Nashville netminder Juuse Saros has a convincing case for the 2023 Vezina Trophy
With a historic, season-long performance, the Predators' Juuse Saros is generating some buzz, earning a position amongst the Vezina favorites this awards season. Here's why the Nashville netminder should bring home the hardware.
With a historic, season-long performance, the Predators' Juuse Saros is generating some buzz, earning a position amongst the Vezina favorites this awards season. Logging 2,800 minutes of ice time and facing more than 1,500 shots on net at 5v5 (both tops in the NHL on an absolute basis, 25-year highs on a game-adjusted basis), Juice almost single-handedly kept a young Nashville team in the playoff conversation.
The fancy stats support what the eye test suggests--according to @EvolvingHockey, Saros is the single-season Goals Above Replacement (GAR) leader, beating out more than a few sure-fire Hall-of-Famers.
It's fair to say that Saros and the Islanders' Ilya Sorokin (also in the top-seven on the single-season GAR leaderboard) have separated themselves as this year's favorites. The two leaders by Goals Saved Above Expected (GSaX), a measure that accounts for the quality of shots faced, are outpacing the competition, despite facing a dizzying number of shot attempts. That high volume is key to their Vezina credentials. With more than 2,000 unblocked shots faced at 5v5, Saros and Sorokin haved reached a level of consistent excellence unmatched by their peers.
Bryan breaks down the historical precedents here. No Vezina winner, or any other goaltender over the past five years, has faced more unblocked shot attempts or xG against per game than Nashville's Saros. In every category, Sorokin is close behind. Although there's some debate as to the historical comparability of these numbers (I think they're comparable across years, but that's an entirely different report), nobody can argue that both goaltenders are anything other than at peak performance under an immense workload.
Although their resumes seem similar to this point, Saros has an edge: situational hockey. Juuse has spent more than 350 minutes on the penalty kill, with 19 [!!!] Goals Saved Above Expected while shorthanded, both tops in the NHL. The Predators are taking an inordinate number of penalties and counting on Saros to bail them out, again and again.
Based on the data, it's almost as if the Predators' penalty kill is purposefully funneling shots to the front of the net, as well as the faceoff dots. Through it all, Saros has been a dependable wall, with some of his best work in the slot.
The biggest knock against Saros? He only ranks eighth in wins, despite an NHL-leading 63 games played. However, wins are a team statistic, and Saros's outstanding performance can only take the team so far.
While all of the top-six goalies in the NHL are bailing out their teammates when the shots aren't falling, depicted below, Saros can keep Nashville hanging around, even during some offensive clunkers. With offensive chances generated on the y-axis, defensive chances conceded on the x-axis, and colors indicating wins, it's noticeable that the Predators are winning games they were badly outshot at 5v5. Note: We should all pause to appreciate the brutal efficiency and consistency of the Boston Bruins. They don't have the most explosive offense, but the results speak for themselves.
Prashanth Iyer, formerly of the Athletic, and Shayna Goldman, currently of the Athletic, have even quantified these "stolen" games, again finding Saros to be amongst the NHL's elite. In effect, a goalie steals a game by saving more goals over expected than their team's final goal differential (e.g., saving 3 goals above expected while winning by 2 means a game is "stolen"). Saros is stealing games in more than 20% of his starts; there's really only so much one goaltender can do.
No disrespect to Ilya Sorokin, who is having an outstanding season in his own right, but Saros is the best goaltender on the planet. Award him the Vezina.
Bonus charts! See below for some graphics that I made but that didn't quite make the cut. Anything I missed?