Each team in the NHL has played at least 41 games this season. Teams like the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs are right at 41 games, while teams like the Chicago Blackhawks (46) and St. Louis Blues (47) have seen quite a bit more action. Point being, we’re halfway through the NHL season, which means we’re getting fair sample sizes from players relating to their candidacy for various end-of-the-season awards.
Among those honors is the Vezina Trophy, which is given each year “to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at this position as voted by the general managers of all NHL clubs,” according to NHL.com.
All end-of-the-season awards cause some debates among fan bases, as they try to explain why a player from their team deserves an award over a player from another team. But there’s nothing quite like the Vezina. Reason being, it’s an award solely for goaltenders, of which there are very few in the league. Each team typically carries just two goaltenders during the season, so that’s a pool of 60 — assuming no injuries (this obviously never happens, but play along). Half of these guys are backups, and while there are platoon situations in some cities (Dallas with Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi, for example), you’re able to whittle the field down to about 25 right then and there.
There are plenty of forwards in the league. Plenty of defensemen. Plenty of rookies. Maybe the only other award that challenges the Vezina is the Jack Adams, given to the league’s best coach in the regular season, but considering that one isn’t given to an on-ice participant, that leaves the Vezina as the one award for which you see a lot of the same guys battling year in and year out, until some of them retire or fall off the map and a new crop of challengers rises.
Carey Price has been the shining example for a Vezina winner over the past season and a half. The Montreal starter is the defending award champion, but an injury this season will keep him from taking it home (unless the Habs literally don’t lose a game once he returns). Braden Holtby is having a sensational season with the Washington Capitals, the Presidents’ Trophy favorites at this time. Roberto Luongo is having a career resurgence playing for the Florida Panthers. Jonathan Quick is having a quietly solid season for a rebounding Los Angeles club. And Cory Schneider continues to carry his New Jersey teammates to a semblance of competence.
And then there’s Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford.
Anyone who has not only watched Crow but also appreciated the goaltender position while doing so — AKA just because the guy doesn’t make an abundance of flashy saves doesn’t mean he sucks — knows he is having a career year. The stats could have told you that as well (we’ll get to those later), but just look at the guy. He’s oozing confidence. He’s confidently turning aside shot after shot. He’s rarely losing his net, he’s not getting emotionally caught up in any particular plays and he’s bringing the Blackhawks a level of dominance in the net they could certainly use, given their current defensive situation.
That last point is especially important, because what it means deep down is this: The guy has carried this team through stretches of the season. Sure, the Blackhawks’ offense has spread out and kicked into gear a bit during the team’s ongoing nine-game win streak, but would the Blackhawks be tied with the Dallas Stars in points atop the Central Division if Crow was even slightly worse than he’s been through 46 games? The answer is no, and there’s no debate.
So, why is he not being discussed more readily as a Vezina Trophy possibility? Better yet, why isn’t he being discussed as a favorite for the honor? I think there are some reasons he certainly should be firmly entrenched in both of these camps.
Let’s start with the stats, because everyone knows those who choose the Vezina winner are going to look at those first and foremost. We’ll stick with five goaltenders who I think are most likely in line to win the Vezina this season, at this time: Crawford, Holtby, Quick, Luongo and Schneider. Let’s start with the basic stats:
Crawford: 25-10-2, .929 save percentage, 2.17 goals-against average, 6 shutouts
Holtby: 28-4-2, .933 save percentage, 1.90 goals-against average, 2 shutouts
Quick: 24-9-2, .925 save percentage, 2.05 goals-against average, 3 shutouts
Luongo: 19-12-4, .927 save percentage, 2.18 goals-against average, 3 shutouts
Schneider: 18-14-5, .926 save percentage, 2.09 goals-against average, 3 shutouts
Tough field, huh? The edge in every category except shutouts goes to Holtby right now. No doubt, the guy has been very good. But let’s dig a little deeper.
Shot attempts faced per 60 minutes, all situations
Crow is the only one of these five facing upwards of 30 shots per game. And yet, his stats are equal to, and in some cases better than, those of his counterparts in this race.
Save percentages in low-, medium- and high-danger scenarios, all situations (as measured by war-on-ice.com)
Crawford: .969, .917, .873
Holtby: .978, .939, .854
Quick: .946, .929, .886
Luongo: .972, .914, .855
Schneider: .962, .916, .877
If you want to say this comparison makes Crow look “average,” go for it. But remember, we’re comparing five guys who probably have the best shot at winning the Vezina. So the fact Crow slots third in every single category is pretty damn impressive. He doesn’t fluctuate wildly on any type of shot attempt — he stops all types of shots on a middle-ground level compared with four other guys who are near or at the top of their game. That’s the mark of a solid goaltender, and one who can save his team’s bacon.
Next are some areas that show why Crow is really deserving of some strong Vezina support.
Shots faced/saves made (all situations)
Yes, Corey Crawford has made more saves than the number of shots three of the other four have faced this season across all situations. He’s still sporting a near-.930 save percentage in spite of this.
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Penalty kill save percentage/shots faced per 60 minutes
Penalty kill low-, medium- and high-danger save percentages
Crawford: .959, .894, .795
Holtby: .934, .913, .735
Quick: .904, .896, .796
Luongo: .896, .825, .833
Schneider: .946, .842, .846
You want to talk about a guy who knows he’s the most important player on the ice when his team is down a man or two? Look at Crow’s numbers this season when the Blackhawks are shorthanded. The guy is a machine. Shorthanded opportunities are critical for a goaltender to shut down in order for his team to succeed, and Crow has done that in flying colors. Oh no, Crow’s high-danger save percentage on the PK is fourth among those five goalies. Yeah, and it’s six-tenths of a point higher than that of Holtby, but no one seems to be ignoring his Vezina candidacy over it.
Want to see what all of this looks like in graphic form?
Notice how Crow’s bubble looks like Violet Beauregard from “Willy Wonka” after she ate the piece of gum she was told not to? Yeah, that’s not a good thing. It means he’s seeing a lot of rubber, more than any of the other four goaltenders (as we’ve discussed). And yet, there’s his bubble, higher than those of Quick, Luongo and Schneider and further to the right than those three as well. And while it looks like Holtby’s bubble is much higher, when you glance at the numbers of the x and y axes, you’ll notice Crow is not far removed from the odds-on Vezina favorite.
One more statistic check. Let’s look at the primary backup goaltender for each of these five teams:
Scott Darling, Chicago: 4-3-2, .909 save percentage, 2.60 goals-allowed average, 0 shutouts
Philipp Grubauer, Washington: 5-3-1, .922 save percentage, 2.23 goals-allowed average, 0 shutouts
Jhonas Enroth, Los Angeles: 3-3-1, .930 save percentage, 2.18 goals-allowed average, 1 shutout
Al Montoya, Florida: 7-1-1, .937 save percentage, 1.71 goals-allowed average, 0 shutouts
Keith Kinkaid, New Jersey: 3-5-0, .903 save percentage, 2.61 goals-allowed average, 0 shutouts
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This increases the value of Crawford to the Blackhawks and Schneider to the Devils, and it should enhance both of their cases for the Vezina.
This goes beyond the stats, as well. One thing I honestly think contributes to Crow receiving less publicity for something like the Vezina is his lack of crazy saves. That may sound ridiculous, but think about it. How many times has he had to sprawl across the net to stop a shot, literally throw himself in the way of an oncoming puck, have one appendage moving one direction, one another direction and a third a totally different direction while making a save? It doesn’t happen often with Crow, and that’s because he’s positionally sound. That’s not to say these other guys aren’t, but I can more-readily remember instances of them doing the aforementioned things while making a save than I can with Crow.
Another thing Crow can’t seem to get past is the idea that he plays in front of some kind of lockdown defensive unit. Especially with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook being on this team, the attention for opposing teams scoring few goals has often been sent to them in the past, as well as guys like Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya, and maybe even Brent Sopel and Brian Campbell (though no one is giving those last two the Norris Trophy any time soon). Crow is seen by some outsiders as a product of a strong defensive system. While that’s certainly not fair at all times, especially not this season (how can any defense that actively utilizes Michal Rozsival and Rob Scuderi on the same pairing be “strong”?), it’s a tough stigma for Crow to shake.
In that same light, it’s also believed by many outsiders that bigger-name players carry this team, and that Crow’s job is to simply let in three to four goals a night while the Blackhawks’ “powerful offense” takes care of the rest. While this has come to fruition at times, where exactly is that train of thought coming from this season? While Kane is obviously having a banner season, a key storyline in Chicago up until this nine-game streak had been the second line doing all of the scoring — sometimes literally all of it. Crow has been responsible for more wins on the season than maybe anyone, save possibly Kane. But few people outside Chicago seem to realize this.
When you put all of this together, Crow has a very strong mid-season resume to be a Vezina favorite — maybe the second-best case in the league, if not the absolute best. Right now, it appears to be Holtby’s to lose simply based on his crazy-good statistics, but I think Crow is deserving of more consideration than he’s currently receiving. I think Corey Crawford is currently “the best at his position” at this point in the NHL season.