Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Awards -- The Vezina Trophy

The Vezina Trophy citation reads…

"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."

The finalists...

Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild

Steve Mason, Columbus Blue Jackets

Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins

Easy, right? Best goalie. No “most valuable to his team;” no “adjudged to have contributed the most.” Just “best.”

Well, maybe it’s not so easy. Tim Thomas, Steve Mason, and Niklas Backstrom finished 1-2-3 (in that order) in goals against average. They finished 1-10-3 in save percentage (50 games played, minimum). They finished 6-5-9 in wins. They finished 10-3-1 in shutouts. Their switching their order among the statistical categories looks like three cars drafting one another at Daytona.

Thomas played the fewest games of the trio by far (54, compared to 61 for Mason and 71 for Backstrom). After a somewhat unlucky start to the season (1-1-2, despite a 2.67 GAA and .920 save percentage), Thomas would lose consecutive games in regulation only once, and that was in February, when the Bruins’ were well on their way to the playoffs with a 39-10-7 record. Boston was the only team that was close to having a +1.00 goal per game differential for the year (0.97), and 11 of Thomas’ 36 wins were by at least three goals. But he was also 15-5-7 in one goal games. Only nine times in 54 appearances did he surrender more than five goals. The argument against Thomas is that he played on a dominant team that made his job easier. And, he played in comparatively low number of games. If he wins, Thomas would do so with the fewest appearances since Patrick Roy appeared in 54 games in route to a Vezina Trophy in 1990.

Backstrom suffers the same lament that has followed Martin Brodeur over his career – he plays in a defense-first system that is geared toward allowing few goals (while scoring few of them). The Minnesota Wild certainly did play on the margin (+0.21 goal-per-game differential this season). But there is always a chicken-and-egg notion about such things. Did Backstrom post such fine numbers because the Wild play defense first, or did the Wild have such a goals-against-per-game result because of Backstrom’s superior play? It’s something that will not help Backstrom, if you look at his backup – Josh Harding. Playing behind the same set of skaters, Harding had a much worse win-loss record (3-9-1), but he had a better GAA (2.21 to 2.33) and a better save percentage (.929 to .923).

Mason had a somewhat freakish season. He posted a shutout approximately once every six appearances, the most frequent whitewashing since Dominik Hasek had 13 in 71 appearances in 1998. He was 18-4-7 in one-goal games. From November 15th through January 2nd, he had a 17-game streak in which he did not allow more than three goals. Here is the amazing thing about that streak; he did not win a game in which he allowed more than two goals (he was 10-6-1 overall), while posting a 1.32 GAA and .950 save percentage in the 17-game run. He was not playing for a team that gave him much of a cushion. Then, he contracted mononucleosis and played through it before being finally diagnosed with the condition and placed on injured reserve in early February. But Mason faded late in the season. He was 2-3-3 in his last eight decisions, 3.02, .883, and he allowed fewer than three goals only once in those eight games.

All three goalies have arguments for and arguments against. There doesn’t seem to be a dominant goalie in this trio, but that might reflect a changing of the guard and the absence of a Martin Brodeur, a Henrik Lundqvist, or a Miikka Kiprusoff. We believe that the winner will be...

Tim Thomas

But if we had a vote…

Steve Mason

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