This is part one of a series on questionable Vezina voting decisions, where team factors fool NHL GMs into choosing the wrong goaltender as the league's best.
In 1987-88, Grant Fuhr won the only Vezina of his career. He also finished as the runner up to Mario Lemieux for the Hart Trophy. Fuhr outpointed Wayne Gretzky (149 points in 64 games), Steve Yzerman (50 goals, 102 points in 64 games), and Denis Savard (131 pts in 80 games). Four voters even listed Fuhr in first place ahead of Lemieux, who had scored 70 goals and added 98 assists to lead the league in scoring.
Fuhr had not done particularly well in previous years in Vezina voting. His best result was second place in 1981-82. So what was the difference? Was it perhaps an improvement in the team? Or did he merely have a career year?
Edmonton lost Paul Coffey from their blue line after the 1986-87 season, but his strengths were mainly offensive and it is doubtful they lost much on the defensive side. The other main blueliners (Lowe, Muni, Gregg, Smith, Huddy, McSorley, Beukeboom) all returned for 1987-88. The Oiler forward group was very much the same as the year before. As might be expected, then, the team played defence at a similar level. The team shots against totals were almost the same - 28.9 per game in 1986-87, 28.8 in 1987-88.
Given the continuity, therefore, one would expect Fuhr's numbers to be similar. Indeed, his performance rates were almost exactly the same in 1987-88:
1986-87: .618 win %, .881 save %, 3.44 GAA
1987-88: .610 win %, .881 save %, 3.43 GAA
So if his performance didn't improve, how then did Fuhr go from 3rd in Vezina voting with 0 Hart votes to being considered the best goalie in the league and more valuable than Wayne Gretzky?
The very simple answer: Andy Moog left to play on the Olympic team.
Andy Moog and Grant Fuhr spent six years sharing time in the Edmonton net, and were for all intents and purposes the same goalie. Most years their save percentages were very similar, and their records for Edmonton during the dynasty period were almost identical: Fuhr 107-39-14, Moog 104-37-14. No matter who was in net, Edmonton usually won.
Moog's departure in 1987 meant that Edmonton only had 21-year old Bill Ranford and 22-year old Darryl Reaugh on their team. This meant they chose to rely heavily on Fuhr. Fuhr played 75 games, leading the NHL. He also led in minutes played, wins, and shutouts. Martin Brodeur fans will probably recognize that combination. However, 14 other goalies played 2000 minutes or more and finished ahead of Fuhr in save percentage.
Was Fuhr deserving of the Vezina? Let's look at his stats again, compared to his teammates in the Edmonton net:
Fuhr's numbers: .610 win %, 3.43 GAA, .881 save %
Fuhr's backups: .714 win %, 3.95 GAA, .876 save %
Fuhr's backups' numbers are a little misleading because of the influence of one Warren Skorodenski, a rarely used career backup who saw his final bit of NHL action with Edmonton in 1987-88. In 61 minutes of play, Skorodenski was beaten 7 times for a catastrophic 6.89 GAA. Since Fuhr's backups didn't play many games in 1987-88, Skorodenski has a large impact on the stats. Here is the stat line without him included:
Ranford and Reaugh: .714 win %, 3.59 GAA, .890 save %
That compares very favourably to Fuhr, and provides evidence that his season really wasn't that special at all. As had been the case for many years with Moog, Fuhr did no better than his backups had done. Ranford was coming off of a 41 game season with an .891 save percentage in 1986-87, and he improved to .899 in 6 games in 1987-88, so he probably could have played more games at least at the same level as Fuhr. Fuhr was far from the league's best goalie, and he deserved little consideration as league MVP. Rating Fuhr as more valuable to the Oilers than Gretzky has to likely be considered one of the most curious award voting decisions in the history of the NHL.
Let's look at the way the Vezina voters ranked the rest of the top 5 after Fuhr. I have included their performance statistics, as well as that of their backups to get the team context.
2. Tom Barrasso, 2-3-3, 22
Barrasso's numbers: .569 win %, 3.31 GAA, .896 save %
Barrasso's backups: .466 win %, 4.45 GAA, .860 save %
3. Kelly Hrudey, 1-4-0, 17
Hrudey's numbers: .557 win %, 3.34 GAA, .896 save %
Hrudey's backups: .542 win %, 3.22 GAA, .893 save %
4. Brian Hayward, 2-1-1, 14
Hayward's numbers: .667 win %, 2.86 GAA, .896 save %
Hayward's backups: .625 win %, 2.97 GAA, .898 save %
5. Mike Vernon, 0-4-2, 14
Vernon's numbers: .685 win %, 3.53 GAA, .877 save %
Vernon's backups: .556 win %, 4.36 GAA, .858 save %
Barrasso's numbers are very impressive. His backups were Daren Puppa and Jacques Cloutier, both of whom were decent goalies. Barrasso's numbers were very good for any team, much less a weak Sabres team coming off of a sub-.500 campaign in 1986-87. He deserved to have won the Vezina.
Kelly Hrudey's numbers are very good, but the fact that they were pretty well matched by the 38-year old Billy Smith testifies to the Islanders' strong defensive play. It was a similar situation in Montreal, where Brian Hayward and Patrick Roy both played well, but the main reason for their success and Jennings Trophy win was their very strong defensive team.
Vernon doesn't look that great overall, except for his winning percentage. But the fact that his backups could win at a .556 rate despite a 4.36 GAA shows how good the Flames were. The Flames #2 goalie was Doug Dadswell, who played 25 of his 28 career NHL games in 1987-88, explaining the weak performance of the backup goalies. Vernon was no better than average in 1987-88, and only received notice because of his 39 wins as the primary starter on an excellent team.
Coming in sixth place in the voting was the Rangers' John Vanbiesbrouck, who might have been the second best goalie in the league in 1987-88:
Vanbiesbrouck's numbers: .545 win %, 3.38 GAA, .890 save %
Vanbiesbrouck's backups: .438 win %, 3.56 GAA, .876 save %
The backup was Bob Froese, who had a number of very good years in the 1980s, yet was well outplayed by Vanbiesbrouck.
The rest of the top 10 (Lemelin, Roy, Hanlon, and Stefan), all played for very good defensive teams, and had similar stats to the other goalies on their teams.
Were there any goalies that went unnoticed on bad teams? A couple. Daniel Berthiaume of Winnipeg had a .531 winning percentage and .882 save percentage on a weak team, much better than what his backups did, and Darren Pang stopped shots at an .891 rate behind the porous Chicago defence (35.2 shots against per game), although Pang's teammate Bob Mason also did pretty well.
The writers fell into the same trap as the GMs in their All-Star voting. Fuhr again finished first, taking 58 out of 61 first place votes. Patrick Roy was second, followed by Tom Barrasso. The rest of the list went more or less by the strength of the goalie's team, with Malarchuk, Vernon, Lemelin, Hextall, Hrudey, Peeters, Hayward, Liut and Hanlon.
In summary, then, the statistics show that Fuhr was neither outstanding nor especially valuable in 1987-88, and his per-game performance was almost exactly the same as what he had done the previous year. This means that the voters got it completely wrong. Fuhr's Vezina win was the result of the Oilers' loss of Andy Moog, which led to more games played and therefore more wins and shutouts. This attracted the attention of the voters, who, as they often do, overrated durability and gave too much credit for team success. They even went so far as to claim that Fuhr was more valuable than Wayne Gretzky, a completely laughable assertion. The 1987-88 Vezina should have instead gone to Tom Barrasso.