Everyone seems to think Andrei Vasilevskiy should win the Vezina Trophy. But is he the most deserving candidate?
This past week, the NHL announced the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy. The nominees are Ben Bishop from the Dallas Stars, Robin Lehner from the New York Islanders and Andrei Vasilevskiy from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The early front-runner for Vasilevskiy, who led the Tampa Bay Lightning on a historic regular season run, only to be heartbroken in the playoffs. NHL.com hockey writers have already pleaded their case for Vasilevskiy. They’ve all but given him the award and told Bishop and Lehner to not even bother showing up in Vegas. However, one could argue out of those three goalies, Vasilevskiy is the least deserving of the award.
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That might seem like a confusing notion that the best goaltender on a historic best NHL team would not be given the award for best goaltender in the NHL. But the Vezina Trophy is different from other awards in that it lacks the confusing wording behind its official description. Look at the Hart Trophy, the NHL’s de facto regular season MVP award for example.
While many believe the award is to be given to the best overall player, the actual description, as per the NHL, is it is “given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team”. Hence why last year Taylor Hall of the New Jersey Devils won the award instead of Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings or Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, because his contributions to the Devils success were deemed more important.
Since the NHL also award the William M. Jennings Trophy to the best goalie (or goaltending duo) based on the purely statistically value of lowest goals against average, the league has more flexibility in criteria for the Vezina Trophy. It should also be worth noting that the Jennings Trophy has already been awarded to fellow Vezina Trophy candidate and slam dunk candidate for the Masterton Trophy Robin Lehner.
Vasilevskiy is a fantastic goalie to watch, good enough to force fellow nominee Bishop out of Tampa Bay when he was the Lightning’s number one. From a statistical approach, his main goaltending statistics (goals against average, save percentage and shutouts) slightly lag behind Lehner and Bishop, although he’s tied with Lehner in the shutout category with six. But there’s one glaring reason that sets Vasilevskiy back from Bishop and Lehner: the months of November and December.
During a November 14th practice, Vasilevskiy fractured his foot in an injury with his initial timetable of return being anywhere from “four to six weeks” to almost “indefinitely”. He would go ahead and miss 14 games before returning mid-December with a win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Vasilevskiy was able to stay healthy the rest of the way en route to the Lightning’s President’s Trophy-winning regular season but unfortunately was in net for all four games of the infamous Columbus Blue Jackets sweep.
Injuries are unavoidable in today’s NHL. While they shouldn’t disqualify a player from individual awards, we have to take a look at the Lightning in his absence. In his 15 games away, back up Louis Domingue took over the crease and posted a record of 11 wins and only three losses. Only one game saw the Lightning’s third-string goalie in Eddie Pasquale, and he picked up a shootout win in his only appearance.
Without a doubt, Vasilevskiy is one of the best goaltenders in the league. But is it fair to award him as the best in the league when his team achieved so much success without him? A great goalie or lack of can make or break a team. When Vasilevskiy went down in November, the Lightning stepped up and said “No Vasilevskiy, no problem”.
This would be a much clearer argument if the criteria for the Vezina was more similar to that of the Hart, where a player’s worth to the team is more weighed and valued in determining the winner. Especially since the NHL has its own separate goaltending award based purely on statistics, saying, more or less, “best goaltender” leads to too much speculation and debate.
Look at Vezina winners of the past and you can make the same argument. The last time a non-playoff team had its goaltender win the Vezina was back in the lockout-shortened 2013 season when Sergei Bobrovsky won with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
This was when players such as Jonathan Quick were at their prime, but the Vezina voters couldn’t overlook the fact that it was Bobrovsky’s arrival turned the Blue Jackets from basement dwellers to an almost playoff team overnight.
In games started, Vasilevskiy holds the clear edge with 53 games, and each of those 53 is a start. While Lehner and Bishop both started around 45 games, with 43 for Lehner and 45 for Bishop, both added at least one game to their total in relief appearances. Vasilevskiy was either starter or nothing for Tampa Bay.
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At the end of the day, it looks like Vasilevskiy will be the one on stage accepting the Vezina and there’s nothing we can do about it. That would make him the first Vezina trophy winner in Tampa Bay franchise history. He’s a great goalie, but playing on the NHL’s team doesn’t make him the best goalie.