Like the Calder and Hart Trophies, this year’s Vezina race had too many worthy finalists to fit in the top three. Tuukka Rask, Semyon Varlamov, Ben Bishop and Carey Price all put up numbers good enough to be seriously considered for the award – Price was left as the odd-man out.
Varlamov emerged as a real difference-maker under Patrick Roy and behind a Colorado team that advanced stats suggested didn’t possess the puck enough to hang with division rivals St. Louis and Chicago. Varlamov faced the most shots, made the most saves and, largely because of that performance, the Avs beat out both teams for the division title.
But this Vezina should not be for Varlamov.
Bishop was clearly the MVP for the Lightning this season and when they had to go without him in the playoffs, the ensuing sweep showed just how much they need him. Bishop is getting off-season surgery to repair a ligament in his wrist that was torn just before the Olympic break and the impact of that injury on his season was noticeable: post-Olympics, Bishop’s save percentage was only .904.
“I played with a cast on my wrist the whole second half of the year,” Bishop said.
The Lightning goalie was great when he was healthy and, without him, Tampa probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs.
But this Vezina should not be for Bishop, either.
The best goalie in the NHL right now is Boston’s Rask – and he should be rewarded for it.
Using stats and drawing on their team MVP status, you can easily make a Vezina case for either Bishop or (and especially for) Varlamov. Using stats, you can also easily make a case for Rask, but he is not the obvious MVP of his team. The Bruins are too good, allow too few shots against and perhaps don’t rely on their goalie as much as Tampa Bay and Colorado do to be successful – but those facts should not always play against Rask and his .930 SP and 2.04 GAA, both of which are better than Varlamov and Bishop.
The goaltending position is a difficult one to predict. Every year, there is some goalie we don’t see coming as a league leader who ends up at or near the top of stat rankings. Last year, Craig Anderson led the NHL with a .941 SP, which dropped 30 points this year. In 2012, Phoenix’s Mike Smith finished with a .930 SP, but hasn’t been better than .915 since. Varlamov and Bishop are both potentially in that boat now, since we certainly didn’t expect these types of performances out of them in 2013-14. Varlamov’s career has been inconsistent and this was Bishop’s first go as a starter.
The analytics crowd certainly recognizes the unpredictability at the goaltending position:
According to the NHL, the Vezina Trophy “is an annual award given to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at this position as voted by the general managers of all NHL clubs.” This does not mean they have to be the MVP of their team, face the most shots and play behind a horrid defensive system to qualify. The Vezina winner just needs to be the best goalie. Period.
So when the statistical race is as close as it is this year, a better tie-breaker than shots faced or saves made is track record. Who is the best NHL goalie? How about the one who had a terrific year and who has a rock solid past? You can’t award the Vezina completely subjectively, but, when backed up with league leading stats, overall consistency and dependability has to count for something. Especially at this position.
Every year that Rask has made an appearance in the majority of Boston’s games, his save percentage has been at least .929. Rask has hit the .929 mark four times now in his young career, while both Varlamov and Bishop had career years. Will the latter two have repeat performances next season? That’s unpredictable.
Odds are Rask will do it again.
The Vezina is voted on by NHL GM’s instead of the writers, so there’s no telling where the voting will go. But in a competition so tight for the title of Best NHL Goalie, past performance has to be considered a tie-breaker to come to the right conclusion.
In 20 years, it will be better to look back and see the names of the NHL’s best goalies winning this award, and not a streak of one-off, incredibly elite performances by goalies behind poor defenses.
Rask is the NHL’s best goalie this year, backed up by statistics and precedence.
Give him the Vezina.