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Trophy Thursday: Vezina Trophy

Close to 100 years later, the top NHL goalie award honors more than a few all-time greats, plus a look at the 2020 candidates

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

The NHL's Vezina Trophy for top goaltender is one of the league's oldest and continuous pieces of authentic, one-and-only hardware. The Vezina was first awarded in 1926-27, a decade after the NHL was founded. 

The Vezina is adorned with the names of so many hockey greats, men like Bill Durnan who earned their laurels without a mask. It includes Hall of Fame goalie Jacques Plante, credited with developing and wearing the first hockey mask for the 1959-60 season. Plante won the trophy seven times, one more than Durnan and Dominik Hasek, a standout for the Buffalo Sabres in the 1990s and early 2000s. 

The biggest name?

Vezina, in honor of Georges Vezina who tended goal for the storied Montreal Canadiens club from 1910 to 1925. Vezina's playing days predated the NHL, facing and losing to the Seattle Metropolitans in 1917 in the Stanley Cup final, just a few months before the National Hockey League was founded, gaining control of the Stanley Cup as part of the process. 

Vezina (typically pronounced "VEZ-nah" or "VEZ-a-nah" if you say it slower) won his share of Stanleys, leading Montreal to Cups wins in 1916 (awarded by the National Hockey Association) and 1924 (NHL). He led the NHA in fewest goals allowed four times and did the same in the NHL three times. In 1918, he was the first NHL goalie to earn a shutout and record an assist on a goal. He played in 327 consecutive regular season games plus 39 playoff contests-366 straight overall as the only Canadiens goalie for 15 years. 

Widely admired for his calm demeanor, Vezina competed at a time when goalies were not allowed to drop to the ice to stop or redirect the puck, literally played a stand-up style over the NHL's first century morphed into the popular "butterfly" style in which goalies drop down to place their oversized leg and stand-up moves. 

In November 1925, collapsed before the second period of a regular season game, leaving his net for the first time in a decade and a half. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and died four months later. Montreal's ownership group presented the Vezina trophy to the NHL in 1926 to honor their fallen French-Canadian goalie. 

Vezina's replacement in the Montreal net, George Hainsworth, won the first three Vezina nameplates in 1927 to 1929. From those early days through the 1980-1981 season, the trophy was awarded to the goaltender or goaltenders who played a minimum of 25 games for the NHL team allowing the fewest goals during the regular season. Beginning with the 1981-1982 season, the league's general managers voted for the goalie "adjudged to be the best at his position."

Billy Smith, a stalwart of the New York Islanders 1980s dynasty, won the Vezina under the current system. Hasek's six Vezinas makes him the top trophy winner since GM voting was instituted; he won the award six times in eight seasons from 1994 to 2001. If you are wondering, two of the NHL best-ever goalies, Martin Brodeur (four) and Patrick Roy (three), are next highest on the post-1981 winners. Roy won his Vezinas with Montreal, the franchise with the most top goalie honors (29) including Carey Price most recently in 2015. 

Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy won the trophy at the NHL Awards night last June, getting the nod among 2019 finalists Robin Lehner (then New York Islanders) and Ben Bishop (Dallas). All three goalies are certainly in the wide-open mix of potential candidates to win the 2020 Vezina. Vasilevskiy and his Lightning teammates started slow this seasons but their win-loss record is now back among the elite in the Eastern Conference. Lehner is getting wide credit for keeping his new team, Chicago, at least hopeful about making the playoffs. 

Bishop might have the best chance, if you ascribe to the theory that GMs like to spread the kudos around to deserving top goalies, Plus, Bishop is top six in save percentage (a stat that accounts for a goalie's heavier or light loads in games) with more games played than others in that elite list. Bishop (14 wins) shares the Dallas with Anton Khudobin, who has 11 wins himself, a fact that could help or hurt Bishop's candidacy. Most recent Vezina winners didn't play much more than 50-some games, but too much of a games-split could point GMs elsewhere.

Other names to watch: St. Louis' Jordan Bennington and Winnipeg's Connor Hellebucyck; both have 20 wins with solid save percentages. Darcy Kuemper is having an official All-Star season with Arizona, but a lower-leg injury is likely going to sideline him through the end of January. Boston's Tuukka Rask, a former Vezina, is enjoying another stellar season with the Atlantic division-leading Boston Bruins that might be to deny. The next three months will play out the 2020 version of long-running Vezina story.

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