Tuukka Rask Right Choice for 2014 Vezina Trophy?
Few would disagree that Tuukka Rask is among the top goaltenders in the National Hockey League.
The bigger question after the Boston Bruins’ starter won the 2014 Vezina Trophy this week is whether Rask really was the “goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at his position” last season.
Agreement on that is a little tougher to come by.
Rask certainly had the surface numbers to back it up. He was the only goalie in the top five of each of major statistical category, finishing first in shutouts (seven), second in save percentage (.930), fourth in goals-against average (2.04) and fifth in wins (36).
For that, Rask received first-place votes from 16 of 30 NHL General Managers and 103 total voting points to beat out finalists Semyon Varlamov (9 first-place votes and 90 points) of the Colorado Avalanche, and Ben Bishop (1 first place vote and 32 points). Here is the complete breakdown of voting by NHL GMs:
1. Tuukka Rask, BOS 103 (16-6-5)
2. Semyon Varlamov, COL 90 (9-13-6)
3. Ben Bishop, TB 32 (1-6-9)
4. Carey Price, MTL 26 (2-3-7)
5. Jonathan Quick, LA 9 (1-1-1)
6. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR 5 (1-0-0)
7. Steve Mason, PHI 3 (0-1-0)
8. Sergei Bobrovsky, CBJ 1 (0-0-1)
Kari Lehtonen, DAL 1 (0-0-1)
While it was popular on social media to torment Toronto Maple Leafs fans with reminders Rask’s Vezina victory came on the eight-year anniversary of the Leafs trading him to the Bruins in exchange for Andrew Raycroft – and to make room for Justin Pogge in the system – it may have been more prudent to point out it was the third time in the past six seasons that a Boston goaltender won the award.
Rask, who backstopped Boston to a Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular season team, follows Tim Thomas (2009, 2011) as a Bruins Vezina winner, which further calls into question how much both benefited from playing behind a stingy system and strong defence anchored by Zdeno Chara.
Again, that’s not to say both weren’t among the League’s best goalies, but when it comes to picking one as the best clearly how the team plays in front of them is a factor. It must be because InGoal Magazine has been told by team sources that some of the same GMs that voted on the award are now trying to figure out where Bruins’ backup Chad Johnson, who posted a .925 save percentage behind the same defence, fits on the free agency market now that Boston has decided to let him walk after just one season. (In Colorado, the retiring Jean-Sebastien Giguere posted a .913 save percentage, .014 points below Varlamov, and in Tampa Bay Anders Lindback’s .891 was .033 behind Bishop).
So how do we account for the differences from one team to the next when judging goalies?
Admittedly it isn’t easy.
InGoal Magazine‘s Greg Balloch dug deeper into the numbers when the three finalists were announced, taking a closer look at the even-strength save percentage that many statistical analysts prefer (Rask was tops at .941), as well as shorthanded save percentage, which some goalie coaches have told us they use as a truer indication of a goalie’s ability to make tough saves (Rask was last at .873). Balloch took it a step further by looking at a relatively new statistic called Goals Saved Above Average, which is a way of comparing one goalie’s performance using his workload to what would be expected from the league average save percentage facing the same workload.
Varlamov came out on top at with a league-best 27.45 GSAA this season, just ahead of Rask, who was second at 26.40, Montreal’s Carey Price was third, and Bishop finished fourth in the NHL at 18.48, which might also explain why Varlamov won InGoal’s online Vezina poll with 59 per cent of the votes compared to 32 percent for Rask. Perhaps that’s not being fair to Rask, who did play without one his second-best defenseman for half a season after Dennis Seidenberg was injured in late December, forcing the Bruins to rely more on youth.
Perhaps the best comparison will come from Chris Boyle’s Shot Quality Project at SportsNet, which takes equalization to a new level by establishing both shot location on the ice and expected save percentages for specific types of shots (lateral transitions, rebounds, deflections) and then compares how many of those shots each goalie faces over a certain period of time. It’s a way of further quantifying all the discussions over which goaltenders are more insulated than others by good team defence, and his early season comparison of Rask and Price showed there wasn’t as big a gap between the two as save percentage indicated because Rask saw easier shots.
None of which is meant as a criticism of Rask. In fact, InGoal will be taking a closer look at his incredible skill set in the next magazine edition with help from a goalie coach who helped work on his transition to the NHL from Finland. But if we’re going to compare the seasons they just had to determine a Vezina winner, looking solely at save percentage is like comparing apples to oranges.
Given the obsession with advanced statistics in the rest of hockey, it may be time to delve a little deeper on goaltending too.