If I would have asked whether Brian Elliott was a potential Vezina Trophy winner before the season began, I would have received one of two responses: "Who’s Brian Elliott?" or "He was one of the worst goalies in the league last year, why would you even ask such a question?"
Well unless you’ve been living under a rock, you should now know who Brian Elliott is and what he has accomplished so far this season, considering his performance between the pipes is one of the biggest stories in the NHL this year.
Elliott, who was drafted by Ottawa in the ninth round (291st overall) in 2003, spent the better part of three seasons with the Senators before being traded away by the club in February, after going 13-19-8 with a 3.19 goals against average, and a .894 save percentage in his first 43 games of the season. He finished up the campaign as a backup with Colorado, where he posted even more horrific numbers—going 2-8-1 with a 3.83 goals against average and a .891 save percentage.
The struggling goaltender was released by the Avalanche in the offseason, and unsure if he would ever land a job in the NHL again, was signed by the St. Louis Blues to a one-year contract worth $600,000.
With Jaroslav Halak already a designated starter, Elliott was forced to compete fiercely in the preseason for the backup position against Ben Bishop, and after posting nearly identical statistics, the Blues went with Elliott because he edged Bishop in NHL experience. That may go down as the best managerial decision of the year.
It is a bizarre scenario which no one could have predicted, but Brian Elliott has been the best goalie in the NHL this season.
After Halak started the season off slow, Elliott took hold of the reigns and is the key reason why the Blues have had their first sustained success in years.
In 16 starts, he is 13-3-0 with a 1.52 goals against average, a .944 save percentage and four shutouts. He leads all goalies in goals against average, save percentage, win percentage (.765), is tied for the league lead in shutouts, and ranks 11th in wins despite playing at least five fewer games than everyone ahead of him.
More remarkably, he is the first goalie since Frank Brimsek in the 1938-39 season to allow no more than two goals in each of his first 11 starts, and has only allowed more than two goals on two occasions since reaching that mark.
The low-scoring St. Louis squad miraculously sits in ninth place in the league and fifth in the Western Conference, and they can thank Brian Elliott for that.
After examining his stats and understanding how the Blues’ success can almost be directly attributed to his play, there should be no question that at this point in the season, no goalie has been more valuable than Brian Elliott.
And assuming he stays on this record-setting pace, the Vezina Trophy (for most valuable goaltender) should be placed in his hands without a second thought come awards time.
He should win it, but that doesn’t mean he will win it.
Let's break this down: First off, the chances of Elliott having similar stats at season’s end are minimal to none.
Second, even if Elliott’s final numbers are phenomenal, the NHL Awards are mostly a popularity contest, and even with brilliant totals, it's rare for a player who has been somewhat anonymous for awhile—or who does not play on a powerhouse team—to pick up well-deserved hardware.
Third, Elliott and Halak are most likely going to be a tandem goaltending unit for the rest of the season, each playing around the same amount of games. The Vezina almost always goes to bonafide starters.
Goalies are the most streaky and inconsistent players in hockey. For five games they play like superstars, the next five they play like minor leaguers.
It’s entirely possible that Brian Elliott is riding the best goaltending streak of his life, and will cool off soon and resume being a mediocre backup.
I thought that was the case seven games in, but considering he has now played 17 games and still has not cooled off, I’m becoming more optimistic that he’s a changed goalie. He may finish with respectable numbers, but to finish the season with the numbers he currently possesses would be a miracle.
If Elliott does stay on pace for the rest of the season, he would finish with a 32-7-0 record, 1.52 goals against average, .944 save percentage and nine shutouts in 41 games. He would set new single-season records in both goals against average and save percentage, and his win percentage would be one of the highest of all time.
You’d think those numbers would solidify Elliott a spot on the Vezina Trophy and possibly the Hart Trophy, but you’d be wrong.
In 2004, then unknown goalie Miikka Kiprusoff burst onto the scene by setting the record for the lowest single-season goals against average of the modern age (which still stands), and he also recorded the second-highest single-season save percentage of all-time. He finished second to Martin Brodeur in Vezina voting, not because Brodeur had better stats, but because of popularity and games played (Brodeur played 75, Kiprusoff played 38).
In 2003, another relatively unknown goalkeeper at the time, Marty Turco, had a monster of a season, which saw him set the record for the lowest goals against average of the modern era, and the second highest save percentage of all-time (which were both surpassed the next year by Kiprusoff).
He never took home a Vezina that year. Brodeur did, because he was well-known and he played nearly 20 more games.
In 1999, a little goalie named Ron Tugnutt had one of the best single-season goaltending performances in NHL history. He went 22-10-8 with a 1.79 goals against average and a .925 save percentage in 43 games.
That was the same year in which Dominik Hasek had one of his most dominant seasons and was looking for his fifth Vezina. Hasek had a better save percentage than Tugnutt, but his goals against average was worse, so it should have been a close race.
Hasek won the Vezina with 73 votes while Tugnutt finished in fifth place with 13.
No matter how well a goalie performs in a season, he will almost never win the Vezina Trophy unless he plays at least 75 percent of his team’s games and has been well-known for a few years prior.
There have been a few exceptions to this rule (Billy Smith, Jim Carey, Ron Hextall), but since 1996, no one has won based purely on skill. Popularity and games played have been the unofficial deciding factors for Vezina winners for the past 15 years.
Brian Elliott may set records, he may rewrite the history books, he may lead the Blues to a President’s Trophy, and he may even lead them to a Stanley Cup.
But as long as he’s competing against Tim Thomas, Henrik Lundqvist or Roberto Luongo, and only playing half of his team’s games, a Vezina Trophy may just be the toughest thing to procure.
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