Takin' a TO with BT: Niklas Backstrom's Well-Deserved Vezina Nomination

xx yySenior Writer IApril 27, 2009

NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 20:  Niklas Backstrom #32 of the Minnesota Wild sits in the net after allowing a goal by Brian Gionta #14 of the New Jersey Devils on March 20, 2009 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Trophies in professional sports are little more than a popularity contest.

So often it's the big-name athlete in the big-money market garnering all the attention.

In many cases, it's well deserved. After all, no player would garner that much attention for a prominent award if they weren't doing something right; be it winning games, scoring points, or making those around them better.

Lately, though, the big argument has centered around the playoffs: Is it possible to have a major award winner play for a team that doesn't make the playoffs? Albert Pujols never thought so, but maybe last year changed his mind.

The fact is, there's a reason that the playoffs have their own MVP awards and trophies. That's because they are the second season and have made an institution of their own silverware.

A player's performance in trying (or succeeding) to get his team into the playoffs should have an impact on his standing for acknowledgement. Once the playoffs begin, though, all bets are off.

That's why what Niklas Backstom has done this season is so impressive.

Despite injuries to the team's most gifted offensive players in Mikko Koivu and Marian Gaborik and a depleted defensive core, Backstrom stood on his head while few people took notice right away.

After all, when you hear the name "Niklas Backstrom," many immediately assume it's the Swedish installment turning heads over in Washington.

But over his career, Backstrom has been one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. He's never posted a save percentage below .920, his goals-against average has ranged from 1.97 to 2.33, and his winning percentage is just 0.06 percent behind Martin Brodeur (0.6 to 0.54) and just 0.03 behind Roberto Luongo in that timeframe.

While the stats can be questioned (Brodeur, Luongo, and Nabokov have each played more games than Backstrom in that timeframe, skewing them slightly), the impact of Finland's latest, greatest tender has been felt, resulting in the first non-playoff bound nomination since Luongo of the Florida Panthers in 2003-04.

But, while Backstrom is making inroads for those who missed out on the playoffs this year, the fall of the big three (Brodeur, Luongo, and Nabokov all missed time due to injury this season) opened the door for two other fresh faces to take to the stage.

In talking about what players do to get their teams to the postseason counting for the awards, there's no looking past Steve Mason or Tim Thomas.

Thomas' athletic style and back-breaking (literally) saves brought fans of opposing teams to their feet every night, whether it was a quick glove save to start a game, or a near-ACL-popping flopper to stop a shot in the fifth round of a shootout.

The veteran of four different leagues (and participant in three others) posted a minuscule 2.10 goals-against average and a tight .933 save percentage, playing in just 54 games for the East-leading Bruins.

Mason's story has been just as well documented. As the only goalie in the league to reach double digits in shutouts this season (10), the rookie out of London and Kitchener in the OHL was a world-beater. He threw the Columbus Blue Jackets on his back, carrying them to the playoffs into a first-round meeting with the defending champion Detroit Red Wings.

If he were able to take home both the Calder and Vezina Trophies, Mason would be just the fifth goalie to ever do so.

There lies Backstrom's main competition, though. With the allure of the playoffs as strong as ever for the voters, both Thomas and Mason carried unlikely teams into the postseason picture, both with magical seasons.

Backstrom, meanwhile, was only able to get the Wild into ninth place on the strength of his play, helping Minnesota to allow only the second-most goals in the league (200, second to Thomas and the Bruins' 196).

Sometimes it takes a breakout season for someone to get their due, while sometimes it takes a couple of injuries to the top competition.

Both were there for Backstrom this year, but the two breakout seasons of Mason and Thomas may be too much to combat in the end.

But maybe Backstrom has done more than that. Maybe he's proven that, while it makes it hard to win, a player can still get recognition without making the playoffs.

The rarity of such a feat is a win in and of itself.

Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile, or you can e-mail him at bryanthiel74@hotmail.com. You can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.