Monday, June 11, 2007

Vezina Trophy: Why Games Played Shouldn't Matter

One of Brodeur's biggest strengths is his durability. He plays nearly all of his team's games, and is able to maintain consistent performance in doing so. This is one of the main reasons that he has been able to pile up so many career wins. But how much should that be taken into consideration in Vezina Trophy voting?

In my view, not at all. This is for two main reasons: Games played is largely outside of the goalie's control, and the award is for the best goalie, not the most valuable one.

Goalies do not decide when they play and when they sit, the coach does. Some coaches platoon goalies, while others ride their starter. Obviously, goalies that are better tend to play more games, but it also depends on how good the backup is. For example, Tomas Vokoun's performance this season (.920) was very similar to last season (.919), when many thought he should have been a Vezina nominee. This year, however, he played in only 44 games because he missed some time to injury and because his backup is Chris Mason, who finished 2nd in the league in save percentage. The result is that very few would rate him even close to as highly as last year, even though he has been the same goaltender. Another example is San Jose, where the combination of Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala, combined with a coach in Ron Wilson who is not afraid to platoon them, means that neither goalie has a chance to play in 70+ games. This is even the case for Martin Brodeur: 1996-97 was possibly his best season (1.88 GAA, .927 save percentage). That year he played in only 67 games, down from his usual total of about 72-75, because he had a decent backup in Mike Dunham. There are several other factors why a goalie can play in more games than another, such as for example scheduling (e.g. number of back-to-back games) or whether a team is fighting for a playoff spot or not late in the season.

The official description of the Vezina Trophy includes the following: "The Vezina Trophy is an annual award given to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at his position". It does not say the most valuable, or the goalie with the greatest contribution, or the goalie with the most games played. Playing more games at a lower level does not make a goalie better.

For example, imagine a goalie holds out for most of the season, and only plays in the last 10 games, where he posts 10 shutouts in a row for an average team. Is he the best goalie in the league? Of course. His performance in the games he did play would have been way, way better than everyone else. He should unanimously win the Vezina Trophy. That is obviously hypothetical, but a real-life example of this may have been Miikka Kiprusoff in 2004. He played in only 38 games, but led the league with an excellent .933 save percentage. He was nominated for the Vezina Trophy, but lost to Martin Brodeur, mainly because he did not play enough games. Niklas Backstrom is a similar case this year, with a league-leading .929 save percentage in 41 games. He was not nominated for the award.

I am not saying that a goalie who plays 1 game and gets a shutout should win, nor would I prefer a goalie with 30 games played over another one with 75 just because the first one had a slightly higher save percentage, since the gap is not likely statistically significant. But if there is a clear difference in performance (after adjusting for team factors of course), the better goalie should be rated more highly even if they played many fewer games. Among starting goalies, say those who have played between 50 and 82 games, the games played mark is determined mostly by scheduling, the coaching philosophy, the talent of the backup, and the durability of the goalie, none of which have anything to do with how talented the goalie is or how well he stops the puck when he is in the game.

Brodeur has started three more games than Luongo. That is the main reason why he has more wins, since Luongo has a better winning percentage. It is also the only reason why he has faced more shots, since Luongo faced a higher number of shots per game. Therefore, those arguments should be thrown out the window. In this year's Vezina race, only rate stats should matter.

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