The Long Undeath of Wins To Pick Vezina Winners
As Carey Price and Pekka Rinne battle through the closest Vezina Trophy race in years, I’m finding myself feeling grateful; the winner’s claim will be supported by a diverse range of measures.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t always been this way.
An old way of judging goaltenders died in 2008.
Martin Brodeur was positioned to win his second straight Vezina with the New Jersey Devils, but San Jose Sharks starter Evgeni Nabokov was so close you couldn’t call it till the end. Nabokov’s case was built on his league-leading wins (46), and third-ranked 2.14 goals-against average (among keepers to play more than 2400 minutes).
Brodeur’s numbers were comparable: he was second in wins (44), and fourth in GAA (2.17). The only significant separation between the leading nominees was their save percentages: Brodeur’s .920 towered over Nabokov’s .910.
Nothing about a .01 difference screams landslide, until you consider that Brodeur’s save percentage ranked sixth in the league, while Nabokov’s league-average number sat him in 21st place. Brodeur won the Vezina by a molecule-thin 2.6 percent of the vote, and in so doing, scored a decisive victory for save percentage as a more important measure than wins and goals-against average combined.
The irony, of course, is monumental.
Brodeur stole consecutive Vezinas in 2003 and 2004 on the back of wins and goals-against average despite finishing 14th (!!) and 8th (!) in save percentage. Finally, the potent evaluative force known as Reputation righted the wrongs it had helped perpetrate, and led to a new era in goaltender evaluation.
Since 2008, every Vezina Trophy winner has been first or second in save percentage and none has led the league in wins. Let’s hope the body stays buried: it’s been killed several times, but has always proven restlessly undead.
Wins may be the most absurd measure ever devised to evaluate goaltending quality.
It’s dead obvious that good teams will generate more wins than poor ones, even with inferior goaltending. In fact, wins should count against a goaltender, if they are considered at all: it’s easier to achieve solid results behind a strong team than a struggling one. Even more ridiculously, it’s not the goaltender’s overall record that’s considered, but simply the number of wins he’s recorded. Brodeur is lauded as the greatest of all time in part because of his historic career win total. His record for most career losses is seldom mentioned.
Over the last 30 seasons, save percentage has been a far more highly predictive statistic of Vezina success than any other traditional measure: 18 of the 30 winners have lead the league in save percentage (again, among goalies with more than 2400 minutes, the lowest total ever to claim a modern Vezina).
That’s a 60 percent hit rate, compared to wins (27 percent), goals-against average (33 percent), and shutouts (a surprisingly high 43 percent). Clearly, even the ancients (in statistical terms) of the 1980s saw the merit of save percentage as the best available measure of individual goaltending quality.
Wins, however, have always somehow remained an important consideration, and have arisen at different times to push the giant goaltending trophy into unlikely, and undeserving hands.
Jim Carey’s interruption of Dominic Hasek’s Vezina-winning streak was powered by his impressive 35-win season on a mediocre Washington Capitals team. His 12th ranked .906 save percentage didn’t deter NHL General Managers from voting him into the winner’s throne; Hasek’s league-leading .920, about three light years ahead of Carey’s total, wasn’t enough to overcome his meager 22-win, non-playoff season.
Winning winners who know how to win, not losing losers, get the nice trophies.
The greatest victory of the undead win menace was its first. In 1988, a post-Wayne Gretzky but still powerful Edmonton Oilers team won a respectable 44 games, 40 of which came with Grant Fuhr in goal. He led the NHL in wins, but placed a distant ninth in goals-against average at 3.43 (!), and 12th (!!) in save percentage. Neither sense nor reason could dissuade the (clearly) win-zombie-bitten hoards of GMs from crowning their goalie-lord king.
Like the hapless protagonists of horror movies, we can never be entirely sure the monster is dead for good, or even for long. This time, though, we have more reason to be optimistic than ever.
The emergence and increasing acceptance of advanced (enhanced) statistics may finally decapitate and incinerate the persistent and dangerous threat. Measures like Goals Saved Above Average and Adjusted Save Percentage already exist to augment and perhaps even displace raw save percentage. The first steps toward shot quality measures have also been taken by people like Chris Boyle and former NHL goalie Stephen Valiquette, meaning we’ll be able to evaluate a goaltender’s quality and impact so finely that relying on wins will seem like an absurd anachronism.
In fact, some of the currently available measures already show that Price’s incredible season is unfolding behind a below-average club. A goaltender is more likely to drown in the desert than win the Hart (they’ve won 7 times in 90 years), but maybe new metrics will show the voting writers the massive contribution Price has made this season.
But that’s a story for another time.
~ 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.