Rinne Won, But Hellebuyck Deserved It

The glitz and glamour of the 2018 NHL Awards in Las Vegas are over, and a number of the league’s top stars are going home — after hitting the Strip for a little carousing, no doubt —  with some well-deserved hardware. One deserving man, however, is leaving empty-handed. That man is Winnipeg Jets’ goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. He was passed over for the Vezina, as the Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne took home the trophy for the first time in his career.

Most of the awards went to the right players but this one did not. It was a major snub given everything Hellebuyck, the backbone of the Jets, did to backstop the team to a franchise-best 52-win season.

Hellebuyck and Rinne’s Stats Nearly Identical

The Vezina Trophy, according to the NHL, is “given to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at this position.” Hellebuyck and Rinne’s 2017-18 stats were nearly identical. The Jets’ goaltender went 44-11-9 with a 2.36 goals-against average, a .924 save percentage, and six shutouts. The Predators’ netminder went 42-13-4 with a 2.34 GAA, a .927 SV%, and eight shutouts. Hellebuyck made nearly 200 more saves.

Stats-wise, all things equal, the vote should’ve been closer than it was. Only seven general managers gave the 25-year-old from Commerce, Michigan a first-place vote.

Hellebuyck Succeeded in Much Tougher Situation

However, all things were not equal. When you factor in everything Hellebuyck overcame to post basically the same numbers as the 35-year-old Rinne, it’s clear who was better this season. Hellebuyck stole more games and was more integral to the Jets’ success than Rinne was to the Predators’.

Winnipeg Jets Connor Hellebuyck
Connor Hellebuyck was passed over for the Vezina Trophy despite being able to post the same impressive stats as Pekka Rinne in tougher circumstances. (Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports)

Hellebuyck posted the same numbers despite coming into the season not slated to be the starter. He was coming off a shaky sophomore season and the crease belonged to Steve Mason out of the gate. When Mason struggled early, Hellebuyck seized the blue paint and never gave it up.

He posted the same numbers as Rinne without a viable backup to stabilize and ease the pressure. Rinne had fellow Finn, Juuse Saros — who would be the starter on many squads — behind him to mitigate his workload. Saros made 23 starts and was very good, going 11-5-7.

Conversely, it was ‘Bucky or bust’ for the Jets. They had no continuity at the backup position as Steve Mason suffered through a list of injuries that was longer than Alexander Ovechkin’s post-Cup bender, as did Michael Hutchinson.

Called upon nearly every night, Hellebuyck never wilted. He became stronger under the immense pressure and refused to let it crush him. He showed his mettle, competitiveness, and durability over a career-high 64 starts, which was fourth league-wide.

Jacob Trouba Winnipeg Jets
Hellebuyck didn’t have the Jets’ top d-men in front of him consistently due to injuries, something Rinne didn’t have to deal with. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Hellebuyck posted the same numbers despite the revolving door that was the Jets’ d-corp. The Predators’ defence was stable in 2017-18 with their top d-men — P.K. Subban, Alexei Emelin, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm — all playing 75-plus games.

The Jets, on the other hand, had a battered battalion, decimated by injury. They lost 97 man-games on D, with Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom, and Dmitry Kulikov all on the shelf at least once during the season. Hellebuyck didn’t let that rattle him; he battled regardless of who was in front of him.

Overall, it doesn’t seem like the GMs took the other factors into account — the ones that cannot be illustrated through stats, factors that may have swung the vote in Hellebuyck’s favour. They made the safe choice, but the wrong choice.

Vote Doesn’t Take Playoff Performance into Account

The Vezina Trophy vote is based only on regular season play and is conducted before playoffs even begin. If it took playoff performance into account, the vote may have been vastly different.

Hellebuyck went head-to-head with Rinne and bested him in the teams’ second-round playoff series.  The Jets chased Rinne three times in the much-hyped matchup, including in their triumphant Game 7 victory.

In the playoffs, overall, Hellebuyck greatly outplayed Rinne. He had a 2.36 GAA and .922 SV%, compared to Rinne’s 3.07 GAA and .904 SV%.

Pekka Rinne Nashville Predators
Pekka Rinne had a subpar playoffs, but that wasn’t a factor when it came to the Vezina vote. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If the GMs had to wait until a Cup champion was crowned to cast their ballots, perhaps Hellebuyck would have come out on top. Unfortunately for him, by the time he set himself apart numbers-wise, it was too late.

At the end of the day, Hellebuyck will have to take solace in the fact that his team went deeper in the playoffs, that he was the key to his team’s success, and that he’s going to cash in with a lucrative new deal because of his play. The snub may give him a little extra motivation to improve on his play going into the 2018-19 season, if that’s even possible. He should have plenty more chances to compete for the Vezina — given his rise to ‘elite goaltender’ status, don’t be surprised if he’s a nominee for the honour for the next number of years.

It’s just a shame the league’s best goaltender didn’t get the acknowledgement he deserved under the bright Las Vegas lights this time around.