Thomas Belongs in Vezina Conversation

by abournenesn

Apr 12, 2009

Now, where’s Joe Castiglione when you really need him? Mike Milbury and I agree on something. Can you believe it?

A columnist for wrote an article about the Vezina Trophy candidates. Tim Thomas
got one throwaway line at the end, dismissed because he had played (at
the time of that writing) only 52 games. Where did that cutoff come
from? I thought Milbury was going to blow a gasket. I’m right there
with him.

There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. Hartford resident (and no doubt woulda-been-a-stinkin’-Whale-fan) Mark Twain copped the line from 19th century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli.
We can arrange whatever truths we choose with carefully fashioned
numbers. I get the most help from stats when I use them not to attempt
to prove a theory absolutely, but rather to display a trend. There are
very, very few single statistics that can be used as binary factors,
yes-or-no decision-makers on eligibility for an award.

While Tim Thomas has not played as many games as the goalies
broadly suggested should be nominated for the Vezina Trophy, Thomas’
numbers actually do stand up. We have seen a lot of excellent hockey
this past winter, and we have seen every team in person at least once.
To the pair of eyes attached to the hands writing this opinion, the
best half-dozen goalies in the NHL are Tim Thomas, Steve Mason (hello, Calder), Niklas Backstrom (not to be confused with Nicklas Backstrom — the guy playing center in D.C. has a “c” in his name), Evgeni Nabokov, Cam Ward and Miikka Kiprusoff.

First, let’s sort out some of their greatest strengths and see some
trends.  Here is a table of stats (through April 11) that display games
played (GP), wins (W), wins per games played (W/gp), goals-against
average (GAA), save percentage (SPct), times allowing more than three
goals (X>3), percentage of games played allowing more than three
goals (%>3), times allowing fewer than three goals (X<3) and
percentage of games played allowing fewer than three goals (%<3).

  GP W W/GP GAA SPct X>3 %>3 X<3 %<3
Thomas 53 35 66.0% 2.10 .933 8 15.1% 32 60.4%
Mason 61 33 54.1 2.29 .916 13 21.3 32 54.2
Backstrom 71 37 52.1 2.33 .923 9 12.7 40 57.1
Nabokov 62 41 66.1 2.44 .910 17 27.4 36 59.0
Ward 68 39 57.3 2.44 .916 16 23.5 40 58.8
Kiprusoff 76 45 59.2 2.84 .903 23 30.3 34 45.3
League leaders are in bold.

Attention,  “Games played” is the only meaningful category
in which Thomas is not in the top 10 in the league.  By the way, is the Web site run by the league that left last year’s winning
All-Star goalie (a guy who led his team to the ’08 playoffs and nearly
pulled off a first-round upset of the top seed) off this season’s
All-Star ballot. So I’m sure Thomas is not surprised at the continuing
lack of respect he gets for doing what he does.

Kiprusoff leads in games played. And the law of diminishing returns
is playing out pretty vividly there. He is a distant last-place
finisher in five of the categories on the above table.

Kiprusoff leads in wins. Thomas is No. 5 in this group, No. 6 in the league.

Nabokov leads in wins per games played, at 66.1 percent. Thomas is No. 2.

Thomas leads in goals-against average.

Thomas leads in save percentage.

Now some next-level stuff. All teams, on average, score 2.85 goals
per game.  Since a team cannot score .85 of a goal, you need to round
the number to understand the trend.

The fulcrum on which winning an NHL game teeters and totters is
either to score more than three goals or to allow fewer than three
goals. Game notes for many teams point out this three-goal pivot point.
It is just about prohibitive in terms of a trend. Allow fewer than
three, win way more than you lose. Score more than three, win almost
every time.

It’s the three-goal thing that can help reveal the guys who are the
best at validating the hockey coach’s cliché, “He gives us a chance to
win every night.”

Thomas has allowed more than three goals the fewest times.

Backstrom leads the league in the lowest percentage of games
allowing more than three goals. Thomas is second. Note that Thomas’
percentage is significantly lower than Nabokov’s and about half of

Backstrom and Ward are tied for the most times allowing fewer than
three goals. Thomas is tied for fifth on this list with Mason.

Thomas leads in percentage of games allowing fewer than three
goals.  How many blowout losses did the Bruins suffer this season? You
can count ‘em on fewer fingers than Mordecai Brown had on his pitching
hand. Thomas gave the Bruins a chance to win, every night.

As the head coaches of these goalies have differing philosophies,
each team has unique expectations and standards of excellence. That
creates the biggest variable when comparing these excellent athletes
and picking just one as the best.

Any award vote should come from personal observation first,
television used only as a secondary source, and statistics as
background and support. No doubt, the stats have to be there — but (and
you’ve heard Brick and me say this a bunch) it isn’t how many saves you
make, it’s when you make ‘em.

What makes a goalie the greatest among his peers is the human
element, not some formula or a bunch of numbers. How did he play when
the game was on the line? How did he lift the team in front of him to a
level otherwise impossible to reach?

Minnesota missed the playoffs. Niklas Backstrom did his best, but he
was unable to raise his team’s game even into the top half of his

Cam Ward has been sensational down the stretch but was very inconsistent early in the season. 

Miikka Kiprusoff looks cooked: too many games played, and Calgary
has lost a lot of momentum late. Heresy not to include the wins leader?
So be it.

Those three guys don’t make my list.

Here would be my three finalists:

• Evgeni Nabokov. His consistency has been
excellent, and his timely saves solidified the Sharks’ confidence as
they were running away with their division and conference early in the
season — San Jose is going to go wire to wire in first place, and it
started with him.

• Tim Thomas. The Bruins “compete level” begins
with the man behind the mask. Thomas’ ability to make the incredible
save at the big moment has been propellant for Boston’s rise to the top
of the East. If you’re a reader, you can fill in the blanks
with your own superlatives.

• Steve Mason. Here’s the exception to the
time-tested rule that goalies have to spend a significant
apprenticeship in the AHL or Europe before they can take over as true
No. 1’s. He sees the game as well as most goalies 10 years his senior,
and the 20-year-old is ridiculous when he’s “on.” Ten shutouts? You’ve
got to be kidding me. No Mason, no first playoffs for Columbus.

There’s no doubt that my excessive exposure to Thomas is a factor,
and that my lack of exposure to Nabokov also creates a prejudice. (I
really, really love hockey, but I do need to sleep occasionally, and
the Sharks usually drop the puck after 10 p.m. and don’t end ‘til well
after midnight.) I also feel that, because of this niggling
inconvenience called sleep and the distorted population distribution of
hockey followers on this continent, West Coast players have been
routinely and continually short-changed when it comes to winning
post-season individual awards. Sadly, I’m probably adding another few
grains of sand to that beach.

I’m just telling you about what I have seen — not voting by numbers,
but by what I have observed — and mostly with my own eyes, not on TV. 


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