If the season were to end today, John Gibson would have every right to take home the Vezina Trophy.
Monday’s outing against the Nashville Predators was a microcosm of the season that has been for the 25-year-old netminder. In a game in which the Ducks eked out a 2-1 shootout victory, Gibson made 34 saves, including 10 overtime stops that preserved the outing for Anaheim and allowed the Ducks to take the second point via the skills competition. His play was highlighted by a point-blank, how-did-he-save-that stymying of Ryan Johansen that caused the Predators pivot to look to the rafters. Make no mistake, either: Monday’s performance was the norm, not some outlier, for Gibson.
Through the first six weeks of the NHL campaign, and with the quarter-mark of the season on the horizon, Gibson has been, without question, the most spectacular netminder in the NHL. While his base numbers alone may not make the case — he ranks ninth with a .931 save percentage and 16th with a 2.47 goals-against average among the 50 goaltenders with at least five appearances — his overall body of work, particularly in a situation that would buckle most netminders, speaks volumes. He’s one of only two keepers to face more than 500 shots, one of only two with at least 500 saves and the difference between Gibson and the other 500/500 goaltender, Craig Anderson, is so vast as to almost be laughable. Anderson ranks 31st in SP (.905) and 46th in GAA (3.70) among the same group of five-game goaltenders.
Gibson’s underlying numbers paint a picture of a goaltender who has been positively dominant, too. According to Corsica, Gibson’s .940 SP is the eighth-best mark among the 55 netminders with 200 minutes at 5-on-5, and using the goals-saved above average statistic, which quantifies how many goals a netminder has prevented when compared to a league-average goaltender, Gibson stands heads and shoulders above his counterparts. His 11.4 mark at 5-on-5 is 2.3 goals better than the second place Pekka Rinne. For further context, if Gibson’s GSAA continued to rise at the rate it has through his 15 appearances, he would finish with a GSAA of 50-plus at all strengths. The best mark in the past two decades is Dominik Hasek’s 54.5 in 1997-98, a campaign in which ‘The Dominator’ won the Hart Trophy, Lester B. Pearson Award and Vezina.
So, with numbers like that, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that Gibson is on his way to a Vezina, too, right? Well, there’s a catch. While Gibson would certainly have a case, and it could be asserted his case would be stronger than that of any other netminder, the one statistic that is somewhat out of his control might be the very thing that ends up sinking his candidacy: wins.
As it stands, the Ducks are a .500 team — 8-8-3 through 19 games and sitting on the cusp of a wild-card spot in the Western Conference. There’s very little that would point to Anaheim maintaining that sort of record short of Gibson somehow improving his numbers, though.
The Ducks have the second-least prolific offense (2.21 goals per game), the sixth-worst power play (15.4 percent) and an average shot differential of 11.3 shots to go along with a minus-10 goal differential. Furthermore, Anaheim’s underlying numbers are unsightly. At five-a-side, the Ducks rank second-last in Corsi percentage (43.3), last in shots percentage (41.9), last in scoring chances percentage (39.9) and last in high-danger scoring chances percentage (38.1).
Of course, Anaheim has had the misfortune of having a sizeable chunk taken out of the roster by the injury bug. On the sidelines with ailments of one kind or another are Corey Perry, Max Comtois, Kevin Roy and Korbinian Holzer, and the Ducks have been without Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Ondrej Kase, Jakob Silfverberg, Nick Ritchie and Patrick Eaves at various points throughout the early part of the campaign. As the lineup returns to full health, maybe Anaheim rights the ship. That, despite a slow return to health, the Ducks have remained among the five-worst teams in three of the four aforementioned underlying statistics over their past 10 games would give reason to believe greater success isn’t in the offing, though.
Unfortunately, the history of the Vezina trophy would suggest that Anaheim’s record stands to impact Gibson greatly, too, even if his numbers hold for the remainder of the campaign. Since the Vezina became the most outstanding goaltender award in 1981-82, no winner in a non-shortened campaign has been less than six games above .500 in the win-loss column. That Vezina victory belongs to Jose Theodore, who won the award with a 30-24-6 record, 2.11 GAA and .931 SP in 2001-02. But with Theodore excluded, no other winner has had less than a double-digit spread between wins and losses.
And even if Gibson manages to maintain his current numbers and somehow finishes with an above-.500 record, there could be another factor that prevents his winning and possibly his candidacy, one that would reignite the heated post-season debate that clouded the Hart race last season.
You’ll recall Connor McDavid’s Hart candidacy was questioned across the final months of the 2017-18 campaign due to the Edmonton Oilers’ awful finish. Many claimed that the league MVP couldn’t rightly play for a team that didn’t make the post-season. There was precedent, however, for McDavid to be included in the Hart conversation. Mario Lemieux’s 1987-88 Hart win came in a season in which the Pittsburgh Penguins finished outside of the playoff picture. But barring Sergei Bobrovsky’s Vezina victory in the lockout-shortened 2012-13, a campaign that saw the Columbus keeper finish 10 games above .500 but the Blue Jackets miss the post-season by virtue of a tiebreaker, no netminder playing in a non-shortened campaign has won the award on a team that has missed the post-season. (Prior to 1981-82, Roy Worters surrendered a league-low 74 goals in 44 games to win the award. Worters’ New York Americans missed the post-season as the result of a tiebreaker.)
And true as it may be that none of this will matter in the slightest if Gibson’s numbers slip in his efforts to bail out a shaky Ducks’ defense, there’s nothing that would suggest Gibson is due for a downturn in his performance. He has statistically been among the league’s very best netminders across the past three full seasons, and this quarter-campaign has been the continuation of that. The reality is, though, that if Anaheim can’t begin to pile up wins and at least flirt with playoff contention, Gibson may still end up on the outside looking in when Vezina debates begin in earnest. And there’s a good chance that will be no fault of his own.