Early Vying for the Vezina

“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.” That is how the trophy is described on nhl.com. The end of the year is a good time to evaluate what we have seen and determine who is vying for the Vezina Trophy this season early on.

Wikipedia Commons - Vezina Trophy
The Vezina Trophy (Wikipedia)

Vezina Times Have Changed

The league website provides some interesting history about the trophy. For example, “Leo Dandurand, Louis Letourneau, and Joe Cattarinich, former owners of the Montreal Canadiens, presented the trophy to the National Hockey League in 1926-27 in memory of Georges Vezina, outstanding goalkeeper of the Canadiens, who collapsed during an NHL game Nov. 28, 1925, and died of tuberculosis a few months later.”

The trophy was originally presented to the goalkeeper that allowed the fewest goals in a season. In 1982, it changed to honor the best individual goaltender. It is not an easy accolade to earn, but some goalkeepers like, “Jacques Plante holds the record for winning the most Vezinas with seven, trailed by Bill Durnan and Dominik Hasek both of who have won six. Hasek has won the most under the current system of honoring the best individual goalie.”

Jacques Plante Andy Bathgate
Jacques Plante thwarts Leafs’ Andy Bathgate

The trophy was awarded last season to Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He also won the award in the 2012-13 season. In a sense, Bobrovsky has distinguished himself, not only as the premier goalkeeper in the NHL for two of the last six seasons but as the steady anchor of a Blue Jackets team that has risen to become a legitimate Stanley Cup Playoff contender.

While it is not rocket science to find a correlation between an outstanding goalie and overall team success, goalies are often average. Keepers like Bobrovsky are invaluable to their teams.

Vying for the Vezina Early This Season

Using an arbitrary minimum of 29 games played thus far this season gives a pool of 13 goaltenders vying for the Vezina. Of course, the usual names such as Bobrovsky are near the top. But, there are also some newer names to consider, younger goalies such as Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning who are making their presence felt in a big way. While Frederik Andersen of the Toronto Maple Leafs is quietly backstopping a resurgent team that has the makings of a legitimate contender.

Sergei Bobrovsky

Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky
Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Bobrovsky won the Vezina last season with a 41-17-5 record, a .931 save percentage and 2.06 goals-against average. The Blue Jackets returned to the playoffs and put up 108 points during the regular season. At 29 years old, he about midway through his career, as goalies who tend to be more successful somewhat later, as opposed to early on.

Although he has not been in the league as long as some of his peers, like fine wine, Bobrovsky is aging well. He has improved and is arguably one of the most reliable goaltenders in the NHL. For example, his recent clashes with the Carolina Hurricanes have been epic. If the Blue Jackets are going to fail, it is unlikely that anyone will be pointing at their net as the reason.

This season, Bobrovsky is again vying for the trophy. He is sporting a save percentage of .921 and a goals-against average of 2.41. His Blue Jackets are right in the thick of the Metropolitan Division battle, with a record of 22-13-3 and 47 points. If forced to wager on a Vezina winner today, one could do a lot worse than putting their bet on Bobrovsky to repeat. He’s that strong at his position.

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Vasilevskiy flashed onto the Lightning scene in relief of an injured Ben Bishop during Game 1 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals. He played extremely well, and the hockey universe suddenly became familiar with the young goalie from Tyumen, Russia. At 23 years-old, Vasilevskiy is still considered young for a goaltender but, he plays well beyond his years, showing poise, skill and confidence normally reserved for the most seasoned of veterans.

Andrei Vasilevskiy
Andrei Vasilevskiy (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

After 30 games this season, he has a save percentage of .934 and a goals-against average of 2.09. His Lightning have been on fire during the first part of the season. At 27-7-2 with 56 points, they are pretty much running away with the Atlantic Division, and are a third of the season away from the Presidents’ Trophy. Anything can happen, but right now the Lightning are firing on all cylinders, with no signs of slowing down. Vasilevskiy’s Russian teammate, Nikita Kucherov, is leading the league in points with 52.

This Lightning team has been frustrated in the past couple of seasons, and seem determined to make this the season they win the Stanley Cup. They have the goalie to go all the way, and he may just pick up his first Vezina.

Frederik Andersen

Andersen is quietly leading the Maple Leafs to renewed respect. He is sporting a save percentage of .923 and a goals-against average of 2.64. His record over 31 games is 20-10-1. It was not so long ago that the Leafs were making wholesale moves such as trading Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins and hiring Mike Babcock as their new head coach.

Toronto Maple Leafs, Frederik Andersen
Frederik Andersen is easily the Leafs’ MVP this season. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

On December 8, Kristen Shilton at TSN wrote:

But while Toronto has endured their ups and downs, since the beginning of November the consistent play of goaltender Frederik Andersen has proven to be one of the Leafs’ most valuable weapons.

Two weeks ago, Mike Roberts wrote at puckprose.com that Andersen is making a run for the Vezina:

Andersen has arguably transformed into the Maple Leafs’ most important player, even more so than Auston Matthews. Some would even say he’s making a strong case to be this season’s Vezina Trophy winner. The Leafs goaltender has faced nearly 100 more shots than any other goalie in the league, as the young Maple Leafs consistently allow over 30 shots a game.

There is no question that as the season progresses, Andersen will be in every conversation about who is vying for the trophy this season.

If Voting for the Vezina Trophy Were Today

How would you vote if you could vote today for the best goaltender in the NHL this season? There are other names to consider, such as Jake Allen of the St. Louis Blues, Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals – who won the award two years ago and Mike Smith of the Calgary Flames. Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks and Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens are perennial names who always garner respect from their peers.

If the criterion is simply, “judged to be the best at their position,” one has to ask what that means? Is it based on the best statistics, with GAA and Save% being the primary determining factors? Is it playoff victories? Obviously, it can’t be because Matt Murray has won two Stanley Cups in a row and did not win the Vezina. “Best” is a subjective term, and each GM willr  cast their vote based on what they think “best” means.

For me, if pressed into a vote today, I would give the nod to Andersen. He’s consistent and dialing in for the long-haul this season. Of course tomorrow I might say, “Wow, look at Bobrovsky and Vasilevskiy!” But, for now, I’m on the Andersen bandwagon. He is legitimately vying for the Vezina Trophy.