When you think about it, an NHL goaltender is a lot like a Major League Baseball starting pitcher with far bigger canjones.
Both are largely dependent upon their defenses, although the best can win a game virtually on their own. They can play lights out and yet still lose, or conversely, perform poorly and get bailed out by their offense. They stay in the game until they get the hook, and when everything is on the line, the white hot glare of the spotlight is trained directly on them. Finally, when the game is over, they get a “W” or an “L” added to their personal ledger.
Here at The Hockey Writers, we profile teams and players ad infinitum (after all, it is our job), and we like to predict various individual honors such as potential Calder Trophy finalists or fantasy hockey category leaders while we’re at it — especially this time of year, when fantasy drafts are in full swing and we’re all thinking futuristically. Hope springs eternal, and all that jazz. What we don’t seem to talk much about is the very subject I am tackling in this piece: preseason Vezina Trophy candidates.
We don’t do that for good reason, as it’s pretty darned foolish. Who outside of Gertrude Bobrovsky (or whatever Sergei’s mother’s name is) would have predicted that he would practically run away with the Vezina Trophy last year? Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Kings’ Jonathan Quick would have been the likely front-runner, coming off a miniscule 1.95 G.A.A. during the regular season and then topping it off with an insane 16-4, 1.41/.946 stat line in the postseason. However, after posting rather pedestrian regular season numbers, he was barely an afterthought in the conversation.
However, under the no-guts-no-glory mantra, we’re going to brave the ridicule and tackle the subject of preseason Vezina Trophy favorites head on. Thus, the following are the top-five Vezina Trophy candidates heading into the 2013-14 NHL season.
#5: Sergei Bobrovsky (21-11-6, 2.00, .932)
It would be pretty crass to yank the 25-year old Blue Jackets sensation from a top-five list after the season he put together last year, especially since the BJ’s further improved over the offseason by shockingly inking six-time 20+ goal scorer Nathan Horton to a 7-year, $37.1 million deal. Minus Vinny Prospal, the Jackets return just about everybody else that matters, so despite their move to the Eastern conference, it is reasonable to expect a continuation of the upward arc they’ve recently enjoyed.
There is no reason to think the agile Bobrovsky can’t put up very strong numbers once again. As unlikely as it may be that he’ll win, Gertrude is crossing her fingers and toes once more, just in case.
#4: Jonathan Quick (18-13-4, 2.45, .902)
Quick has a uniquely spider-like stature about him while defending the net, scrabbling down low and flashing the glove to snag the high shots. Coming off back surgery following his Stanley Cup championship, he started the 2012-13 season rather poorly, suffering a sub-.900 save percentage through March. However, the back finally healed completely and he returned to form in April, giving up just 23 goals in ten games and recording a .917 save percentage.
The Kings lost perhaps their best stay-at-home defenseman when Rob Scuderi signed with the Penguins, but they still have a ton of talent on both sides of the ice. With the team now amongst the NHL elite, he deserves to be in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy. After all, he almost won it in 2012.
#3: Jimmy Howard (21-13-7, 2.13, .923)
Cue the Darth Vader music. As a Kings fan, I love to hate one of the league’s most dominant franchises over the last twenty years, especially since they’ve whacked my team around pretty consistently over that span. However, I have to tip my hat to the organization, as somehow they keep plucking players like potential Vezina winners out of the draft despite their perpetually-low positioning. Howard is all that and a slice of pie, as his last two seasons can attest.
At 29, he’s just now entering his prime, and with the Empire re-arming once more, a Vezina Trophy may well be in his near future.
#2: Henrik Lundqvist (24-16-3, 2.05, .926)
No top five goaltender list would be complete without King Henrik at or near the very top. After all, he won the Vezina Trophy just two seasons ago, and was a finalist last year. At 6’1″ and 195 pounds, he’s got the size to go with elite agility and reflexes, although the purported book on him is to aim high, higher and highest.
Lundqvist is one of the very best in the business and has a solid chance to win the prize every single year.
#1 (tie): Corey Crawford (19-5-5, 1.94, .926) and Tuukka Rask (19-10-5, 2.00, .929)
Ok, I confess. I couldn’t decide between the two and therefore boldly (a better word might be ‘foolishly’) declare them co-front runners for the Vezina Trophy at this early stage in the season. The fact that both are starting goaltenders for last season’s Cup finalists won’t escape anyone, but let’s face facts — both are tall, rangy and just damned good. The fact that they play for arguably the two best teams in the league is further icing on the cake, and that’s what nudges them ever-so-slightly ahead of Lundvist in these rankings.
Without a doubt, there are other solid candidates, including Antti Niemi, Craig Anderson, possibly Corey Schneider, and other good choices as well. What do you think? Whom do you believe has the greatest chance to claim the Vezina this year?