Connor Hellebuyck and Pekka Rinne.
Who has the best chance to win the Vezina: Rinne, Vasilevskiy or Hellebuyck? And were they the right choices as finalists?
The Vezina Trophy is its own beast. Most of the major NHL awards are voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association – but not the Jack Adams (broadcasters vote on that one) and not the Vezina, for which the league’s active GMs cast the ballots.
This year, they’ve identified the Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Winnipeg Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck as finalists. Not nominees, by the way. The voting is complete, and these are the top three, hence the term “finalists.” Here’s a breakdown of the case for each candidate – plus an assessment of whether the GMs selected the right trio.
THE CASE FOR PEKKA RINNE
If you had one minute to complete all your Vezina research, Rinne is the slam-dunk choice. No goaltender’s game is easier on the eyes, for starters. Rinne is towering, athletic, a great puckhandler and owner of arguably the NHL’s best glove hand. His .927 save percentage led all goaltenders with at least 50 games played, and his eight shutouts tied for tops in the NHL. Recency bias also favors Rinne, who was positively possessed over his final 25 games of the season, going 19-5-1 with a .931 SP and five shutouts.
Rinne also exorcised a couple key demons. The analytics crowd, myself included, has always been tough on Rinne, suggesting his under-the-hood numbers are never as good as he’s perceived to be. This season, however, a lot of his fancy stats check out, according to corsica.hockey. Among the 51 goalies with 1,000 or more minutes played 5-on-5, Rinne had the fourth-best even-strength SP. He ranked eighth in medium-danger and high-danger SP. He’s fourth in goals saved above average (a netminder’s goals allowed compared to the league-average goaltender’s numbers). He was just 32nd in low-danger SP, but his numbers were still excellent overall – on top of his league-best surface stats.
Also, while career splits tell us Rinne’s typically been a much better home goalie than road goalie in his career, he was stupendous 17-7-2 with a 2.01 GAA and .937 SP on the road this season while still posting strong home numbers: 25-6-2, 2.51, .919.
Rinne has the strongest claim to the Vezina this year. It will be a massive upset if he doesn’t win it.
THE CASE FOR ANDREI VASILEVSKIY
No goaltender enjoyed a better first half. Vasilevskiy entered his home All-Star Game appearance in Tampa with a 2.18 GAA, .931 SP and seven shutouts before the end of January. Vasilevskiy finished the year with an NHL-high 44 wins and tied Rinne’s eight shutouts. Vasilevskiy didn’t have quite as elite of a D-corps in front of him as Rinne did and faced the most medium-danger scoring chances of any goaltender with 1,000-plus minutes at 5-on-5, though that’s partially because he played the fifth-most minutes.
But, honestly, the case for Vasilevskiy should end there. His game really sagged in the final few months of the season as he adjusted to the biggest workload of his career. His career high in games was 50 before this season, his first as an unquestioned starter. In games 51 to 65, a.k.a. uncharted territory for him, he posted an .893 SP. He also doesn’t grade out as above average in low-, medium- or high-danger SP, even strength SP or goals saved above average. Vasilevskiy evidently got his votes on the strength of a great first half and his gaudy win total. Most GMs are old-school thinkers and likely still value wins more than the rest of us.
THE CASE FOR CONNOR HELLEBUYCK
I questioned the Jets’ signing of Steve Mason in the off-season, but captain Blake Wheeler told me in an interview he loved the idea because it would push the inexperienced Hellebuyck to be better. We’ll never know for sure if Mason’s presence was the reason but, boy, was Hellebuyck better. The mega prospect had that breakout season we’d been waiting for, helping the Jets to a monster 114-point effort.
Hellebuyck was a rock., leading the NHL in games and minutes. He posted a .924 SP before the all-star break and .923 SP after it. He had a .911 SP or better in every month. Whereas Vasilevskiy did his most damage in the first half and Rinne in the second half, Hellebuyck was excellent wire to wire. His 44 wins equalled Vasilevskiy for the league lead, too.
Like Vasilevskiy, though, Hellebuyck grades out so-so in his underlying numbers: 17th in even-strength SP, 19th in low-danger SP, 31st in medium-danger SP, 24th in high-danger SP. Among the 51-goalie sample who played 1,000 or more minutes 5-on-5, only four goalies faced a higher percentage of low-danger shots, and Hellebuyck faced the sixth-lowest percentage of high-danger chances. So his defense’s ability to limit shot quality worked in his favor.
Hellebuyck was a horse – but a closer look at his statistics suggests he did a great job just providing a safety net for an outstanding team in front of him rather than elevating that team with otherworldly play.
WHO GOT SNUBBED?
Marc-Andre Fleury was incredible for the Vegas Golden Knights when in the lineup – but the 46-game sample size makes it tough to pick him over any of the workhorses. So while he deserves a major tip of the cap for his best season ever, he’s out in my mind.
To me, two goaltenders other than Vasilevskiy and Hellebuyck should’ve joined Rinne in the final three: John Gibson and Sergei Bobrovsky.
Let’s start with Gibson, one of the league’s best raw talents in goal. He passes the surface test: .926 SP, lifted the Ducks into the post-season by going 15-4-2 with a .935 SP and three shutouts in a brilliant 23-game run to end the year. But Gibson’s season looks really interesting when we bust out our magnifying glasses.
He faced a league-high 40.59 percent of his shots from medium-danger shooting areas and ranked 14th with 19.92 percent of his shots from high-danger areas. That means more than 60 percent of the shots Gibson faced 5-on-5 were medium- or high-danger chances. He had the seventh-best medium-danger SP in the league and finished third in goals saved above average.
The guy who led the league in goals saved above average by a mile: Bobrovsky. ‘Bob,’ the reigning Vezina winner, graded out as one of the top high-danger goaltenders despite facing the sixth-highest percentage of shots against from high-danger areas. Bobrovsky’s statistical profile tells us he’s the elevator, the stand-on-his head guy who stopped shots he had no business stopping. He thus would’ve been a worthy Vezina finalist.