Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Significance of Two Vezinas

As everyone knows, strange things can happen to a single goalie over the course of a single season. Jose Theodore can win the Hart, Jim Carey can win the Vezina, Andrew Raycroft can win the Calder. There are a lot of goalies who had one great season mixed in with a nondescript or average career. Seen in retrospect, that year seems to be most likely founded on a lot of luck and perhaps aided by teammates, or else perhaps came at a point in time where the rest of the league was not yet aware of and able to exploit that netminder's particular weaknesses and tendencies. In a few cases, it is likely that the surprising goalies were legitimately performing at a high level for a brief peak, before later falling off to a lower standard of play as as result of injuries, age, or some other factor.

But two great seasons, that's a different story.

Those who are interested in the Hall of Fame debate often look at comparables, trying to determine if a player with a specific profile has company already in the Hall of Fame. For example, if all players who finished top-10 in scoring X number of times are already inducted, then it seems reasonable to view that as support for any player who achieved that same number of top finishes.

For goalies, there is a very simple Hall of Fame cutoff that so far works with 100% success: Every goalie with 2 or more First Team All-Star selections is a Hall of Famer.

That is not to say that every goalie in the Hall of Fame was voted at least twice as the game's best goalie. Several of them only achieved that honour once, and Gerry Cheevers never did it at all. But everyone with two is in, and that brings us to Tim Thomas.

Tim Thomas had one of the most impressive goalie seasons ever last year, especially when the playoffs are taken into account. Including the postseason, Thomas played in 82 games and stopped 93.9% of the shots against him. His even strength save percentage over that stretch was simply off the charts at .948. That's a level that nobody has come close to since Dominik Hasek was in his prime. Assuming no shot quality or scorer bias effects, Thomas was about 45 goals better than a league average (.913) goalie during the regular season, and another 23 goals better in the playoffs. Thomas faced 33 shots per game in the playoffs and still ranked #1 in GAA. In short, he not only had video game numbers, but he was absolutely dominant at the most important time of the year. In my opinion, Thomas should have won the Hart Trophy.

Does that mean Tim Thomas is a Hall of Famer? With a Cup and a Conn Smythe to go with his two Vezinas, his trophy case is already worthy of the Hall, but longevity really hurts him in any such discussion. Thomas was already 31 years old when he first won an NHL starting job, and at the age of 37 he only has 319 career regular season games played. It remains to be seen how many campaigns are left for a goalie who thrives on his athleticism, but if Thomas can keep his game at a high level for another three or four seasons, he would at least be approaching the numbers that would make it seem like much less of a long shot (500 career games, 50 career shutouts, a career save percentage in the .920 range). At least it wouldn't if the Hall is open to rewarding dominance, rather than just counting longevity and career compiling. With his current 90th place ranking on the career wins list, Thomas isn't likely to end up among the all-time leaders in any of the counting categories.

It will be interesting to watch the conclusion of Thomas' career, to see whether he is the modern-day Johnny Bower or if he merely has a short but meteoric prime. Either way, he will be an interesting test case as a Hall of Fame candidate a decade or so down the road.


Anonymous said...

Last year he had without question, the most dominant season in the last 5 years possibly 10. He has a Stanley Cup which without him the Bruins had no right to win and two Vezinas.

He belongs in the Hall.

Host PPH said...

I was reading the comment by anonymous and I have to say that I completely agree on his word, that dominant season was phenomenal!

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