You could argue that every goalie is the MVP of their team based on how much they can impact the result of a game. A great goalie can cover up his team’s weaknesses while a bad goalie can sink an otherwise great team.
Every year a group of goalies set themselves apart as the elite in their field and this season, more than in other years, there are some fresh faces in the mix.
The NHL awards show in Las Vegas has been cancelled and there’s been no announcement about when the hardware will be handed out while the world continues to deal with the COVID-19 virus. Still, here is where the race for the Vezina Trophy stood before the season was suspended.
The cream of the crop. All three of these goalies are deserving of the Vezina and some could even warrant Hart Trophy consideration too.
Hellebuyck has been a rock for the Jets all season long. With massive turnover on the blue line and backup Laurent Brossoit putting up disappointing numbers, Hellebuyck is easily the most important reason for why the Jets are in a playoff spot. His 56 starts and 31 wins are both second in the NHL and his six shutouts lead the way. And he’s doing it all despite facing more high danger shots than any other goalie, per Natural Stat Trick.
Rask, who won this award in 2014, has put together another fantastic season for the Bruins, the only team to reach 100 points so far this season. He continues to share the net with Jaroslav Halak as a tactic to keep fresh for the playoffs, but Rask has been nearly unbeatable in his 41 starts. The 33-year-old has a 26-8-6 record this season, a league-leading .929 save percentage (among goalies with at least 30 starts) and his 2.12 goals-against average is far and away the best in the league. Rask also leads the league with a tiny 1.89 expected goals against rate, per Natural Stat Trick.
Vasilevskiy, the reigning champion, made a strong push to repeat in the second half after a slow start. When the calendar flipped to 2020, he had a 17-9-2 record and ranked 40th with a .906 save percentage. However, in 2020 he upped his save percentage to .917 and collected 18 wins in 24 games, including a stretch where he earned his team at least a point in 21 straight games. After a season where everything went right, the Lightning have needed to lean on Vasilevskiy more this time around and he’s carried them to the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
All four goalies in this group have had great seasons but might not have played in enough games to get the votes needed for the Vezina.
Francouz, a 29-year-old in his first full season in the NHL, has stood on his head all year, especially when Colorado Avalanche starter Philipp Grubauer has been injured. In 31 starts, Francouz has a 21-7-4 record and he is among the league leaders with a .923 save percentage and 2.43 goals-against average. While he is too old to be considered a rookie, the Avalanche needed Francouz to help fill the void Semyon Varlamov left and he’s done more than succeed in that role in his first full NHL season.
Khudobin is actually Ben Bishop‘s backup but the two share the net and he’s been stellar in his limited ice time. His 30 games might not be enough for some voters but among goalies who’ve made at least that many appearances, he ranks first in save percentage (.930) and second in goals-against average (2.22). “Khudobin’s been unbelievable this year,” Bishop told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman recently. “It’s a lot of fun playing with him.”
Kuemper doesn’t draw a lot of attention by playing in Arizona, but the Coyotes netminder was having an all-star level campaign before he suffered a serious lower-body injury just before Christmas. That injury kept him out of the lineup for two months and while he did return before the season was suspended, he’s still only appeared in 29 games. However, what he’s done in those games has been impressive. Kuemper ranks third with a .928 save percentage and is tied with Khudobin with a 2.22 goals-against average, to go along with 16 wins and two shutouts.
Merzlikins, a 25-year-old rookie from Latvia, was limited in games because he started the season as a backup. But when starter Joonas Korpisalo was forced to miss 24 games with a knee injury, Merzlikins seized the net in Columbus. In 31 starts this season, Merzlikins has posted a 13-9-8 record with a .923 save percentage and 2.35 goals-against average, both fourth-best in the league. He’s also collected five shutouts, including twice collecting two shutouts in consecutive starts. While the sample size might not be enough for Vezina voters, Merzlikins could still be a candidate for rookie of the year.
While this final group of goalies were very important to their teams, they likely weren’t good enough when compared to their peers to get Vezina votes this year.
The Flyers were one of the biggest surprises of the season and the play of Hart, still only 21, was a big reason why. Since Feb. 1, the Flyers went 14-4-0, tied with the Bruins for best in the league, and putting them in a race with Washington for top in the Metro. Hart stated 11 of those games, posting a 9-2-0 record with a .934 save percentage and 1.93 goals-against average. A slow first half to the season will keep Hart out of the Vezina conversation this year but his career is just getting started and the future is very bright. “(Hart) in his first full year in the NHL has been really solid and gives us confidence,” teammate Scott Laughton told Friedman recently.
Jarry won the backup job in Pittsburgh out of training camp and by January was playing in the NHL All-Star game. The 24-year-old in his first full season helped keep the Penguins afloat early when Matt Murray was struggling, collecting 13 wins in 16 starts and posting a league-leading .938 save percentage in the 2019 half of the season. His second half didn’t go as well and Murray began to earn more starts, but the Penguins will enter the playoffs with a strong two-goalie tandem.
Markstrom, 30, chose a good time to have a career year with his contract set to expire in the off-season. In his third season as the primary starter in Vancouver, Markstrom posted a career-high .918 save percentage and was on pace to set a new career-high in wins. However, his last game came on Feb. 22 after he suffered a lower-body injury that needed surgery. The Canucks posted a 3-5-0 record after the injury and fell out of a playoff spot by the time the league shutdown, further proving how valuable Markstrom is to his team.