"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."
Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils
Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix Coyotes
Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres
The Case for Martin Brodeur
Four thousand, four hundred, ninety-nine minutes. A year after being limited to 31 games due to injury, at a time when some might be entertaining thoughts that Brodeur was winding down or should be getting his minutes pared back, he stood once more at the top of the heap in minutes played among goaltenders (more than 400 minutes ahead of second place Bryzgalov), not to mention winning more than 40 games for the eighth time in his career. He also led the league in wins and shutouts. And, on a team that finished 19th in goals scored per game, having him playing at a high level was instrumental in the Devils finishing on top in the Atlantic Division and second in the Eastern Conference. Brodeur also raised his game against top competition. In games he played against teams from the Eastern Conference that would make the playoffs, Brodeur was 20-8-3, 1.93, .932, with three shutouts. He did not allow more than three goals in consecutive games, thus avoiding the slumps in goal that would have put more pressure on an offensive of somewhat limited effectiveness. And, this being a regular season award, it is worth noting that he finished very strong. He allowed one or no goals in six of his last seven games (4-1-2, 0.98, .946, and two shutouts). Brodeur remains at the top of his game.
The Case for Ilya Bryzgalov
It would be convenient to dismiss Bryzgalov’s performance, relative to the other finalists, as his being the product of a very structured system or that this was something of a fluke year, given his career to date. Nevertheless, Bryzgalov finished third among NHL goaltenders in wins, sixth in goals against average, ninth save percentage, second in shutouts, and did so for a team that few picked to finish in the top-eight of the Western Conference, let alone challenge for the top spot in the conference into the final week of the season. And Bryzgalov had a much smaller window of error (Phoenix was plus-0.16 in goals scored/goals allowed per game) than his fellow finalists (New Jersey was plus-0.36, Buffalo plus-0.37). He also came up large against tough competition, finishing 14-8-5, 2.28, .924, with two shutouts against the other seven teams to make the playoffs in the West. Only once in 2009-2010 did he lose more than two consecutive games in regulation – a three-game losing streak wrapped around the Olympic break. But he followed this up by finishing the season 10-2-2, 2.01, .930, and two shutouts. Phoenix surprised a lot of people this year, and no player was more important in that result than Bryzgalov.
The Case for Ryan Miller
Ryan Miller is no stranger to individual awards as a goaltender, dating back to his days in college – three times CCHA goaltender of the year, twice CCHA player of the year, Hober Baker Award winner, Baz Bastien Memorial Trophy winner as the AHL’s top goaltender, NHL All-Star, starting goaltender for Team USA in the 2010 Winter Olympics. But in four seasons since the lockout, Miller more or less lurked on the edges of “elite” status as an NHL goaltender, perhaps a second tier goalie compared to a Brodeur or a Luongo. This year, Miller stepped to the top rung of the ladder for the Buffalo Sabres. Fourth in wins, second in goals-against average, second in save percentage, seventh in shutouts, and among goaltenders playing in at least half of his club’s games, the best save percentage while shorthanded. Here is a subtle indication of Miller’s excellence this year and his ability to keep his club in games – in the 26 losses he sustained this year (regulation and extra time), he still had a save percentage of .900. Miller did not have as good a win-loss record against playoff teams against his competitors (13-10-4 against top-eight teams in the East), but his 2.29 goals-against average and .929 save percentage were consistent with his numbers against the rest of the league. If there is a blemish on Miller’s record, it is a five-game stretch in mid-February when he went 0-3-2, 3.56, .919. That constituted the run-up to the Olympics, which might have been a distraction for the Team USDA number one goaltender. Otherwise, he lost consecutive games in regulation only twice all season. From start to finish, and the distractions that might have taken him off his game, Miller was the foundation upon which the Sabres won a Northeast Division title and secured a third place finish.
For each of these goalies it might be said that in their absence their teams would have difficulty making the playoffs. But this is likely less true for two of them than the other. Bryzgalov’s Coyotes and Brodeur’s Devils did play on teams that had a defensive focus that Buffalo did not have. And along these lines, the Sabres had a few defensemen who were starting to look the part of being on the far side of 30 while trying to break in another (albeit gifted one) in his first pro season. There is little to clearly rate one ahead of another, but given his situation and the greater responsibility he had to keep his own net clean, the winner is…