The Vezina Trophy is a prestigious award presented to the regular season’s best goaltender as decided by the general managers. The 2021 finalists are Andrei Vasilevskiy, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Philipp Grubauer, and while there might have been some snubs, including Connor Hellebuyck or Juuse Saros, it does not diminish the excellent seasons of the finalists. Should Vasilevskiy take home his second, or will there be a new king of the hill?
There isn’t much to say about the Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender that hasn’t already been said. Most fans and media regard him to be the best goalie in the NHL, and for a good reason. He’s the backbone of an already stacked Lightning team and was a key contributor in their 2020 Stanley Cup victory. At 26 years old, the 6-foot-3 Russian netminder is just entering his prime, which is a scary thought. He already won the Vezina in 2019 at the age of 24. From highlight-reel behind-the-back saves to showcases of his athleticism on cross-crease passes, there is still a lot left to unlock.
What makes Vasilevskiy’s season special enough to warrant a finalist position? First, his reputation proceeds him, and the eye test favors him. His freakish athleticism far surpasses any goalie in the NHL right now outside of (maybe) Jonathan Quick, who was once regarded as the most athletic goalie in the league. It’s not just what we see during games, but the numbers say the same.
Vasilevskiy had a fantastic season. At one point, his stats were so far ahead of the others that it didn’t seem real. It’s his trophy to lose, and I doubt this will be the last time we say that. Among the three finalists, Vasilevskiy placed second in goals saved above expected (GSAx) per Evolving-Hockey with the highest expected goals against (xGA) of the three. His save percentage (Sv%) and delta Fenwick save percentage (dFSv%) are both second as well. The defense in front of him didn’t help, and despite some lapses, he was able to bail them out.
The combination of his reputation and placement among the finalists are contributing factors to his campaign. General managers are going to be aware of what he brings to every single game, and voters were surely aware of the discrepancy between the Lightning’s record with Vasilevskiy versus without him before they submitted their ballots.
Speaking of highlight saves and ridiculous athleticism, let’s consider Fleury. He’s one of many fan-favorites in the NHL right now. After being exposed by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the expansion draft and chosen by the Vegas Golden Knights, he has enjoyed some excellent seasons. His resume includes three Stanley Cups in 2009, 2016, and 2017, but he has yet to add a Vezina Trophy to his case.
In 36 games this season, Fleury put up excellent numbers. He had the best GSAx and dFSv% among the three finalists and recorded the best save percentage by a very slim margin. The one thing working against him is the help from his defense. He played fewer games than Vasilevskiy and had much more assistance from the team in terms of allowing fewer high-danger chances. His xGA was second-highest among the finalists, and he faced the lowest number of unblocked shot attempts among the three.
Even though his defense helped, he still performed at an elite level. He was on par with Vasilevskiy for most of the season when he got everything in check. It’s just a slight nick on his numbers that involve expected goals (xG). I’m sure most goalies would rather face the least amount of high-danger chances as possible.
Most would have preferred to see the Winnipeg Jets’ Hellebuyck or the Nashville Predators’ Saros nominated simply because their overall seasons were better than Grubauer statistically. At one point, he was the Vezina favorite by GSAx but quickly fell off for many reasons. He had a good season nonetheless but ranks the lowest among the finalists.
In the end, Grubauer’s GSAx placed third among the three after being first for what seemed like weeks at the beginning of the season. The same can be said for his dFSv%, which doesn’t even touch Fleury’s (1.46) or Vasilevskiy’s (0.75). He had the most help from his defense, playing the second-most games but having the lowest xGA by a decent margin. He also had the third-lowest SV% of the three finalists. His stats are good but not good enough to compete with Fleury and Vasilevskiy.
All in all, none of the numbers suggest that Grubauer should win this race, and the two other goaltenders have slightly better cases to win the award. It’s a two-person show at this point. He had a good season, and the problems that ailed him weren’t necessarily his fault, but Grubauer just wasn’t at the level to win it this time around.
Vasilevskiy and Fleury are the two competing for the crown jewel of the goaltending world. One has one to his name already, and the other doesn’t. I could argue that both deserve it, but at the end of the day, only one will win. I think it has to be Fleury, not only from a statistical standpoint but also from a realistic standpoint. His numbers – box score and analytical – are ahead or close behind Vasilevskiy’s, and he’s a player that every fan can get behind. The fact that he hasn’t won a Vezina isn’t surprising given his statistics over the years, but he’s deserving of one this season. It would be a tough pill to swallow if this is indeed his last chance to win the Vezina, and he doesn’t get it for whatever reason. People love him, and the stats back up his case, so I think he’s earned it.