Fresh off arguably the best goaltending performance of this year, it has become impossible to ignore the season that Jacob Markstrom is having. Although, many are still are.
The Vancouver Canucks netminder’s 49-save shutout performance on Feb. 12 against the Chicago Blackhawks shattered several records, including the most saves by a Canucks goaltender and the most saves by a Swedish-born goaltender during a regular-season shutout.
Heck, only 10 goalies have ever stopped more shots in a regular-season shutout game – in the history of the league.
It’s obvious that this was an overtly impressive performance on paper. Accounting for the quality of the saves and flow of the game, the box score still understates Markstrom’s game.
The Blackhawks ramped up their intensity at the start of each period in efforts to mount a comeback, outshooting the Canucks for a combined total of 29-3 in the first 10 minutes of each period.
According to Money Puck, the Blackhawks had an expected goals total of 3.51 and won approximately 75 percent out of 1,000 simulations against what would be considered average goaltending.
Because of above-average goaltending and a couple of game-altering saves, Markstrom stole the Canucks a victory in this game – not his first time doing so this season.
To succinctly sum up the game Brandon Sutter explained:
“This wouldn’t have been a 3-0 win, or a win at all, without him.”Quote from NHL.com
Fans of Vancouver have been proclaiming Markstrom as a Vezina Trophy contender, and the big Swede is deserving. However, the Hart Trophy might even be more suiting.
Statistically, there is a case to be made for both, however, there are a few reasons why it likely won’t happen.
The Hart Memorial Trophy is awarded to the “player judged to be most valuable to his team” while the Vezina Trophy selects the goaltender that is “the best at his position.”
Vancouver is currently first in the Pacific Division despite having a bottom-tier defence. Their expected goals against total ranks 28th, however, their actual goals against ranks 14th in the league. The discrepancy between the two is the second-largest, narrowly after the Blackhawks.
Further, Vancouver has allowed the third-most scoring chances against and is in the bottom quarter in the league in Corsi against.
The fact that the Canucks have stayed afloat with their troublesome defence is in large part due to Markstrom’s ability to bail out his team on a nightly basis.
The 6-foot-6 tendy rises to the challenge and is capable of standing on his head during games like these. He holds a stellar 12-4-0 record in games where he’s faced 35 shots or more. Those 12 wins lead the league for this statistic while he maintains an elite .942 save percentage. The Canucks were outshot in 11 of those 12 wins by an average of 42-27, therefore making it a fair assumption to say that Markstrom has stolen 11 games at minimum for Vancouver this year. Subtract around 22 points and the Canucks would be cellar dwellers in the league standings.
While there is no equivalent statistic like this for skaters, it’s hard to compare this added value to Hart Trophy favorites that are mostly forwards. How many wins would Connor McDavid or Nathan MacKinnon be solely responsible for? Probably quite a few, although it’s much less clear to precisely pinpoint. Considering that goaltender is the clearest and most valuable position towards winning games, this bodes well for Markstrom.
It becomes easier when directly comparing goalies for the Vezina. As reported by CSA hockey, the Swede leads the NHL with a plus-22.06-goal differential, indicating the number of goals he’s saved based on quality and number of shots. He ranks ahead of Vezina competitors Tuukka Rask (15.22), Robin Lehner (14.06) and Connor Hellebuyck (13.76).
I think what makes Markstrom’s case unique compared to these award favorites is a combination of his strong underlying individual stats paired with the team’s success.
Rask and other strong candidates, like Ben Bishop, play for elite defensive teams that rank in the top-five for expected goals against. In addition, their backup goalies have further proved how defensively solid their teams are. The Bruins’ Jaroslav Halak and Stars’ Anton Khudobin have started 23 or more games and have comparable stats to their respective starters.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Canucks’ backup, Thatcher Demko. Markstrom deserves credit for transforming his struggling defensive team to their current status as a division leader.
As for Hellebuyck and Lehner, it is obvious that they have also played sensationally and stolen many games for their teams. However, it hasn’t been enough as both teams currently sit outside of the playoff threshold.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
Although Markstrom’s remarkable play is constantly captivating Canucks fans and creating the narrative for his inclusion into the awards discussions, I wouldn’t get too excited.
The narrative is on his side, but history and geography unfortunately disagree.
Of the last 25 Vezina winners, only three goalies have been on a Western Conference team. It makes sense. The trophy is voted on by the league’s general managers and the majority of them live in Eastern time zones, making it difficult to stay up late and observe Markstrom’s brilliance during Canucks games.
In addition, those general managers typically heavily rely on wins, goals against average, and save percentage as the key statistic towards determining which goaltender wins the award. In fact, over the last 10 years (excluding the lockout-shortened season), no Vezina winner has finished outside the top five for any of those categories.
Currently, Markstrom does not rank in the top five. I believe Markstrom might have the hardest earned .918 save percentage of all time, but sadly it does not rank amongst the league’s elite. As for goals-against average, it is a tough break for Markstrom as it is almost purely determined by a team’s defensive ability, not necessarily the goalie.
The Hart Trophy is slightly more balanced since it is decided by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, but still, only 9 of the last 25 have been Western Conference players.
Furthermore, an astonishing 78 percent of Hart Trophy winners have been forwards. It’s a rarity for goaltenders to win the voters over, considering their competition is fast skating, high-scoring snipers and playmakers. I’m just not sure there is much more Markstrom could do as a goalie, although, an assist against the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 6 suggests otherwise.
Plus, he’s only one goal away from tying Pekka Rinne for the league lead in his position. If that doesn’t win the voters over, I don’t know what will.
Jokes aside, I believe Markstrom will be laughing his way to the bank this offseason with a new contract regardless of whether or not his trophy case is more crowded than it is now. If anything, I believe Markstrom deserves to at least get consideration for both awards.
If I had to choose, I would say he’s more deserving of the Hart over the Vezina given the definition of the trophy. It sounds strange for a goaltender to deserve praise towards being the most valuable player over being the best goalie, although it almost happened to this franchise in 2006-07 when Roberto Luongo finished second in Hart voting despite not winning the Vezina.
Unfortunately, it seems that Markstrom will be hard-pressed to get the attention he deserves at the awards show in June. I would be pleasantly surprised if he ends up getting nominated and even more so if he were to win either award. For now, let’s keep Vancouver’s elite goaltender a secret. It might even save the club a few bucks come free agency.