Capitals goaltender Olie Kolzig captured the Vezina Trophy in 1999-00, the season in which he established career highs in games played (73), minutes (4371), wins (41). Some would argue that he has had better seasons before or since that Vezina campaign, and at least one prominent member of the media recently made a case for Kolzig as a Vezina candidate this season.
Former NHL netminder Kelly Hrudey is now a television analyst for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Each Saturday night during an intermission of the second game of the Hockey Night in Canada doubleheader, Hrudey holds court on a variety of hockey related topics. In his Dec. 3 segment, Hrudey noted how well Kolzig has played for the Capitals this season and mentioned him as a legitimate candidate for the 2005-06 Vezina Trophy.
His longtime teammates concur with that assessment.
“I’m biased because I see him every night," admits Caps' captain Jeff Halpern
, "but I don’t know who is a better goalie, especially for our team. I think we have a good team but he is a big part of that. If he is not back there saving us when we break down and giving us the confidence to be aggressive in the other team’s end ... Not only is he playing well but he is making the level of our team that much better.
"I think that’s the best thing a goalie can do is raise the [level of play of the] players around him. I think he is unbelievable right now. It’s the best I have seen him play including in 1999-00 when he won the Vezina. This is way far and beyond what he was doing back then. Everything is square to the puck, he looks big in the net; he’s controlling rebounds. All the way around he looks unbelievable."
"The way he has played has been unbelievable compared to other teams and what they have in front of them," says defenseman Brendan Witt. "He has kept us in a lot of games."
The 30 NHL general managers vote for the Vezina Trophy at the conclusion of each regular season. Fairly or unfairly, statistics play a large role in how the votes are cast. Prior to the 1981-82 season, the Vezina was awarded to the goaltender(s) of the team allowing the fewest number of goals during the regular season. Since then, the league’s GMs have voted for the winner. Only once since the 1981-82 season has the Vezina gone to a goaltender with fewer than 30 wins. That was more than two decades ago, when Buffalo Sabres rookie Tom Barrasso won the Vezina with a 26-12-3 record.
Wins, goals against average and save percentage are the numbers the GMs will be looking at, and Kolzig figures to come up short in those areas, largely because he is playing behind a young and inexperienced team that is in the process of rebuilding. The numbers can't begin to tell the story.
"I think you have to be watching the games," says Caps coach Glen Hanlon. "If you had watched us play 82 games, at the end of the season, how could you not vote for him?"
Kolzig himself has acknowledged that statistics are worthless in evaluating his performance this season.
“I went into this year [with the mindset] to just have fun,” says the 35-year-old netminder. “Just give the guys the opportunity to win the game every night; that’s all you can ask for. In the past you’d set goals for yourself: ‘I want to have a 2.3 goals against average, a .910 save percentage and 30 wins or whatever.’ It’s kind of tough to do that now. You basically just take the stats and throw them out the window. You just concentrate on going out, making the save at the right time and giving the guys a chance to win. It just frees up a lot more in your head and as a result you play better.”
When Kolzig won his Vezina Trophy in 2000, there were an average of 5.49 goals scored per NHL game. His goals against average of 2.24 was seventh in the league and well below the league average of 2.55. Kolzig’s .917 save percentage was fifth in the league and above the league average of .908.
The NHL has not yet released figures from this season past the end of October. But through the first 174 league games played, encompassing the entire month of October, an average of 6.4 goals per game had been scored. That represented a 27% increase over the 5.0 goals per game scored in the same period in 2003-04. Shots on goal were also up by 10% over the same span.
Kolzig’s own goals against average (3.35) is up a mere 16% over his 2.89 figure from 2003-04. Despite seeing a greater number of shots on goal (34.7 per contest) than he did in 2003-04 (31.4), his save percentage has dipped only slightly from .908 in ’03-04 to .904 this season.
Hanlon recently made a case for Kolzig as the league’s MVP, and the statement is not a hyperbolic one.
“He is the best goalie in the world,” said Hanlon when asked about Kolzig after a recent Washington game. “We love having him and we’re lucky to have him. He just comes in and does a great job for us. He always gives us a chance to win.
"He has played great for us ever since I have been here. No matter how much we appreciate him, we don’t appreciate him enough."
Numbers can be tricky, but a case can be made that Kolzig is more valuable to the 2005-06 Washington Capitals than he was to the 1999-00 Caps when he won the Vezina.
During his Vezina campaign, Kolzig saw 30 or more shots in a game just 15 times in those 73 contests. He faced upwards of 40 shots only once. Thus far this season in 19 appearances in the nets, Kolzig has already endured 13 nights with 30 or more shots and six games with 40 or more missiles launched in his direction.
You could argue that several goaltenders could have put up similar numbers to Kolzig playing behind the 1999-00 team. Backup Craig Billington posted a respectable 2.75 GAA and a .910 save percentage for Washington in 1999-00. But true to his stated goal, Kolzig has kept the Caps in virtually every game this season. When he is not in the nets, Washington backups have combined to go 1-6 (Kolzig’s record is 8-9) with a 4.88 GAA and an .862 save percentage. It’s clear that the Caps are a different team with Kolzig behind them in 2005-06.
“The coaching staff has done a terrific job of putting in a system that is going to benefit our team,” says Kolzig. “We started out with a system at the beginning of the season that was probably a little too complicated for some of the guys in here, so we switched right before that Buffalo game in Rochester [on Oct. 26]. I don’t think our record indicates much of an improvement but we are not getting outshot 45-13 anymore. We are outshooting teams some nights now, we are limiting scoring chances and we are creating more scoring chances on our side. Our opportunities to win games are more abundant now than they were for the first three months of the season.”
Kolzig’s record does indicate the improvement since Hanlon and Co. installed the team’s new system in late October. Including that Buffalo game he mentioned, Kolzig is 5-4 with a 2.84 GAA and a .911 save percentage in 11 starts (two of which resulted in shootout losses) since the installation of the new system.
Ottawa’s Dominik Hasek and Toronto’s Eddie Belfour are both 40 years old. Phoenix’s Curtis Joseph is 38. All three are the clear-cut number one netminders for their respective teams and Hasek and Joseph are both still at the top of their respective games. Clearly, goaltenders are capable of performing at a high level for a longer period of time in this era, which makes one wonder how much longer Kolzig can play and how much longer he wants to play.
“Physically I could probably play for a while,” he declares. “I work pretty hard during the summer and I take pretty good care of myself. Knock on wood, my knee has felt awesome this year. I realistically could probably play until I am 40 but family-wise, probably two or three more years, three at the most. One more contract and we’ll see how we do. It’s getting to that stage where my kids are growing up. This year has been really tough with them not being here the whole year, so it will probably be two or three more years.”
For the first time since he and his wife started their family, Kolzig is here in Washington, D.C. but the rest of the brood remains out west in Washington state. Naturally, he misses them. But does not having them so close remove some distractions and give him more energy to focus on his game?
“In a way it does,” he says. “When your kids are sick you are not up in the middle of the night with them. But at the same time, my kids give me a lot of energy too.”