Hockey September 11, 2019


Pour one out for John Gibson. He may very well be the best goaltender on Earth right now. But he can’t sniff the Vezina Trophy at the moment.

That’s largely because, on a scuffling Anaheim team, his workloads have become so difficult that it’s virtually impossible for him to post the vanity numbers required to earn the respect of NHL general managers, a.k.a. the Vezina voters. Among goaltenders who played 35 or more games last season, Gibson faced the most high-danger shots per 60 minutes, resulting in the highest expected goals against per 60 minutes among that group. Despite being blitzed on a nightly basis, Gibson finished 13th in goals-saved above average among the 56 netminders who logged 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5. He’s an incredible goaltender. With merely a league-average difficulty of workload, he’d be right there in the Vezina discussion.

But the Ducks are in rebuild mode at the moment. They’ve traded key blueliners Sami Vatanen and Brandon Montour in consecutive seasons, and they’re breaking in a bunch of rookie forwards who will endure some defensive hiccups. I thus can’t rank Gibson among my top 10 Vezina candidates in good conscience as much as he deserves it. The Vezina panel carries a heavy wins bias. The past five Vezina victors have ranked first, third, third, first and first in wins. Gibson won just 26 decisions in 58 games last season, and it’s unlikely he experiences a big enough spike to contend for the award this season. Too bad, as there may be no goalie alive with superior raw ability to his right now.

So who does have the best chance to suck up Vezina votes in 2019-20? Here are my top 10 candidates.

1. ANDREI VASILEVSKIY, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Lightning players tend to rank at the top for most of my award predictions, and why not? They took home a bushel of trophies last season and remain the best bets to do so in 2019-20 because they’re expected to ice the league’s most talented roster again. Goaltending has become awfully fickle these days, as even the position’s stars rarely post consecutive elite seasons anymore, but Vasilevskiy is an exception. He’s been the most dependable No. 1 netminder in the league of late, finishing third in the Vezina vote in 2017-18 and winning the award last season.

There’s an argument to be made Vasilevskiy’s vanity stats – wins, save percentage, goals-against average – outperform his peripherals. Among the 55 goalies with 1,000-plus minutes at 5-on-5 last year, he ranked 12th in SP, 12th in goals saved above average per 60, 38th in high-danger SP, fifth in medium-danger SP and 11th in low-danger SP. That statistical profile is solid overall but doesn’t scream “best goalie in the NHL.” Once you factor in the team around ‘Vasy,’ however, he becomes almost invincible. He finished 32nd in shots against per 60, 34th in high-danger shots against per 60, and the Lightning boasted the league’s No. 1 penalty kill last season. The expected goals against stat tells us he had the 14th-easiest workload.

I’m not trying to knock Vasilevskiy here. He’s a great goalie, big and explosive, still getting better at just 25 years old. But the elite teammate company he keeps does puff up his stats. That makes him easily the best bet to league the lead in wins again, likely with a sterling GAA and SP, so he has a real shot to repeat as Vezina winner. That hasn’t happened since Marty Brodeur did it in 2007 and 2008.

2. SERGEI BOBROVSKY, FLORIDA PANTHERS

The only goalie this decade to snag two Vezinas: Bobrovsky. The idea of him being brittle, prone to soft-tissue trains, feels like it existed a million years ago. Ever since he lost weight and changed his training regimen before the 2016-17 season, he’s become a dependable workhorse. Over that three-season stretch, he’s second in starts, first in wins and first in shutouts. Among goalies to play at least 100 games in the past three seasons, he’s first in goals saved above average per 60 minutes and second in 5-on-5 SP.

Since 30 isn’t ancient in goalie years and Bobrovsky has remade himself as an iron man, he feels like a reasonable investment in Florida at seven years and $70 million – at least for the first four or five years of his deal, which is when they’ll need him most if they want to become Stanley Cup contenders. After leaving the Columbus Blue Jackets, Bobrovsky no longer has Seth Jones and Zach Werenski patrolling the blueline in front of him, but the Panthers’ D-corps is no slouch with Aaron Ekblad, Michael Matheson, Keith Yandle and Anton Stralman on board, not to mention elite defensive forward Aleksander Barkov. New coach Joel Quenneville brings a history of building tight-checking winners, too. In his first 10 seasons with Chicago, the Blackhawks were a top-five team in GAA four times and finished in the top half of the league eight times.

October is historically Bobrovsky’s weakest month, so he’ll have to grind through a potential slow start, but his team setup is at least as good as it was in Columbus, if not better, and he won two Vezinas as a Blue Jacket.

3. FREDERIK ANDERSEN, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

The only guy who tops Bobrovsky in all the workhorse stats over the past few years is Andersen. No one has started more games. Andersen has also managed SPs of .918, .918 and .917 despite being absolutely peppered with pucks night after night on Toronto teams that are consistently leaky on defense. He faced the sixth-most shots against per 60 minutes last season, and all the goalies who finished above him were on non-playoff teams. That gives you an idea of how much Andersen bails out the run-and-gun Leafs. It was remarkable that he cracked the top 10 in goals saved above average per 60 given the difficulty of his nightly workloads.

Still, the bright side of the Leafs’ wild style of play is that they score a lot of goals and win a lot of games. Andersen has finished top-four in victories each of the past two seasons. We don’t know if GM Kyle Dubas’ blueline overhaul, which swaps Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci in for Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev, will actually improve the team defensively, but even a 10 percent boost in shot suppression could bump Andersen’s rate stats into the Vezina-worthy tier. We know the wins will be there. What Andersen also needs if he ever wants to win a Vezina is to avoid his annual swoons. Last year, it came later than normal. His game tanked in March. He was right there in the Vezina race before that.

4. JORDAN BINNINGTON, ST. LOUIS BLUES

“He only started 30 games.”

“He’s overrated because he won the Stanley Cup.”

“He’s the next Andrew Hammond.”

I’ve heard comments like that all summer, and I’m not buying the sentiment at all. I’m a Binnington believer. Contrary to what some casual hockey fans might believe, Binnington did not come out of nowhere. He was a B-grade prospect in the Blues system for several years. He was good enough to make Canada’s world junior team one year. He was named most outstanding goaltender at the 2011 Memorial Cup. He was the OHL’s goaltender of the year in 2012-13. So Binnington had actual pedigree before he arrived “out of nowhere” to save the Blues last season.

The narrative might suggest Binnington is a guy whose numbers are revealed to be fraudulent when we take a closer look at them, but the opposite is actually true. He was so good last season that, had he played another 15 games, he likely would’ve won the Vezina. Among the aforementioned sample of 56 goalies who played 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5, Binnington had the best save percentage. He finished fifth in high-danger SP and fourth in medium-danger SP. He was third in goals saved-above average per 60. He graded out as truly elite. The only “knock” would be that Binnington had tremendous defensive support. He faced the fewest shots against per 60 and second-fewest high-danger shots per 60. But the Blues team is relatively unchanged from its championship season, meaning he’ll have the same group of guys protecting him.

Sample size too small? Not when you include the playoffs, where Binnington wasn’t all-world but was still good enough. The idea of him buckling under elevated expectations going forward is laughable to me considering he, you know, won Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final on the road in Boston as a rookie. Methinks “Play well enough to justify your new contract” is a smaller ask. Especially given his icy, no-nonsense demeanor, Binnington should maintain his excellence and challenge for the Vezina this season.

5. MARC-ANDRE FLEURY, VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

Here’s the sentimental pick. And that matters in this context. The GMs are the voters, don’t forget, and there’s arguably no player on the planet more universally loved and respected than ‘Flower.’ He’s likely to retire at third on the NHL’s all-time wins list and has multiple Stanley Cup rings but, to lock himself in as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Fleury could really use a Vezina. If he’s deadlocked with another candidate, might GMs lean toward Fleury with their first-place votes, even subconsciously?

If he stays healthy, he’s a good bed to contend for the award again – on the strength of his actual play, not just his rep. He’s posted a .919 SP and 12 shutouts across his two seasons as a Golden Knight. They’re again projected to be high-end contenders this coming season, meaning Fleury should pile up the wins again. He’s finished top five in the vote two straight seasons and, given his play suggests he’s not over the hill at 34, he’ll contend again.

6. BEN BISHOP, DALLAS STARS

If you want more circumstantial evidence of the GMs’ win bias: Bishop led the NHL in SP and goals-saved above average last season and was probably the top overall goalie in the sport. But he played seven fewer games than his old battery mate Vasilevskiy and wound up with 27 victories. Bishop had the best season of his career, but it wasn’t enough.

If he stays healthy – which is never a given with his brittle 6-foot-7 frame – Bishop should post top-notch numbers again, especially with such a good defense in front of him in Dallas. But the Stars won’t overwork Bishop, not just for health reasons but also because, with one of the toughest travel schedules in the NHL, they always play their backups more than other teams do. Anton Khudobin should start another 30 games this season, which will suppress Bishop’s win ceiling.

7. PEKKA RINNE, NASHVILLE PREDATORS

A four-time finalist and one-time winner. Rinne always starts 55 or more games despite the presence of emerging backup Juuse Saros. We can count on the Predators for outstanding team defense and another strong team win total. Rinne’s reputation for playoff struggles still follows him around, but he was still perfectly solid in the 2018-19 regular season. Even at 36, he quietly outplayed Saros, the young man supposedly coming for his job. So the crease belongs to Rinne for at least one more season. Maybe in 2020-21, his walk year, he’ll finally cede the lion’s share of starts to Saros, but probably not this season.

8. MATT MURRAY, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Is it just me or was Murray’s resurgence quiet last season? He’d tumbled from young phenom, having won two Stanley Cups as a two-year rookie, to highly injury prone in a span of a couple years, but Murray started a career-best 50 games last season. He posted a .924 SP in 28 games after the all-star break. He finished top-five in the league in goals saved above average per 60. Murray was legitimately excellent.

Hurting his chances: the Penguins got worse on paper this off-season after making the playoffs by four points. Their arrow trends down. That said, they certainly won’t be awful. They’ll at worst battle on the playoff fringe and, if they do return to the big dance in 2019-20, Murray will likely be a big reason why. He’s still just 25 – a year younger than Binnington. So there’s still time for Murray to become a true star.

9. CONNOR HELLEBUYCK, WINNIPEG JETS

Hellebuyck is just a year removed from co-leading the league in wins and finishing second in the Vezina vote. He’s big, young, athletic and confident. He has the pedigree and mentality of a bellcow No. 1 goalie. The Jets disappointed last year but remain a contender. Hellebuyck’s numbers dipped last season largely because the Jets allowed so many more high-quality chances. With a bit more help he’d be back in the top five but, with Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers gone from the D-corps, there’s no guarantee life gets easier for Hellebuyck.

10. CARTER HART, PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Hart is a phenom. He’s Philly’s greatest hope in net since Ron Hextall. I said that a year ago, and I’m even more convinced after Hart’s rookie year.

Hart was a ho-hum 36th in save percentage and goals saved above average per 60 among stoppers with 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5. Hart, however, faced the third-most shots per 60 and had the 17th-highest expected goals against per 60 based on the difficulty of his workload, so he didn’t have much help on a struggling Philly team. He still posted a winning record and did it at age 20. He joined Carey Price as the only two goalies of the salary-cap era to start more than 20 games for a team at 20 or younger. Natural progression should help Hart improve on his own, and he should have much better defensive play in front of him with Kevin Hayes joining the forwards and Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun bringing veteran hockey sense to the D-corps.

New Flyers coach Alain Vigneault has talked about a big workload for Brian Elliott in a 1B role, but it’s Hart’s net. Vigneault took teams to the Cup final with star No. 1 netminders in the past in Roberto Luongo and Henrik Lundqvist, and perhaps someday Vigneault will do the same with the NHL’s Next Big Thing in net: Hart.

Other 2019-20 Vezina Trophy candidates to consider: John Gibson, Tuukka Rask, Carey Price, Philipp Grubauer, Braden Holtby, Petr Mrazek

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