As the season winds down and awards talk really heats up, a lot of the races feel like they’re pretty clear. Cooper for Adams, Giordano for Norris, Pettersson for Calder. And despite some noise being made about Sid Crosby’s candidacy for the Hart, that also feels like something Nikita Kucherov has pretty well locked up as he surges toward 120, 125, and maybe even 130 points.
That really only leaves one trophy up for debate, but I think the debate is an incredibly interesting one. On one side is the argument for Andrei Vasilevskiy, the league leader in 5-on-5 save percentage who is backstopping arguably the best team of all time (but that’s a different take).
Then there’s Ben Bishop, the overall save percentage leader having the best season of his career for a team that looks like it’s going to make the playoffs largely on his back.
And finally there’s John Gibson, the hard-miles Quixotic hero doomed to fail in his quest to make a horrible team in any way relevant, who leads the league in goals saved above expected by a wide margin.
This should absolutely, 10000000 percent be your Vezina top three at the end of the season, barring some kind of brutal collapse. And that’s said with all due respect to Freddie Andersen, whose save percentage dropped four whole points in Wednesday’s loss to Chicago.
There are arguments for and against each. For instance, Vasilevskiy seems like he should be the slam-dunk candidate if you consider his .930-plus save percentage, 44 wins, six shutouts, and all that good stuff. Awesome goalie having a great year on the team that has been the best from October 1 to present. A very credible candidate.
And yet, you can make an argument that because his team is so good — so so good! — he’s arguably had it a little bit easy. Not that Tampa is necessarily an elite defensive team, but they allow the fifth-fewest expected-goals against per 60 in the league as of this writing, so Vasilevskiy’s job isn’t exactly the hardest in the world. Moreover, if you want to get a little more into intangibles, the fact that Tampa has 15 games in which they’ve scored six-plus, 30 games in which they’ve scored five-plus, and 42 with four-plus, the pressure on Vasilevskiy to stand on his head is usually not that great.
Not that he hasn’t been awesome, of course. But if you’re playing devil’s advocate, or more to the point thinking how an NHL GM might think, that would be the argument against.
What Bishop brings to the table, then, is very similar stats (including a save percentage one point above Vasilevskiy’s, and the exact same .933 at 5-on-5) on a much worse team. The Stars are certainly an above-average defensive team, but they don’t make it as easy on their goalies. But that might also be more of a perception thing, because among the 25 goalies with at least 2100 minutes this season, Bishop has faced the second-fewest expected goals of the group.
But because he has been so good, the number of goals he’s saved above that expected number is still quite high: Second in the league at 16.3, comfortably ahead of Vasilevskiy’s third-place 12.88. Andersen is the only other goalie in double digits, at 10.8. He’s also second in goals saved above average (that is, what a league-average goalie would do against the exact same workload), trailing league leader Vasilevskiy by about 3.5 goals.
Bishop has, however, played fewer minutes than any of the other goalies in this conversation, including Andersen. That’s due, in part, to the fact that he’s missed 11 Stars games with injuries (not that he would have played all of them), but he’s not so far out of the TOI race as to be disqualified.
As for Gibson, well, I fear he’s going to have to settle for a “nice try, kid” nomination because he’s definitely not winning. But hear me out: He probably should. Even after his save percentage settled into the .916 range — still well above the league average of .909 — the Herculean task of even keeping this team vaguely competitive for the first three months of the season ought to be more richly rewarded than a free trip from Anaheim to Vegas.
Only Chicago gave up more expected goals per 60 this year. No goalie faced more high-danger shots (511!) than Gibson, either, and he stopped almost 85 percent of them. Bishop, for the record, is the league’s high-danger save percentage leader at .877. But almost 1 in every 3 shots Gibson faces is from a high-percentage area. Most other goalies, that number is closer to 1 in 4. It makes a huge difference.
Gibson’s goals saved above expected is pushing 24. Bishop is second at a shade above 16. It’s a difference of more than 46 percent. So yeah, I know his team’s lousy, but man, he has been so much better than just about any other goalie could possibly be in that situation.
Honestly, any of these guys would be a great and perfectly credible pick, which is awesome for the league. Having an award you can’t screw up because there are too many good candidates is as rare as it gets.
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