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Beyond Big Four: Rethinking Vezina Trophy Numbers

Beyond Big Four: Rethinking Vezina Trophy Numbers

Wins. Goals Against Average. Save Percentage. Shutouts.

This is the Big Four, history’s best attempt to quantify hockey’s hardest position. Just lately, it’s been receiving a lot more attention than usual because of a unique convergence:

Paul - Carey Price GraphicYou’re not seeing quadruple: Carey Price leads all four categories with only seven games left to play in the season. If he maintains these leads, he’ll become the first goaltender in the modern Vezina voting Era (1982-present) to do so.

Only Miikka Kiprusoff in 2006, Ed Belfour in 1991, and Patrick Roy in 1990 have ever come close, each finishing second in a single category. Each received the Vezina award as a consolation prize, and whether Price surpasses or merely equals them, he’ll claim the top goaltender honour as well.

Any NHL general manager from those seasons will tell you the same thing: those are the easy ones to vote for. But it isn’t usually so simple.

The Case of Recent Vezina Trophy Winner Mike Smith

In another reality, where the dominance of the Big Four had already been challenged, Arizona Coyotes netminder Mike Smith would have claimed that gleaming silver trophy.

A deeper look back at the statistics show Mike Smith should have won the 2012 Vezina Trophy. (InGoal Photo by Scott Slingsby)

A deeper look back at the statistics show Mike Smith should have won the 2012 Vezina Trophy. (InGoal Photo by Scott Slingsby)

It may be hard to imagine now, with Smith’s struggles receiving so much attention and his goalie coach set to find a new team, but he played an excellent 2011-2012 season, finishing tied for the league lead in save percentage. However, he trailed in goals-against average and overall record, not to mention reputation, and so finished out of the medals behind Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick, and Pekka Rinne.

Let me be the first to tell you this in 2015: Mike Smith was robbed, and you should be as retroactively outraged as I was when I dug into the numbers.

First, Smith’s “tie” in save percentage was a product of rounding: he actually edged out Lundqvist .9303 to .9298. A tiny difference? Sure, but an important one in such a tight race, especially considering the voting general managers historically place a lot of weight on save percentage rank. Smith also led in Goals Saved Above Average, the statistic that has successfully predicted seven of nine Vezina winners since the 2004-2005 lockout. Lundqvist finished second.

Nothing about the situation so far screams blatant injustice (aside from the fact that Smith wasn’t even nominated, of course). You could argue that Smith held narrow leads in important categories, but Lundqvist surpassed him in others, making either a solid choice. This all changes when you look at save percentage a little differently.

Though save percentage has (rightly) been recognized as the most important member of the Big Four, its inability to differentiate poor shots from great chances has been criticized recently. Wins, shutouts, and goals against average are all highly team-dependent measures, making them unreliable guides for judging goalies.

Sportsnet.ca’s Chris Boyle argues that save percentage as we usually calculate it is also subject to significant team effects, and it’s hard to dispute this. Poorer teams surrender more chances, and better quality ones, meaning that my .930 and your .930 might not reflect the same caliber of performance.

Two basic ways we now have for limiting team influence are 1) to include only even-strength shots, and 2) to adjust save percentage based on shot location. The first eliminates penalty-killing situations, where bad teams or teams with bad systems leave their goaltender highly exposed compared to others. The second takes into account whether shots come from low, medium, or high danger areas, and adjusts the save percentage accordingly.

I’m going to give you three guesses as to who lead the 2012 goalie class in even strength save percentage, adjusted save percentage, and adjusted even strength save percentage. If you didn’t guess Mike Smith, Mike Smith, and Mike Smith, you haven’t been paying attention. Lundqvist finished fourth, second, and eighth, respectively.

A Better Concrete Measure than GSAA?

Goals Saved Above Average is so useful because it combines save percentage and workload to produce a single, concrete figure: the number of goals your keeper stops compared to a league-average goalie facing the same number of shots. A refinement of this measure was introduced here (scroll to the end) earlier this month, showing Stephen Burtch’s improvement on the more basic approach. By replacing raw save percentage in all situations with adjusted save percentage at even strength, Burtch limited team effects as much as possible, giving us a more accurate picture of a given goaltender’s performance. I used his method to determine the adjusted even strength goals saved above median (or aesGSAM) for every season since the 2004-2005 lockout.

Returning to the 2012 season, you will, at this point, not be surprised to hear who finished first in aesGSAM.

Boston Bruins Goalie Tim Thomas

Tim Thomas was one of two recent Vezina Trophy winners to also lead the NHL in aesGSAM. He did it twice. (InGoal File Photo by Scott Slingsby)

Mike Smith led the league, while Lundqvist finished eighth. What may surprise you is the magnitude of Smith’s win. He finished with an impressive 31 additional goals saved. The second-place finisher, Brian Elliott, saved 15 additional goals. Lundquist saved 10. To put Smith’s distance from his rivals in perspective, as many goals separate him from second place as separate 2nd place from 37th. That kind of dominance has only been equaled in Tim Thomas’s brilliant 2011 season, where he easily took home the Vezina award.

Looking back at the last nine seasons, the Vezina-winning goaltender has finished first in aesGSAM only three times, and each time he also finished first in GSAA: Tim Thomas (2009, 20011) and Mikka Kiprusoff (2006).These were landslide victories where the winner topped most statistical categories. The other six seasons, however, must give us pause. If aesGSAM gives a more accurate picture with less team influence than other measures, shouldn’t it be the go-to metric for rapid evaluation? Have the best goaltenders, by the best numbers we have, been snubbed? Have some been unfairly undervalued, while others have been unjustly awarded?

The following table, showing the actual Vezina winner versus the aesGSAM leader may surprise you:

Season Vezina Winner (aesGSAM Rank) aesGSAM Leader
2013-2014 Tuukka Rask (2) Semyon Varlamov
2012-2013 Sergei Bobrovsky (3) Jimmy Howard
2011-2012 Henrik Lundqvist (8) Mike Smith
2010-2011 Tim Thomas (1) Tim Thomas
2009-2010 Ryan Miller (3) Tomas Vokoun
2008-2009 Tim Thomas (1) Tim Thomas
2007-2008 Martin Brodeur (14) Tim Thomas
2006-2007 Martin Brodeur (9) Kari Lehtonen
2005-2006 Miikka Kiprusoff (1) Miikka Kiprusoff

While Tuuka Rask, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Ryan Miller all placed well in their Vezina years, Henrik Lundqvist, and especially Martin Brodeur weren’t even close. Had general managers had access to, and knowledge of these numbers, would it have changed the conversation, and ultimately, the Vezina winner?

While it’s too late for Mike Smith (though he has been receiving some praise for his recent anti-tank play), if the general managers take their voting seriously, they will have to consider the more advanced and accurate measures available, and put far less stock in the Big Four.

This season will be their fist chance to do so: who leads the aesGSAM race, and how could it affect the Vezina voting?

Name GSAM
1. Carey Price 27.7536
2. Cory Schneider 19.3905
3. Steve Mason 16.8756
4. Pekka Rinne 13.5857
5. Devan Dubnyk 12.6672

Fine. You win again, Carey.

~ Paul Campbell teaches in the humanities program at Wilfred Laurier University, and also writes for thehockeychat.com. He’s a former CIS goaltender and women’s team goaltending coach at Mount Allison University. Originally from Cape Breton, Paul now lives in Guelph where he’s conducting experiments to determine which of his sons should don the pads (once they learn to stand on skates). Respectful feedback and spirited discussion are always welcome in the comments below.

[Statistics from war-on-ice.com and hockey-reference.com. Goalie leaders graphic from NHL.com.]

 

 

About The Author

Paul Campbell

Paul Campbell is a writer at InGoal, and a former CIS goaltender and women's goaltending coach for Mount Allison University. He occassionally moonlights as a university literature instructor.

13 Comments

  1. John Alexander

    Excellent article. Perception became reality.

    Reply
  2. Josh

    Part of me wondered if there was some sleeper keeper no one was giving enough respect to this year, but nope! Great last line. Gave me a good chuckle.

    Reply
  3. Clayton

    Price isn’t carrying his team. Sure, he’s playing pretty good. But, look at their roster and division?

    Let’s take a look at Dubnyk…

    His combined games played for both Arizona, and Minnesota allow him to qualify for Vezina.

    On a team that was playing AWFUL. He carried the whole damn team. Kuemper couldn’t do it. Backstrom couldn’t do it. Even Harding couldn’t do it.

    And fyi… Price isn’t FIRST in every category. He’s tied in shutouts. The only thing he’s dramatically ahead of is in goals against average. (Which is a team statistic.

    Put Price on Minnesota, and Dubnyk on Montreal and Price wouldn’t be nearly as good statistic wise.

    Dubnyk is one of the leaders in EACH of those categories despite playing less games than Price.

    I think we have a winner.

    Reply
    • Kevin

      This is by far the most stupid post I have ever heard. Dubnyk has played outstanding for Minnesota, but Price is the reason why Montreal is one of the top teams standing-wise.

      Reply
    • Kevin

      If a goalie plays 1 game, and gets a shutout should he win the Vezina? He played very few games and got a shutout. Your logic is beyond me.

      Reply
    • Paul Campbell

      Clayton, if you ask any Habs fan, they will tell you Price is carrying the team. Habs are in the bottom third of the league in scoring chances allowed, shots allowed, and shot attempt differential. If you gave him to Minnesota, he wouldn’t be having a worse time than he is now. If Dubnyk had played all season like he’s been playing for Minnesota, he’d be in the race. But the GMs won’t (and shouldn’t) discount the 19 games he played in Arizona. It’s an award for a whole season, so it all matters.

      Reply
    • Julien

      You must not watch a lot of habs game. They are an awful team (thanks michel therrien for that) and Carey Price saved them time after time this season. He’s the only reason mtl are in the hunt for first in the east. Just look at Tokarsky stats and you get an idea of where the habs would be at without a truly elite netminder. Carey Price is the one true god. All hail Carey Price!

      But yeah Dubnyk is great also 🙂

      Reply
  4. Paul Campbell

    I do think reputation carries more weight with goalies than other positions, mostly because goaltending remains a mystery to so many hockey people.

    Price leads about any stat you could name or invent. But I thought Mason’s name on this list was revealing. A turnaround for him?

    Reply
  5. Jesse A.

    There are some good points here, but I take issue with focusing on even strength numbers. To put it bluntly, you can’t ignore a significant part of a goaltender’s job. Even if the goalie’s playing on a really good team, they’re going to be seeing some quality shots from the opposing pp lines, and even at the most basic level that’s when they need to make a difference. What I’m saying is that it is important to try and get a clearer image of what differentiates great goalies from the merely good ones, and taking team contributions out of the equation(s) is to be attempted. But hockey’s a team sport and you really can’t.

    Then there’s the issue of trying to pick [i]the[/i] greatest goalie out the great ones, which will always be up for debate. I mean, every one knows Roy was and is the greatest goalie *ever*. I mean Brodeur, no, Hasek! Maybe Plante? Urgh, I give up…

    Reply
    • Paul Campbell

      Jesse, that’s an important point. I think aesGSAM (and adjusted even strength save percentage) is an important measure, and maybe the least team dependent, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing you need to consider. War on ice also has an adjusted save percentage for all situations – it would include PK data, too.

      Greatest since about 1980? Hasek. I don’t even think it’s close (and I grew up idolizing Roy).

      Reply
  6. Troppa

    Mason has been fairly amazing since he joined the Flyers two and a half years ago. Look at his stats from last year and this year, and he’s been pretty highly underrated both years. This year he’s clearly been the Flyers MVP, and he almost beat the Rangers in the playoffs last year despite a terrible team in front of him (.939 save percentage in the games he played). He rarely gives up trash goals, and he’s so big and flexible that he has very few gaps. He had 44 saves against San Jose this past week, and one of the best games I’ve seen a goalie play this year was a few weeks back vs New York.

    Reply
  7. James

    Bob Froese led in all of these categories in 1985-86. 2.55 Gaa .909 sp 31 w 5 so.

    Reply
    • Paul Campbell

      James! You’re right! I had confined my search to Vezina winners, thinking no goalie who had topped every category could fail to win it. I was wrong.

      On the numbers, he was just robbed that year. Beezer got the Vezina, but led in only one category (wins), and that was obviously a tie with Froese (who had a better overall record).

      Great catch.

      Reply

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