Other goalies gain on Vasilevskiy in Vezina race

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At the end of 2017, Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy looked like an absolute no-brainer to win his first Vezina Trophy. He already had 24 wins and a sparkling .934 save percentage, checking the boxes for basically every type of hockey person.

The gap has been closing for some time now, and while Vasilevskiy still stands as the best choice, the race could really heat up during the final quarter of the 2017-18 season.

For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to look at the top seven goalies in wins (28 or more) to get a quick viewpoint on how things are starting to get snug. You can dive deeper here, noting some reasonable dark horse candidates including Marc-Andre Fleury and John Gibson.

Vasilevskiy: 38 wins, 2.41 GAA, .925 save percentage
Pekka Rinne: 35 wins, 2.33 GAA, .927
Connor Hellebuyck: 34 W, 2.40 GAA, .922
Frederik Andersen: 32 W, 2.74 GAA, .920
Braden Holtby: 29 W, 3 GAA, .908
Devan Dubnyk: 28 W, 2.61 GAA, .917
Sergei Bobrovsky: 28 W, 2.44 GAA, .920

Right or not, voters still weigh wins fairly heavily, so it would probably be tough for “Bob” and others to catch Vasilevskiy. Rinne stands as the biggest threat right now, as he’s been a huge part of the Predators currently leading the Western Conference and Central Division.

Rinne is often the source of derision on Hockey Twitter, but it’s difficult to imagine too many harsh criticisms of his play this season (they’re out there, mind you). Consider this: many prefer even-strength save percentage as it ignores poor penalty killing that can submarine a goalie’s stats. Rinne is tied with Carter Hutton for the best even-strength save percentage among goalies who’ve played at least 30 games with an impressive .939 mark. Vasilevskiy isn’t far behind at .933, yet Rinne does edge him there.

The next month or so could conceivably swing things to Rinne’s favor, or possibly to someone else.

While the Predators continue on a hot streak, Vasilevskiy has stumbled lately, at least by his lofty standards. Via Hockey Reference’s split stats, Vasilevskiy went 29-9-2 with a .931 save percentage, 2.18 GAA, and seven shutouts in 41 games heading into the All-Star Break. In the 13 games since, he’s 9-3-1, but with a .911 save percentage, 3.11 GAA and zero shutouts.

There’s no shame in those post-break numbers, especially since he’s continuing to pile up wins. That, along with his continued health, is what the Lightning really care about.

That said, if Rinne finishes the season with more wins, more shutouts, and a better save percentage, who knows? The Finnish netminder’s already been piling up milestones this season, and with zero Vezina wins to his name, the 35-year-old might get a sentimental vote or two over Vasilevskiy, who’s just beginning his prime at 23. Such thoughts might be significant if the goalies end up with very similar stats.

To reiterate, Vasilevskiy still stands as the goalie who would justifiably win the Vezina if it were decided today. He leads the NHL in multiple categories, including when you go deeper. According to Hockey Reference, Vasilevskiy is tied for point shares alongside workhorse Frederik Andersen with 12, and he leads the league in Goals Saved Above Average at 22, edging second-place Rinne at 21.

Vasilevskiy is a big part of why the Lightning currently sit atop the NHL’s standings. In fact, his strong work is cited by many when they’re trying to argue against Nikita Kucherov‘s Hart credentials.

Still, the final stretch of the season could shrink his lead even more, whether it means Rinne grabbing edges or Connor Hellebuyck continuing his contract year for the ages by passing both of them with a red-hot March. It should be a fun race to watch, and maybe a palate cleanser if you want to mix things up after going blue in the face arguing semantics over “most valuable” in Hart debates.

Enjoy.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.