Defense wins championships. That was probably the first hockey cliché I ever learned. Actually, it was probably the first sports cliché I learned from my Dad—years before I even knew I’d fall in love with hockey. Since then, I’ve learned that it’s important to give 110% while trying to take just one day at a time, but I still know that no matter how exciting one team may be and how boring another could be; defense wins championships.
We’ve all heard the same statements season after season. “A hot goaltender can carry a team deep,” or the depressing “we just ran into a hot goaltender.” Last year, Tim Thomas was the man all of last season while helping the Bruins to the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference. The man won the Vezina Trophy in a landslide; then he followed up his stellar regular season with an even more impressive playoff run. The Bruins were hitting on all cylinders by the end of the season, but the best goaltender in the world provided the foundation for their success.
It seems like that would happen quite often, right? The best goaltender in the league should be able to strap his team on his back and lead them to the Stanley Cup. But would you believe it that Tim Thomas was only the second goaltender to win the Vezina Trophy and the Conn Smythe in the same season since the Vezina switched to its current format that awards it “to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at this position as voted by the general managers of all NHL clubs.” In the 30 years since the format switched, only Thomas and Ron Hextall in 1987 have managed to win both awards in the same season—and Hextall didn’t even win the Cup! You may remember his Philadelphia Flyers were beaten by the Edmonton Oilers in 7.
Notice that not even Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy, or Dominic Hasek were able to pull off the Daily Double. (Yes Devils fans, we know that you think Brodeur was robbed in 2003)
This season, goaltending was the magic formula to get to the Conference Finals. Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist are both finalists for the Vezina. Mike Smith had the best year of his career and was probably the best goaltender to not be one of the three finalists (and also eliminated the third Vezina nominee). Oh, and Martin Brodeur will probably go down as the best goaltender to ever play in the NHL. If your team didn’t have one of those goaltenders, then they’re golfing.
It’s not like the goaltenders were passengers on their ride to the Conference Finals either. Mike Smith and Henrik Lundqvist were the slam-dunk Conn Smythe contenders from their respective teams before they were eliminated in the third round. Martin Brodeur was the favorite for the Conn Smythe before the series if the Devils win the Cup. Then there’s Jonathan Quick: he has the most wins, best goals against average, and best save percentage in the playoffs—and it isn’t even close.
Going into the Conference Final, both Lundqvist and Quick were in line for the rare Conn Smyth/Vezina accomplishment. Lundqvist’s bid ended when Adam Henrique slammed the door on the Rangers season, but Quick still has a chance of capturing both awards in the same season. It’s a feat that’s rarer than the Hart Trophy/Conn Smythe feat that’s only been won by Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, and Guy Lafleur in the same season.
It’s not just the Vezina/Conn Smythe that’s a rare pairing. Even though we’re told defense wins championships, only two players have ever won the Norris Trophy and Conn Smythe in the same year. Not surprisingly, Bobby Orr did it twice in 1970 and 1972. Equally as predictable, Nicklas Lidstrom accomplished the feat in 2002 when the Detroit Red Wings won the Cup. That’s it.
Denis Potvin? Even though he captured three Norris Trophies and four Stanley Cups, he was never able to win “Best Defenseman” and “Playoff MVP” in the same year. Larry Robinson won a pair of Norris Trophies and won about 47 Stanley Cups (estimate) with the Montreal Canadiens—but was never able to pull off the feat either. Paul Coffey? Nope. Since the NHL’s expansion, Orr and Lidstrom are the only two to do it. Strangely fitting, isn’t it?
With Shea Weber, Erik Karlsson, and Zdeno Chara as the Norris finalists this season, History Won’t Be Made this season either. In fact, only Weber was able to escape the first round of the playoffs.
It was only in 2010 when there were fans (and general managers) that were wondering the true value of a spectacular goaltender vs. strong defensive corps. Both the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers made it to the Stanley Cup Final with suspect goaltending that was minimized by stellar defensive corps. In fact, Chicago GM Stan Bowman chose to keep second-pairing defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson over Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi. And people were OK with it. The Flyers went into the next season with 17 goaltenders in case Michael Leighton faltered—which he did.
But take a look at this season, and only one defenseman that participated in the Conference Finals has ever been nominated for a Norris Trophy (Drew Doughty 2010). Yet the pendulum has swung all the way back to goaltending as Quick, Lundqvist, Brodeur have been nominated for the award in their respective careers—and you could make a strong case that Smith should have been nominated this year.
Only time will tell if Jonathan Quick is able to take home the pair of awards this June. First, he’ll need to help the Kings find a way to win three more games against the Devils. Then, he’ll need the media to vote him as the team’s most valuable player—which is certainly not a sure thing. And then, even after potentially taking home the hardware for Playoff MVP, he’ll have to wait until the end of June to find out if the 30 NHL GMs thought he was the best goaltender this season.
No wonder this is so rare.