the difference between he and Vasilevskiy is negligible or non-existent. Specifically, both netminders have identical all-strengths save percentages and the difference in GAA is two one-hundredths of a goal. Rinne has one fewer shutout and, for what it’s worth, three fewer wins while playing six fewer contests. But where the separation between the two netminders comes in is in the underlying and non-traditional statistics, and they actually favor Rinne.
At 5-on-5, Vasilevskiy and Rinne are two of the 19 goaltenders to play at least 2,000 minutes, but it’s the Nashville netminder who has the slightly more favorable numbers. In terms of pure SP, Rinne ranks first among the 2,000-minute goaltenders with a .939 mark, which is slightly better than the second-place Vasilevskiy, who boasts a .936 SP at five-a-side. Rinne also has the edge in SP against medium- and high-danger shots. In the former, Rinne’s .936 SP is the third-best mark among netminders facing a similar workload — and .023 better than that of Vasilevskiy — with the second-best SP, .854, against high-danger shots. The latter is .012 better than Vasilevskiy’s SP against similar shots. Also worth noting is that Rinne’s deviated SP — meaning his actual SP compared to expected SP given the quality of shots he’s faced — is .013, second only to Sergei Bobrovsky and .005 better than that of the fifth-place Vasilevskiy. The only shot-based category that Vasilevskiy leads Rinne in at 5-on-5 is low-danger SP, where the Lightning netminder holds a .013 edge.
One last feather in Rinne’s cap is quality starts, a measure developed by Hockey Abstract’s Rob Vollman that quantifies how many above-average games a netminder has in a season. A quality start is awarded for every game a goaltender plays with a SP above the league average, with one also given for any game in which a netminder posts a SP better than .885 when facing 20 or fewer shots against. Hockey-Reference maintains a record of quality starts, and, following Thursday’s action, Rinne has moved into a tie with Vasilevskiy and Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen with 32 quality starts. However, of goaltenders to play at least 41 games this season, no netminder has a greater percentage of quality starts than Rinne, who boasts a quality start percentage of 68.1 percent. Anaheim Ducks netminder John Gibson in the next-best at 65.2 percent.
Rinne has been the bridesmaid before. Matter of fact, the Predators netminder has been a three-time finalist for the Vezina, but he’s yet to win the award. However, if he continues to play as he has and pushes Nashville ahead of Tampa Bay by season’s end, there’s enough statistical merit for Rinne to push past Vasilevskiy and take the top goaltender honor that has eluded him for all these years.
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