There are always perennial favorites for the best goaltenders in the NHL. Last season, however, the smaller sample size gave way to a castoff from the ailing Philadelphia Flyers donning Blue Jackets colors and taking the coveted Vezina trophy. With an almost surreal season behind a team that many felt wouldn't make it out of the cellar (sound familiar?) Sergei Bobrovsky parlayed his success into a 21 win season with a brilliant 2.00 GAA (tied for 5th) and .932 SV% (2nd).
After checking out some other websites and their predictions for a Vezina winner, many list the same few regulars in the hunt for the trophy. This myopic view doesn't leave any space for dark horses and wild cards to get in the race and this is the point of the article where I respectfully disagree.
My short list for Vezina consideration:
Henrik Lundqvist - Obvious selection, but who can argue that he puts up great numbers year after year
Jimmy Howard - A goaltender that doesn't get enough credit for being one of the games best
Sergei Bobrovsky - Another obvious choice whose numbers were ridiculous last year and Columbus got better over the summer
Tuukka Rask - Has the opportunity to be excellent again this year, stellar defense in front of him helps tremendously
Corey Crawford - Much like Rask but won the Cup, team in front allows him to excel
Antti Niemi - The darkest of horses...faced tons of shots last year...decent offense in front but defense has been lacking.
Honorable Mention: Ondrej Pavelec - With a little more offense and a stronger defense, Pavelec may sneak into the discussion.
The first round of cuts weeds out the anomalies and goalies that have the upfront presence to alleviate the need to rely on them solely to win games. Rask immediately gets eliminated because even his back-up, Khudobin, had a 9-4 record with decent GAA and SV% numbers. The simple fact of the Boston Bruins leading consistently in plus/minus should paint the picture. Speaking of a team taking the load off the goaltender, Corey Crawford should be stricken from the record not for the defensive effort in front but the offensive barrage that Chicago levied against every team last season. Their core goal-scoring talent is still well represented with surprising effort from the bottom two lines even with the losses of Frolik, Bolland, Stalberg et al.
Next comes the "tried so hard but the team's failure to score goals comes back to bite their efforts." Pekka Rinne and Cory Schneider will fall into these categories with the shortcomings of true offensive talent. Rinne and Schneider will provide amazing stopping power and have slightly above-average numbers, but those 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 games will favor the opposition and their suffering records will dissolve them of their honors.
For a team that has Brent Burns listed as forward, the San Jose Sharks are a rag-tag bunch of defensemen in front of a Cup-winning goalie. Niemi has faced the slings and arrows surrounding his Cup win and subsequent signing with the Sharks after an arbitration hearing gone awry. But during his tenure with the Sharks Niemi has played remarkably well keeping an average GAA of 2.32 and SV% of .919. He is getting better every year facing more and more shots over the last three years while his numbers keep improving. It is only a matter of time before the Vezina judges start paying attention to his effort and reward him accordingly.
Bobrovsky had an amazing year and was most deserving of the Vezina Trophy last season, and the Columbus Blue Jackets got better over the summer with the signing of Nathan Horton (although it'll be almost mid-season before he cracks the lineup). The Blue Jackets defensive core is under-the-radar impressive with Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski leading the charge of the familiar with Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin quietly becoming two of the steadiest blueliners in the game. It is highly possible that Bobrovsky can pick up where he left off last year just as it is entirely plausible that Sergei could become another unflattering mark in the Blue Jackets goaltending lore: i.e. the one great season Calder winner Steve Mason.
Jimmy Howard by this season's end may have a huge foothold on the Vezina Trophy voters. Just last season, Howard was: 7th in Shots Against, 9th in GAA, 7th in Wins, 5th in Saves, 10th in SV% and tied for 1st in shutouts with five others. With the realignment, many pundits (OTF staff included) see the Red Wings going far into the playoffs and being in the East, the Red Wings can clamp down on defense and offensive zone possession to boost Howard's numbers. The East may have more dangerous offensive players compared to the West, but the Detroit Red Wings with Babcock's system will stymie these advances and have teams play right into the Red Wings plans. Howard is not given the credit he rightfully deserves every season because of the caliber of talent in front of him but over the last few seasons, the Red Wings have lost some of that talent to retirement and injury and Howard keeps winning and putting up very good numbers. This could very well be his year.
When Vezina voters look down the rosters of teams goalies, their attention has and will always be drawn to one Henrik Lundqvist. With the microscope fully on the New York Rangers and the overhaul of lineups playing in front of him for the last few years, Lundqvist still comes out as a perennial favorite and for good reason. If not for an abnormal breakout campaign by Bobrovsky, King Henrik would have walked away with the Vezina making it two in a row. To break down what he did last year, Lundqvist was: 4th in Shots Against, 7th in GAA, 1st in Wins, 4th in Saves and 5th in SV%. With Craig Anderson and Sergei Bobrovsky more than likely coming back to earth this year in a full 82-game season, Lundqvist should be the odds on favorite from the start.
The final three this year should be Antti Niemi, Henrik Lundqvist and Jimmy Howard
And the winner is.................
This is the year Howard finally gets the recognition he rightfully deserves for the job he does in goal. He remains a brick wall and a perfect compliment to a team featuring stifling defensive play and neutral zone/offensive zone control schemes. Having quite possibly the greatest two-way player in Pavel Datsyuk anchoring the top line doesn't hurt either. His record will be one of the tops in the league, especially in the new Atlantic division where the Bruins and Senators were the only teams to advance past the first round of the playoffs. The division also includes the Sabres, Lightning and Panthers who were near the bottom of the Eastern Conference last season (Panthers had the worst record in the NHL).