August 8, 2020

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Opinion

It's early, but Hellebuyck looks like a lock for a Vezina nod

Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has returned to his Vezina-nominated form from two seasons ago. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has returned to his Vezina-nominated form from two seasons ago. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/12/2019 (245 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Vezina Trophy is notoriously one of the most difficult NHL awards to get right when it comes to determining who should be the winner.

Goaltending is tough to evaluate at the best of times, and with just 31 busy NHL general managers voting on the award — GMs who would probably admit they struggle to evaluate their goaltending — often the awards seems to go to whoever has the best save percentage or, sadly, the most wins.

Having said that, we’re in a better spot now than when the Vezina would always go to the goaltender with the lowest goals-against average, but we can still greatly increase our understanding of the position.

So with that in mind, even if it’s way too early, let’s break down the best goaltenders in the NHL so far this season and what makes them the best.

One thing we have access to now is the ability to see the expected conversion rates on particular shots on goal. There are many factors that influence how likely a shot is to beat a goaltender, but the easiest to control for is shot location.

The two goaltenders are incredibly tight in the race at this point, and who has the edge overall will likely vary game by game. – Berkshire, on the two goaltenders now most in the conversation for the Vezina ‐ Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck and Arizona's Darcy Kuemper

This season, shots from the inner slot at even-strength are beating goaltenders 19.95 per cent of the time, whereas shots from the high slot are beating goalies 12.09 per cent of the time. Perimeter shots beat goalies just 2.62 per cent of the time. Knowing that information, obviously, any team’s strategy is going to be highly focused on getting to the slot and keeping the opponent out of theirs. Not all teams are capable of that.

Some teams will obviously defend better than others, meaning some goaltenders face significantly more difficult situations. Looking at where each goaltender faces shots from, we can calculate the expected result for a league-average goaltender on their own shots.

Actual save percentage minus expected save percentage equals delta save percentage, which shows how much better or worse they have been than expected.

Save percentage on its own won’t be perfect though, because some goaltenders face heavier workloads as well, so we can multiply their delta save percentage by the shots they’ve faced and see how many total goals they have saved above average this season. So, among goaltenders who have played 600 or more minutes at even-strength this season, who stands out?

Only two goaltenders have saved their teams more than 10 goals at even-strength above expectations this year, and one of them happens to be Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck. Is there any wonder why Paul Maurice credited Hellebuyck, above all, as the reason for the Jets’ success this season?

The other goaltender keeping in lockstep with Hellebuyck is Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper, who is following up a shocking Vezina-worthy season that no one in their right mind expected with yet another one.

Following those two leaders, the next group hanging in there consists of Semyon Varlamov, Tuukka Rask, Robin Lehner, Phillipp Grubauer, Jordan Binnington and Linus Ullmark. It’s not necessarily the names you would expect to be leading the Vezina conversation, but those are the goalies who have out-performed their circumstances to the highest degree, so far.

But even-strength isn’t everything, right? Just 22.2 per cent of all shots taken in the NHL so far this year have been in situations outside of five-on-five hockey, but while goaltenders have stopped 91.88 per cent of all even-strength shots, in all other situations they’ve stopped just 87.85 per cent of them.

This means that while just over 22 per cent of the shots occur beyond five-on-five hockey, almost 30 per cent of all goals do.

With that in mind, we can adjust for the average save percentages in different situations using those same location breakdowns and then see which goaltenders have performed the best in all situations.

Including special teams scenarios, Kuemper jumps into the lead in delta save percentage over Hellebuyck, but the Jet maintains a higher goals saved above average because of his heavier workload. The two goaltenders are incredibly tight in the race at this point, and who has the edge overall will likely vary game by game.

Interestingly, adding special teams has also separated the previous pack of six goaltenders, with three of them clearly performing significantly better overall. Binnington has held together the Stanley Cup champions and made their record look far better than their uninspiring play early this season, while Rask has added spectacular goaltending to utter dominance by the Boston Bruins, who’ve left the rest of the league in their dust.

Lehner, meanwhile, has been incredible as a platoon option in Chicago, one of the league’s worst defensive teams. Both he and Cory Crawford have been great at even-strength, but while Crawford has been picked apart in other situations, Lehner has excelled.

Goaltenders will get hot and cold over the course of a season, so by the end of the year these graphs will likely look much different than they do now, but at the moment it’s looking like Hellebuyck is set to add his name to the trophy nominee list for the second time in his young career.

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

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