Vezina Trophy Breakdown: Which Goaltender Deserves the Hardware?

As the NHL continues toward the restart of their season with the qualifying round and round-robin tournament to set the playoff field beginning on August 1. While we’re still a couple of weeks away from actual meaningful game action as teams are in the middle of training camps, with teams heading to their respective hub cities next week, there still is plenty of news going on. The league has been releasing finalists for different awards this week with the winners being announced during the conference finals. Today, we take a look at the trio of candidates for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender.

It was announced on Friday that Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets, Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins and Andrei Vasilevsky of the Tampa Bay Lightning are the three finalists for the award. Let’s take a look at each of the finalists and give our thoughts as to who should be the winner, should you decide to put down a few bucks on a winner at the window.

Hellebuyck has been terrific for a Jets team that would be nowhere near the postseason without him. He played in 58 games this season, posting a 31-21-5 mark with a 2.57 GAA, a .922 save percentage and six shutouts. Hellebuyck led the league in games played by a goaltender at the pause while ranking second in victories. He also led the league in shutouts, shots faced (1,796) and saves (1,656) as he faced nearly 31 shots per game. Hellebuyck was getting hot heading into the pause as he was 5-1-0 with a 1.34 GAA and a .957 save percentage in his final six starts. He kept the Jets afloat all year long as Laurent Brossoit was just 6-7-1 with a 3.28 GAA, a .895 save percentage and no shutouts in 19 games. Hellebuyck also led goaltenders in goalie point shares with 12.5 this season according to Hockey Reference. He can steal games even when he has to face a ton of rubber.

Rask won the Vezina back in 2014 and is a favorite here as the Bruins won the President’s Trophy. He rung up a 26-8-6 mark with a 2.12 GAA, a .929 save percentage and five shutouts in 41 games this year. Boston also earned the Jennings Trophy for the fewest goals allowed as Rask and Jaroslav Halak were effective at keeping the puck out of their own net. Rask was second in the league this season in save percentage, third in GAA, second in shutouts and led the league by a narrow margin (22.51 to 22.4) over Hellebuyck. One of the biggest knocks on Rask is that he had such a light workload comparatively to the other two finalists. He hasn’t played more than 54 games in any of the last three seasons during the regular season and that can kind of devalue the numbers a bit. Rask faced only 1,189 shots in his 41 games, which is more than 600 fewer than Hellebuyck faced in his action.

Vasilevskiy is the reigning Vezina winner, having claimed the award last season despite the Lightning’s stunning first-round exit at the hands of Columbus in the playoffs. He played in 52 games this season, posting a 35-14-3 record with a 2.56 GAA, a .917 save percentage and three shutouts. Vasilevskiy led the league in wins for the third straight season after recording 44 in 2017-18 and 39 in 2018-19 before picking up 35 this year. His save percentage did drop from .925 in 2018-19 to this season’s mark while his GAA jumped from 2.40 to this season’s 2.56 mark. Vasilevskiy was third in the league in games played, tied for eighth in shutouts, third in shots faced (1,605) and third in saves (1,472) on the year. He was eighth in goals saved above average (12.13) on the year, leaving him well behind the pace set by the other two candidates.

Outlook:

Rask has been considered the favorite this season but one really has to look deeper into the situation before anointing him as the top option. He played a light workload with Halak getting 31 appearances, 29 starts, over the course of the year. When you’re only playing about three-fifths of the schedule in front of a very solid defensive team, it gives you an opportunity to pad your numbers without having to break a sweat. He just returned to practice Friday after missing Thursday for an undisclosed reason and while he may be the #1 goaltender, you have to wonder if Bruce Cassidy will still keep him on a lighter workload once the postseason starts.

Vasilevskiy won the Vezina last season but his win total is inflated a bit because of the dynamic offensive attack that the Lightning brings to the ice on any given night. He recorded fewer quality starts (31) and a lower quality start percentage (59.6) than he had in 2018-19 (35 quality starts, 66 percent quality start percentage), showing a decline. While he went 25-6-3 over 34 starts in the middle of the season, he was only 3-3-0 in his last six starts with a 2.36 GAA and a .924 save percentage. We saw him struggle last season in the playoffs when he was 0-4-0 with a 3.82 GAA and a .856 save percentage as the Lightning was swept by Columbus. His goals saved above average was more than halved from 26.4 in 2018-19 to 12.13 in 2019-20, so he wasn’t nearly as good as he was a year ago.

Hellebuyck was dominant in net for the Jets this season and carried the team on his back. As we said, he led the league in appearances, shutouts, shots faced and saves while ranking second to Vasilevsky in victories. He anchored a team that was missing four of their top six defensemen from a season ago. Hellebuyck accounted for 31 of the team’s 38 victories on the season and it’s clear that the Jets would be nowhere near the playoffs without him. Seeing how he led the league in goalie point shares and the sheer volume of shots he faced, the fact that he turned in such sparkling numbers makes him a serious contender. Vasilevskiy can struggle and the Lightning would still be a playoff team due to their offense. Boston could see Rask sputter and get by because they play solid in their own zone plus they have Halak as their #1B option in net. The Jets would be somewhere between the Red Wings and Senators without Hellebuyck: based on that, you have to consider him the favorite for the award.

Prediction: Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

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Chris Kubala

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