The announcements of the trophy finalists are over and as usual they have left controversy in their wake. Let’s be fair, it is a difficult job to pick three players for some of these awards, especially ones like the Norris and Selke trophies where the criteria are not really all that clear. However, there is one particular omission that really highlights some of the general problems with these award nominations. That is of course the selection of Nashville’s Pekka Rinne as a finalist over Phoenix’s Mike Smith for the Vezina Trophy.
It has been known for a long time that LA’s Jonathan Quick and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist would get nominated for this award. Rinne is considered to have next to no chance against that pair with Quick possibly considered the front runner at this point. However, there is still a lot of meaning in the nomination itself. All three finalists are being recognised for their achievements over the course of a gruelling 82-game season. It may seem like a small thing, but it is actually very important. I does not mean to begrudge Rinne’s recognition as a top goaltender, his performances this season have been excellent, however there are potentially frustrating reasons for his selection over Mike Smith.
Let’s compare the two players in terms of their potential for Vezina nomination:
It’s hard to find one statistical argument to support the selection of Rinne over Mike Smith. Smith ranked seventh amongst goaltenders with a 2.21 GAA. That placed him only behind: the other two Vezina nominees, the two St Louis goaltenders, Cory Schneider and Jimmy Howard. Meanwhile, Rinne’s 2.39 GAA placed him 14th, not only behind Smith, but behind several other high profile goaltenders including Tim Thomas, Marc-Andre Fleury, Mikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen.
In terms of save percentage, Mike Smith ranked third with an incredible .930 save percentage. He was behind Brian Elliot and Cory Schneider, but played 34 extra games compared to Schneider, and 29 more than Elliot. He placed higher than both Lundqvist and Quick in this statistics as well incidentally. Rinne ranked seventh with an impressive .923 save percentage.
Shutouts are often highlighted as a statistic that demonstrates outstanding individual performances. Quick was the perfect example of that racking up 10 in a season where he basically had to carry LA to the playoffs. Mike Smith ranks fourth in this category with eight shutouts. That put him in a tie with Lundqvist and left him trailing only Elliot and Quick. Rinne posted an impressive five shutouts, but that total ranked him only 10th. A ranking that placed him behind the likes of Ilya Bryzgalov, Ryan Miller and Antti Niemi.
At this point, it is worth moving onto a couple of statistics where Rinne does seem to hold the advantage over Smith. Rinne played 73 games giving him a joint tie for the league lead. Mike Smith ranked 10th playing in 67 games. However, even if you do consider games played to be a vital statistic and the six games between the two players significant (pretty debatable), then the minor discrepancy can be quite easily explained by a pair of injuries suffered by Smith, one at the turn of the year, and the other in mid-February.
The final statistic to consider is wins. Martin Brodeur will be remembered as a great goaltender because he won a lot, so it is only fair that the ability of a goaltender to earn wins is taken into account in Vezina consideration. Rinne did genuinely outdo Smith here leading the league with 43 wins, while the Coyotes’ netminder finished fourth with 38. Five victories doesn’t really seem like an awful lot, especially when considered alongside the two teams and their respective performances.
Even taking that factor into account. It is pretty clear that Mike Smith completely dominates Pekka Rinne when it comes to a straight forward statistical comparison. So what other things might have been considered when nominating finalists?
Importance To Team
There’s little doubt that both goaltenders are the most valuable player on their respective teams. Both Phoenix and Nashville employ a defense first strategy that absolutely requires a top end goaltender to make a lot of saves. Rinne was awarded a big contract extension during the 2011-12 season, which was a clear sign that Predators’ GM David Poile recognises the importance of his goaltender to his team’s long-term future.
However, if this comparison is going to be made, then it can probably be slightly more convincingly argued that Mike Smith is more vital to the Coyotes than Rinne is to the Predators. For starters, Smith does not have a pair of blue-liners like Ryan Suter and Shea Weber playing in front of him. Suter and Weber ranked third and fifth respectively seeing 26:30 and 26:09 minutes of ice time per game. Barry Trotz trusts his top pairing in all situations and against the opposition’s top offensive players; they are unquestionably as vital a part of Nashville’s system as Rinne. Keith Yandle was Phoenix’s ice time leader; he played 22:20 per game. The fact that the Coyotes shared their ice time more evenly doesn’t necessarily mean that their blue-line wasn’t as important, but Smith definitely did not have the services of one of the league’s top defensive tandems in front of him.
Furthermore, Mike Smith had to deal with the pressure of replacing Bryzgalov in the Phoenix net. Bryzgalov had spent the past few seasons making a name for himself as the team’s MVP and one of the league’s top goaltenders. In many ways Smith was set up to fail, but instead the 30-year old stepped up and actually produced a better season than any that Bryzgalov produced during his time in Phoenix.
One of the big question marks surrounding Steve Stamkos’ nomination for the Hart Trophy is whether he really deserved that nomination considering the fact that his team missed the playoffs. Those sorts of considerations shouldn’t really factor in for Vezina Trophy discussion, but they almost certainly do. After all, what’s the point being a great goaltender on a losing team?
However, both of these teams put together terrific seasons. Nashville started the postseason being seriously considered as a Stanley Cup contender for the first time in their history. Meanwhile, Phoenix won the first Pacific division title in their history.
There are only two factors that can obviously give Rinne any sort of advantage over Smith in terms of Vezina nomination. One is longevity. Rinne has been a dominant goaltender over the past few seasons, while Smith has only really enjoyed a breakout year in 2011-12. If that reason played a factor, then a simple mistake and misunderstanding of the Vezina Trophy has happened. The Vezina is awarded based on a single regular season. If Brent Johnson plays 55-60 games and posts a .940 save percentage, he still deserves Vezina consideration.
The other more likely factor is simply that Phoenix continues to get excluded. It is a small market and the Coyotes play a lot of their games late at night. All too often, the hockey world completely overlooks the goings on in Arizona. This is a problem that persists and must be addressed if the league seriously wants to open itself up. The Coyotes are a franchise that is enjoying a spell of sustained success on the ice. They are now enjoying the type of playoff success that can win over fans to the team and create passion for the sport in the area. Star players getting a chance to win awards is another big seller. Smith should have been nominated for the Vezina Trophy, and it is very disappointing that he was not.
Seb has been writing about the NHL and ice hockey online for over a decade. A long-time passionate Bruins fan, it’s a dream of his to be writing about this team, but don’t expect him to hold back from telling some hard truths when necessary. Follow him on twitter @seberead