This is always a tough award to hand out. There’s a lot of subjectivity involved. Different teams play different styles and those styles directly impact a goaltenders statistics.
Grant Fuhr was one of the best goalies I've ever seen. Among goalies whose entire careers I've watched he is easily in my top five. Tem years in Edmonton and he never had a goals against average that was lower than three. His save percentage was never above .899. Grant Fuhr played on Oiler teams who thought defence was something other teams played against them.
Grant probably stopped more breakaways in his career than other goalies stopped shots.
He won five Stanley Cups with the Oilers. He was the only goalie in two huge Canada Cup wins in 1984 and 1987. He won a Vezina in 1987-88 with a 3.43 goals against average and .881 save percentage.
Here was a goalie who I think was one of the all-time greats and yet there’s no tangible, statistical way to demonstrate that it’s true.
I’ve been trying to see if there is some way to sort the value a goalie brings from the defence his team plays in front of him.
Who's the Leagues Best Goalie?
My first move was to split out all goalies who didn’t play at least a third of their teams games. Those guys don’t even have the confidence of their own team and are probably playing weak teams and their statistics will be skewed.
I then took a look at how many shots per game each team in the league gave up. I’m thinking this number gives you a rough idea of how good a particular teams defense is. The fewer shots, probably the fewer quality shots and scoring chances a team is giving up.
This likely impacts a goalies GAA and save percentage in a positive fashion. I next ranked players by minutes played which is an indication of how good the team thinks their goalie is ;mind you mostly in relation to whoever else they can put in.
Still it’s a pretty good indication of their belief in the quality of their goalie.That’s not a trivial consideration because teams live and die with these guys. I then took a look at number of wins, save percentage and GAA which are the traditional methods of evaluating a goalies’ ability.
My attempt to sort out how much is the goalie and how much is the team lead me to look at Nabokov and Toskala. They were formerly teammates and the 1,1a goalies of the San Jose Sharks.
On at least two occasions Toskala displaced Nabokov as the starter. The two goalies in San Jose were basically statistically identical. San Joseis a top notch defensive team that is usually among the league leaders in defensive categories. They’re the third leading team in the league in GAA and they gave up the fewest shots in the league this year.
This makes me think their defense is a good portion of what makes their GAA so low. The goaltending is probably good as well since their goalies are stopping a good portion of that league low shot total.
Toskala was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs who give up 30.3 shots per game. This placed them 17th in the league just south of the middle of the pack. They have the worst goals against average to go with that middling shot total so I’m inclined to believe that a good portion of their problem might be due to sub-par goaltending.
I then looked at Toskala and Nabokov this year. Toskala had a GAA of 3.26 and a save percentage of .891. He played approximately 62 percent of his teams minutes. Nabokov is generally considered to be a good to great goalie.
He has proven in the past to be very similar statistically when compared with Toskala, yet this year with San Josehe had a 2.48 GAA and .910 save percentage. His numbers are considerably better then Toskala’s all while playing more minutes.
Nabokov is averaging 25.1 saves for every 60 minutes he plays. Toskala is making 26.5 saves in the same time. He has to, he’s facing an extra 3.1 shots per game. Here are two goalies who at one time seemed interchangeable and now Nabokov “looks” to be a goal a game better then Toskala.
Is it true? There are other considerations. Toskala ended the year hurt. His confidence may be shaken playing for a worse defensive team which then effects his play. Still I have to believe Toskala and Nabokov aren’t that much different.
Playing in San Josemasks some goaltending deficiencies (as does playing in say...Detroit) and playing in Toronto exposes them. Toskala’s numbers have been impacted negatively by Toronto’s play and Nabokovs positively but they’re both probably very similar in talent.
If this is true how do I evaluate Vezina candidates? Certainly I’m reluctant now to include Nabokov in my list of top ten goalies in the league. I next have taken a look at how many shots per game every team in the league gives up.
I guessed that the teams in the middle don’t effect their goalies statistics all that much relative to other goalies. The teams giving up the fewest shots probably insulate their goalie from bad statistics and teams at the bottom probably are a drag on their goalies numbers, despite their ability.
The five teams in the NHL that give up the fewest shots per game this year are San Jose, Detroit, Columbus, LA, and Dallas. The five teams that give up the most shots in the league are the Florida Panthers, the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Edmonton.
Already I’ve got a warmer, fuzzier spot in my heart for Lehtonen, Vokoun, Biron, and Roloson. Suddenly I have to wonder about numbers put up by Steve Mason, Marty Turco, Ersberg, and Quick in LA, and Nabokov.
Osgood has the second worst save percentage and seventh worst goals against average among goalies who played at least a third of their teams games. This is while playing for a team that gives up the second fewest shots in the league and has a defense with Lidstrom, Rafalski, and Kronwall on it. Suddenly his bad numbers look much, much worse.
Some of these teams are so tight defensively they don’t need a great goalie to win or else skill in their goalie is irrelevant, it never becomes needed. I’m paraphrasing, but Ken Dryden in, I believe his book, The Game, said early in his career he needed to win games for his team.
At the end the team became so good he couldn’t lose a game no matter how badly he played. Osgood may be in the same place except he never really had that point in his career where Detroit needed him to win games.
Finally I came up with this list. The 10th best goalie in the league is still Martin Brodeur. Despite the ravages of age and injury he played on a team that gave up 29.5 shots per game ,13 th in the league. He played 37 percent of his team's minutes.
He wound up in the top 10 (barely) in GAA and save percentage and shut-outs. He was statistically almost identical to Clemmenson but he had more shutouts in fewer games. The ninth best goalie in the league is Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks.
Anaheim gave up a lot of shots 12th worst in the league. Hiller was fifth and sixth in GAA and save percentage. He played half his teams games and won a goaltending competition with a former Stanley Cup winner, JS Gigeure.
The eighth best goalie is Chris Mason of the St Louis Blues. St Louis gives up the seventh fewest shots in the league and yet their GAA is 12th best. He has a 2.41 GAA and .916 save percentage and six shut-outs all numbers that put him in the top ten in the league. He played 2/3’s of his teams games.
Next comes Pekka Rinne in Nashville. I’m leery of Nashville goalies just because they’ve produced Vokoun and then gotten rid of him, Chris Mason and dumped him, Dan Ellis and supplanted him. You’re left thinking that perhaps any goalie can succeed in Nashville.
Yet they give up 29.4 shots per game. It’s a very average number and those other goalies seemed to thrive elsewhere so apparently Nashvilleis just really good at finding goalies. He’s still in the top 10 in shut-outs, save pct and GAA all while playing 61 percent of his teams games and winning a goaltending battle with Dan Ellis. I have Pekka Rinne as No. 7.
Another goalie who works in tandem with a back up and has great numbers is Nikolai Khabibulin. He’s got the third best GAA in the league and a top ten save percentage. He’s benefitting from Chicago’s stingy defense but still he’s a quality tender. He makes 26.7 saves per game on a team that gives up 28.6 shots per game.
The fifth best goalie in the league is that other Nashville product Tomas Vokoun. He’s got the second highest save percentage in the league at the same time that he’s making the third most saves per game in the league. He’s also top ten in shut-outs and played 67.5 percent of his teams games.
He does this playing for a team that by a wide margin gives up the most shots per game in the league, 34.7.
The fourth best goaltender in the league is Roberto Luongo. He’s top 10 in GAA, save percentage and shut-outs. He’s making the same number of saves per game as Khabibulin.
The third best goalie in the league is young Steve Mason. He’s the first of my goalies to crack the top ten barrier in minutes played and he’s got the lead in shut-outs and is second in GAA. As well he’s a top 10 save percentage goalie.
He’s playing for a pretty good defensive team under Ken Hitchcock which makes me discount his numbers a bit. Pascal Leclaire had great numbers for the same team and last year lead the league in shut-outs. If Leclaire flounders in Ottawa I might have to reevaluate Mason though Ottawahas a pretty good defensive team too.
The second best goalie in the league is Tim Thomas. He’s the leading GAA goalie and save percentage goalie in the league. He’s top 10 in shut-outs and saves per game for a team that gives up a lot of shots. If he’d played more games he’d be a shoe in for the Vezina.
As it is my best goalie and Vezina trophy winner is Niklas Backstrom. He played 83 percent of his teams games, almost 14 games more then Thomas, while being third, fourth and third in GAA,save percentage and shut-outs.
He plays for a team that gives up almost the same number of shots per game as Boston. The illusion is that Minnesota has one of the best defensive teams in the league but they’re giving up 30.7 shots per game, 11th worst in the league.
Despite that they have the second best goals against average in the league. Bostonas a team has almost identical numbers but I chose Backstrom over Thomas because he does it while carrying a significantly greater workload.
For you Ranger fans out there Henrik Lundquist graded out as 11th best goalie in the league. Watching him in the playoffs I have to believe he’s better then that. I will perhaps revisit this after the Stanley Cup finals when I can incorporate the playoff numbers.
LEAGUE'S 10 BEST GOALIES
1/Niklas Backstrom - Minnesota Wild
2/Tim Thomas - Boston Bruins
3/Steve Mason- Columbus Blue Jackets
4/Roberto Luongo- Vancouver Canucks
5/Tomas Vokoun- Florida Panthers
6/Nikolai Khabibulin- Chicago Blackhawks
7/Pekka Rinne- Nashville Predators
8/Chris Mason- St Louis Blues
9/Jonas Hiller- Anaheim Ducks
10/Martin Brodeur- New Jersey Devils
11/Henrik Lundquist- New York Rangers