NHL.com's midseason edition of Trophy Trackers attempts to project winners of the major individual awards. Today we predict the winner of the Vezina Trophy, an annual award given to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at this position as voted by the general managers of all NHL clubs.
The goaltending position can be a volatile one in any season, but as NHL.com Senior Writer Dan Rosen wrote, the 2013-14 campaign has been a particularly precarious one for "No. 1" goalies.
Not only have backups been pressed into duty or earned more playing time, goaltending depth beyond the two NHL players has been critical in several cities. Standout work from breakout stars, combined with inconsistent play from more established ones, has brought new names into the conversation for the Vezina Trophy.
The goalie who won the award in 2013 (Sergei Bobrovsky) is tied for 28th in save percentage among qualified goalies and has missed time with an injury. The goalie who won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2012 (Jonathan Quick) is also tied for 28th in save percentage and has missed significant time with injury.
The player who won the Vezina in 2012 (Henrik Lundqvist) is 34th in save percentage and has been losing starts of late to an undrafted free agent who played in college at the University of Alabama-Huntsville and had zero games of League experience before this season.
There are some No. 1 goaltenders who have continued to set the standard at the position this season, including the resurgence of one of the other active Vezina winners. The leader at the midway point of the season, though, is the same player who was out in front at the three-quarters pole.
Among the goaltenders with 30-plus starts, Tuukka Rask is second in save percentage at .930 and in goals-against average at 2.05, and tied for the League lead in shutouts with four. The Boston Bruins have been short some key players with injuries, and the loss of defenseman Dennis Seidenberg for the season could end up having a big effect on Rask's statistics and by proxy the race for the Vezina.
Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning -- If voting for this award is based solely on statistics, then Rask over Bishop or Bishop over Rask could fluctuate every few days. It is that close. Bishop has been an amazing story this season, expected to battle with Anders Lindback for playing time with the Lightning but instead becoming a legitimate Vezina contender and the backbone of one of the surprising teams in the League.
He's just ahead of Rask in save percentage (.935) and goals against average (1.86), while the Bruins' goaltender has three more starts and has played about 160 more minutes. They're pretty much deadlocked at even strength, though Bishop has been better while his team is shorthanded.
Does Rask have a better team in front of him? Sure. Do people become too obsessed with that in an argument about who the better/more deserving player is for an individual award like the Vezina Trophy? Yes.
Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres -- Miller's .927 save percentage ranks him tied for fourth among goalies with at least 30 starts. There's an argument for Carey Price to be the third goalie on this list and maybe Semyon Varlamov or Josh Harding as well.
What Miller has done this season is remarkable and deserves to be recognized. His Buffalo Sabres have been vastly overmatched most nights, and Miller has faced a bombardment of quality scoring chances in nearly every game he's played in. He's easily leading the League in shots faced per game, and is nearly the leader in total saves (five behind Mike Smith) despite five fewer starts than the Phoenix Coyotes' goalie.
Harding's story goes beyond hockey, but he has struggled to stay in the net because of issues related to his multiple sclerosis. Price has slightly better numbers. Miller has been exceptional, despite knowing every night he's likely to see far more scoring chances and far more shots on goal than a team should ask its goaltender to deal with.
All Miller has done is excel, keeping the Sabres in games they had no business being in while pushing himself back to the forefront of the United States' plans for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.