We’ve gotten used to elite goaltending in Washington — to the point that it might be taken for granted that Braden Holtby is in line for his second straight Vezina Trophy. This would be a big deal not just because it’s a prestigious trophy at an elite position, but also because it would make him the first goalie to win it back-to-back since Martin Brodeur did so in 2007 and 2008.
Even more impressive is that in the modern era of the trophy (since 1981) it’s only been won back-to-back by Brodeur, Patrick Roy, and Dominik Hasek — arguably the three greatest goalies of all time.
But by no means is it a slam dunk. Holtby’s toughest competition is Sergei Bobrovsky from the Columbus Blue Jackets and Devan Dubnyk of the Minnesota Wild. The race is close, with Holtby and Dubnyk currently neck-and-neck.
It’s important to remember that the Vezina Trophy is not voted on by a cadre of stat-obsessed hockey bloggers (i.e., nerds). It’s voted on by a panel of the 30 NHL general managers, and the conventional wisdom is that they tend to value the more traditional numbers like wins, goals against, and save percentage.
This may have contributed to Holtby’s mildly controversial win last year. His 66 games played and record-tying 48 wins were the type of workhorse performance that GMs value deeply (and really, we should too).
But many outside Washington and inside as well (including our pals at Japers’ Rink) pointed out that wins are a team-based statistic and Holtby played behind a very good team. The underlying numbers were not as clear-cut, and many said that Corey Crawford and Henrik Lundqvist were snubbed by not even getting nominated.
This year the numbers are a lot closer, and Holtby’s case is strong no matter how you slice it. Take a look.
These are generally comprised of games played, wins, goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts. We will give the GMs the benefit of the doubt and assume that they will at least consider five-on-five save percentage separately from all-situation save percentage.
It appears that the award is Dubnyk’s to lose. He has more wins, fewer goals allowed per game, and better save percentages. He trails in shutouts, but five is still very respectable.
When we see how these stats have changed over time, we see a different picture. Washington, Columbus, and Minnesota all have 24 games remaining — almost a third of a season. And recently, Holtby’s performance has remained steady as the other two have faltered.
Here is the 15-game rolling save percentage at five-on-five from the season to date, graphic courtesy of Corsica.Hockey.
Holtby has been a rock, while both Dubnyk and Bobrovsky have trended downwards. If this continues, the slim margins for Dubnyk that we see in the table above could easily evaporate. But what about…
While many hockey analysts will tell you that goalies are voodoo, there is still a lot of interesting work being done to look at which goalies perform the best and are most valuable to their team. The challenge here is to isolate the goaltender’s performance from the defensemen in front of them and include the controversial context that is shot quality.
We can start by looking at who has faced the most dangerous shots, and how they did with them (all stats at five-on-five).
|Goalie||Low Danger Sv%||Mid Danger Sv%||High Danger Sv%||Unblocked shots per 60||Expected unblocked Sv%|
So, Holtby is absolute money on low and mid-danger shots, but he falters a bit relative to Dubnyk in the high-danger shot attempts. Holtby is always saving the shots he “should,” and maybe missing a few of the spectacular saves. In other words, he hasn’t been letting in many of what we’d call bad goals.
But things get more interesting with expected save percentage. Emmanuel Perry of Corsica (whose work we leaned on heavily for this piece) has an expected goals model that takes into account shot type and quality, among other key factors. Read about it on Corsica.
That model shows that despite the Caps being a solid defensive team, Holtby is facing a significantly higher rate of expected goals against and a lower expected save percentage than Devan Dubnyk. Which leads us to the following picture as of February 20:
Goalie Rankings via xGS : 2017-02-20 pic.twitter.com/qxB9pq6EMX
— DTM About Heart (@DTMAboutHeart) February 20, 2017
Based on models of shot quality data, Holtby is actually second in the league when it comes to goals saved above what is expected (just behind Bobrovsky and well ahead of Dubnyk). This is apparent in Washington’s freakishly low goals-against rate and freakishly high goals-for percentage, by far the best in the league at five-on-five. While these advanced models might not be the be-all-end-all (and probably won’t factor into many GMs’ decisions), they are certainly food for thought.
So both the traditional and fancy stats paint a murky picture with Holtby and Dubnyk neck-and-neck in the Vezina race, but the trophy is not voted on purely as a matter of numbers. Perception comes into play, and right now the feeling is that the Capitals are in cruise control — just waiting for the playoffs to start, with everything left to prove. Business as usual.
Fair or not, the notion that the Caps are an unstoppable force of nature could hurt Holtby. As could Philipp Grubauer’s outstanding performance in backup, which might make it look like any old goalie can win behind the Caps. More likely is that Grubi is a stellar goalie in his own right, and Washington is a finely tuned goalie producing machine. He certainly deserves a share of the credit for why, as a team, the Caps allow goals at such a low rate compared to the rest of the league.
In any case, the final stretch of the season will heavily influence who gets this award. It’s not a foregone conclusion, and with the standings much closer than last year both teams have something left to play for. And while one Vezina was nice, there is no denying that a back-to-back win would put Holtby in truly elite territory. He’s certainly deserving of it.
Stats courtesy of Corsica.Hockey.
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