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Vezina Trophy Finalists Revealed: Who Will Win and Who Should Win?

The post is a goaltender’s best friend, but a good goaltender is an entire city’s best friend. As evidenced by Jordan Binnington in 2019, an elite goaltender is capable of facilitating a transition from the league’s worst team to the league’s best team. The impact of a goaltender can be truly season-changing. Thus, it would be ill-advised not to reward some of the top goaltenders in the NHL for their spectacular impact this season by picking our winners for the Vezina Trophy.

The NHL’s Finalists: Connor Hellebuyck, Tuukka Rask, Andrei Vasilevskiy

Who Will Win:

Without any disrespect to Andrei Vasilevskiy, this almost certainly will be a two-goaltender race. Connor Hellebuyck and Tuukka Rask have both put together fantastic seasons that warrant respect from the voters and likely will receive respect from the voters. That said, there are two very different ways to look at this race, and the number of voters that look at the race in each of these ways will likely determine the winner of the 2019-20 Vezina Trophy. One way is to look at isolated performance. Whether through advanced statistics or even just knowledge of the Winnipeg Jets’ lackluster defense, it makes sense that Hellebuyck has had to deal with more shots and more difficult shots than Rask. Thus, the fact that his impact has still been at least as significant as the impact of Rask is a significant indicator that Hellebuyck will receive some first-place votes. That said, what seems to be the slightly more common way to look at it is through team success. Whereas the Winnipeg Jets have allowed the tenth-fewest goals per game, the Boston Bruins have allowed the fewest goals per game by a comfortable margin, a sign to many that Rask has been the most successful goaltender in 2019-20. Without taking the Bruins’ spectacular defense into account, many voters will be swayed by the number one defensive unit in the NHL and the number one team in the NHL this season. For this reason, it seems as if Rask will edge out Hellebuyck ever so slightly for the Vezina Trophy this season.

Who Should Win the Vezina Trophy:

Aidan’s Finalists: Carter Hart, Connor Hellebuyck, Tuukka Rask,

Aidan’s Winner: Connor Hellebuyck

I always strive to come up with a strong argument for each reasonable candidate for each award before I select my winner, but for the Vezina Trophy, it was nearly impossible to come up with a reason for anybody other than Connor Hellebuyck. It is very infrequent that I would suggest unanimity for an award, but Hellebuyck makes an extremely strong case for unanimity with this award. Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) is often extremely indicative of the extent to which a goaltender impacts the game because it portrays the production of the goaltender when isolated from the defense. This season, Hellebuyck’s GSAx is more than eleven goals higher than the second-best goaltender in terms of GSAx. Hellebuyck tied for the most games played out of any goaltender, and evidently, he maintained his elite production as a workhorse. His 4.8 Wins Above Replacement ranks first not only among goalies but among all players in the NHL. Hellebuyck is the clear choice for the Vezina Trophy simply because, as a workhorse for the Winnipeg Jets, he has been more than twice as productive relative to the shots he faces than any other goaltender in the entire NHL.

Although Hellebuyck has firmly cemented himself as the no-brainer choice for the Vezina Trophy, Tuukka Rask offers an extremely compelling case for second place. Rask led all NHL goaltenders in Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA), and he finished third in GSAx among goaltenders who played at least 30 games this season, proving his excellence as a clear-cut starter on one of the best teams in the NHL. The most difficult obstacle for Rask to overcome to deserve this award is the phenomenal defense in front of him. He did not face as many shots as Hellebuyck, among several other goaltenders, and the shots he faced were of relatively low danger, so much of his success can be attributed to the team around him in addition to his stellar performance.

Hart, at only 21 years of age, had a crucial breakout season for the Philadelphia Flyers, as he finished in the top four in GSAx among goaltenders who played at least 30 games this season. Whereas many veteran goaltenders, such as Sergei Bobrovsky, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Braden Holtby, proved to be incapable of handling such a significant workload this season, the youngster shined with a starter’s workload. Although there are many other options for the third finalist, Hart is certainly worthy of recognition as a Vezina Trophy finalist this season at only 21 years of age, which is a frightening sight for Metropolitan Divison organizations.

There is not much to evaluate in terms of other candidates, as I believe most analysts would argue either for Hellebuyck or Rask as their winner, a sentiment I share. Nonetheless, it is important to debunk the case for Andrei Vasilevskiy, given that he leads the NHL in wins, a statistic commonly used to credit or to discredit a goaltender. Although this may seem to be a compelling case for Vasilevskiy to receive at least some recognition, the truth is that he does not deserve any consideration whatsoever. We live in an era in which advanced statistics provide us with more precise measurements of an impact than a goaltender’s win total. In reality, Vasilevskiy’s GSAx is a lackluster -8.29 goals, which means that he has actually not played at the level of the defense in front of him, and a replacement-level goaltender would have been more successful than Vasilevskiy this season. There is no doubt in my mind that goaltenders such as Corey Crawford, Jordan Binnington, Ben Bishop, Jacob Markstrom, and Semyon Varlamov, who have each put together very strong campaigns this season, deserve more credit than Vasilevskiy this season.

 

Kush’s Finalists: Ben Bishop, Connor Hellebuyck, Tuukka Rask

Kush’s Winner: Connor Hellebuyck

For each award, there seems to be some competition between multiple deserving candidates, but for the Vezina Trophy, no other goalie was nearly as successful as Connor Hellebuyck. Hellebuyck’s average shots faced per game was 30.97, according to Fox Sports, which leads all goalies, yet his GSAx was a whopping 19.86. To put this magnitude in perspective, the difference between his GSAx and the second-highest GSAx (Darcy Kuemper’s at 8.71) is as large as the difference between the third goaltender and the 51st goaltender. Additionally, Hellebuyck is tied for the most games started in the season, which shows his consistent excellence across the entire season. Hellebuyck’s unmatched dominance through the 2019-2020 season makes him the clear-cut choice for the Vezina Trophy. 

Winnipeg Jets’ goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) reaches for a bouncing Arizona Coyotes puck while out of his crease during third-period NHL hockey game action in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Monday, March 9, 2020. (Fred Greenslade/The Canadian Press via AP)

Although Hellebuyck should receive the award, Tuukka Rask should be the runner-up. Starting 41 games this season, he led the NHL in GSAA and finished top three in GSAx among all goalies with a minimum of 30 starts. The ultimate factor that led me to my pick of Hellebuyck is the strength of defense of the Bruins compared to the Jets. The Bruins defense ranks second at even strength in terms of Expected Goals Against per 60 Minutes (xGA/60), whereas the Jets rank 29th. With a more talented defense ahead of him, Rask’s impact doesn’t seem as significant as Hellebuyck’s, given the individual goalie numbers. The other goaltender that I chose as a nominee is Ben Bishop. Like Hellebuyck, Bishop is on a team with a bottom-six ranked defense in terms of xGA/60, yet he remained dominant through his 44 starts. Bishop ranks top four amongst goalies in terms of GSAA and had a 2.7 WAR, which was the fifth-highest among goalies.

Other goalies who barely missed the list include Carter Hart and Jacob Markstrom. Hart was one of the most dominant goalies in the second half of the season and was a huge part of the Flyer’s surge to the second-best record in the Metropolitan Division. Markstrom also had a phenomenal breakout season with the Canucks where he improved in GSAx and GSAA from his prior season. Hellebuyck seems like the obvious pick this year, but both Rask and Bishop also put together strong years and deserve spots as nominees.

Altogether, this should be a no-brainer. It is extremely rare to see one goaltender perform at more than twice the level of any other goaltender in the league, so why should we consider any other goaltender? Hellebuyck’s season is truly one for the ages, and even if he does not end up winning the Vezina Trophy, he has been an integral part of the Jets’ success this season and likely for many seasons to come.

This article was written in collaboration with Kush Malhotra

All stats are from Evolving-Hockey unless otherwise indicated

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