The NHL’s new age of advanced stats means that the players with the best numbers on the surface may not always be the ones to receive the most credit for their performances; the forward with the best plus-minus is not entitled to the Selke, and the goalie with the lowest goals against average is no lock for the Vezina trophy either. And speaking of the Vezina, 2015-16 presents an interesting challenge for voters without a clear front-runner for the award like there was in 2014-15 during Carey Price’s historic season.
Therefore, it will be up to voters to get creative in their finalist selections. One of the many names that has been in constant circulation for the prestigious award this season is that of Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford. The Montreal-native is in the midst of his best professional season as he currently leads the NHL in shutouts and sits third in wins. His save percentage is also fourth among goalies with at least 35 games played, a slight improvement from his ranking at the conclusion of last season.
However, huge seasons by several goalies across the league mean that Crawford is not even guaranteed to be a finalist for this award, let alone beat out big names like Braden Holtby and Henrik Lundqvist for the crown this season.
Holtby, Lundqvist, Ben Bishop, and Petr Mrazek are the other major players in the Vezina competition at this point in the season. While Holtby once seemed like a virtual lock for the award, strong play by his competition and a slight dip in his play have turned the race into a dead heat. All five goalies (when Crawford is included) are among the league leaders in wins, save percentage, goals against average, and adjusted save percentage, which only complicates an already difficult decision.
Taking a deeper look at the numbers each player has posted this season creates a clearer image of who the top players have been though.
The chart on the left attempts to differentiate between the goalies that have taken advantage of strong defenses in front of them, and those that have excelled due to their own skills. As can be seen, Holtby actually has a worse adjusted save percentage than his backup in Washington, Philipp Grubauer. This is not to say that Grubauer is a superior goalie to Holtby, but it does suggest that Washington goalies have benefited from a strong defense in front of them, and that Holtby’s great numbers have more to do with the team’s game than his alone.
Meanwhile, Lundqvist has a vastly superior adjusted 5v5 save percentage than his backup, Antti Raanta. This suggests that Lundqvist has had a larger impact on his team’s ability to win (by posting a much higher save percentage than the team’s other options) than Holtby has. Crawford falls squarely in the middle of that grouping, but also has the third highest AdSv% behind Lundqvist and Mrazek.
So while Holtby’s numbers this season have been incredible, his low Sv% in high-scoring areas and low point of differentiation between Grubauer suggest that the other four starters would be more deserving Vezina finalists. Additionally, Lundqvist’s strong numbers across the board have secured him a spot in my group of finalists, although Crawford may still factor in as well.
The Case for Crawford
A lot can be said about Crawford’s season in 2015-16. He has been a stabilizing force that has carried the team through both periods of domination, and stretches of poor play.
Patrick Kane on Corey Crawford: "Some nights, he looks unbeatable."
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) January 20, 2016
His teammates have clearly recognized it, even if most mainstream media sources have not. And despite constantly receiving credit for the strength of the team playing in front of him, Crawford seems to finally have secured a place among the world’s top goaltenders. The graph below is an attempt to illustrate that for those still questioning how important ‘Crow’ is to the success of the Blackhawks:
Compared to the 10-game rolling averages of the other top goalies on that chart, Crawford’s line is the most consistent, and his numbers are comparable to those of Bishop and Lundqvist on the season. Additionally, the seven shutouts that Crawford has posted represent seven games that he has won nearly on his own, which is once again the highest total in the league. With those kinds of numbers, it almost seems foolish not to place Crawford among the three best goalies in the league this season.
Crawford Makes the Cut
Crawford has absolutely earned a place among the NHL’s best goalies this season, and I would be extremely disappointed to not see him listed as a finalist for the Vezina trophy this summer. The recent strong play of Bishop and Lundqvist’s continued brilliance also earn those two a place as finalists in my mind, although the final ten games of the season could do a lot to determine who eventually gets the hardware in Las Vegas.