Tim Thomas achieved a rare double last season, winning both the Vezina Trophy and the Stanley Cup. The rarity of that accomplishment is one of the most basic arguments against ranking goaltenders based on how many Stanley Cups they have won, since the consensus best goalie in any given season rarely wins it all. Despite the general Vezina voting bias in favor of goalies with lots of wins, few goalies have won the Cup/Vezina double in the post-WHA era. In the last 30 years, only three netminders other than Thomas were able to win both trophies in the same year: Martin Brodeur in 2003, Grant Fuhr in 1988, and Billy Smith in 1982.
Something that occurs once a decade can already be considered to be an uncommon event, but it could be further argued that the best goalie/Cup winner combo is probably even more unlikely than the historical results suggest. This is because the awards voters tend to love heavily team-influenced stats like wins and shutouts, resulting in a selection bias in favor of goalies with strong teammates. Those quality teammates obviously also come in handy for a goaltender come April and May when he is trying to win the Stanley Cup.
Turning to Hockey Prospectus' GVT metric, a strong argument can made that Thomas' achievement of being the league's best goaltender on the Cup-winning team was unmatched in the past three decades. None of Brodeur, Fuhr, or Smith led the league in GVT during their Vezina/Cup seasons. In fact, Smith was the only one who even came close to doing so with a second-place finish in 1982. Fuhr ranked just 14th in GVT in 1988, while Brodeur finished just 12th in the same metric among goaltenders in 2003.
It has been argued, with solid justification, that Brodeur's save percentage numbers in 2003 did not fully reflect his contribution to his team. The New Jersey Devils' home scorer has long been suspected of undercounting shots, and Brodeur had a home save percentage of just .905 compared to a road save percentage of .922 in 2002-03. Brodeur also has been observed to help prevent shots against compared to other New Jersey goalies through his puckhandling, boosting his overall value.
However, the exact same arguments can be made in favor of Marty Turco, Brodeur's main rival for the Vezina that season. Turco was also an excellent puckhandler who posted a higher save percentage at home than on the road in 2002-03. If anything, Turco's home scorer in Dallas was likely even stingier than Brodeur's, given that Turco faced an average of 6.9 more shots per game on the road than at home, compared to Brodeur's difference of 2.7. Both goalies played on strong defensive teams, although the Devils were much more disciplined than the Stars. It is unlikely that those factors would make up the large save percentage edge in favor of Turco, who posted a .940 even strength save percentage and an .895 save percentage on the penalty kill, easily outpacing Brodeur's numbers of .921 at even strength and .866 while shorthanded.
Grant Fuhr's 1988 Vezina case appears to have been built largely upon his league-leading 75 games played. Fuhr's rate stats in 1987-88 were almost identical to his numbers in 1986-87; the main difference was that playing a lot more allowed him to lead the league in wins and shutouts. Fuhr's reputation as a three-time Cup winner and Team Canada starter likely aided him in the voting, as did the reputation of Edmonton as an offensive team that often left their goalie out to dry. No doubt the Oilers did often take chances to score goals, but in the preceding season of 1986-87, Fuhr's playing partner Andy Moog posted a 3.51 GAA and an .882 save percentage in 46 games, numbers that were very similar to the 3.43 and .881 that won Fuhr the Vezina. There are other goalies that may therefore be able to lay a better claim than Fuhr to the title of the league's best during '87-88, starting with the GVT leader, Buffalo's Tom Barrasso.
Interestingly, Fuhr may have actually deserved the 1981-82 Vezina that was awarded to Billy Smith. Fuhr edged out Smith in terms of GVT (29.8 to 27.7), despite facing more shots against per game on a young Oilers team that played all-out offense and took more penalties than the Islanders. Other candidates for the award would have been Gilles Meloche and Richard Brodeur, who ranked third and fourth in the league with 24.2 GVT and 22.3 GVT, despite playing behind much less star-studded lineups. Brodeur's numbers were particularly impressive given that both of his playing partners in Vancouver had negative GVT ratings, whereas Smith's backup Rollie Melanson finished sixth in the league with his 18.8 GVT, perhaps at least partially reflecting the defensive impact of Hall of Famers like Trottier and Potvin.
It is necessary to go all the way back to 1977-78 to find a season where a goalie finished first in GVT and hoisted the Cup during the same season. For three seasons in a row from 1975-76 to 1977-78, Ken Dryden led the league in GVT, was voted the First Team All-Star in goal, and was a member of the Stanley Cup champions.
Comparing the GVT leader to the Stanley Cup winner, then, there is a 33-year gap where no netminder managed to accomplish both between Dryden and Thomas:
Year Top goalie by GVT Cup winner
2011 Tim Thomas Tim Thomas
2010 Ryan Miller Antti Niemi
2009 Tim Thomas Marc-Andre Fleury
2008 Martin Brodeur Chris Osgood
2007 Roberto Luongo J-S Giguere
2006 Miikka Kiprusoff Cam Ward
2004 Roberto Luongo Nikolai Khabibulin
2003 Marty Turco Martin Brodeur
2002 Jose Theodore Dominik Hasek
2001 Sean Burke Patrick Roy
2000 Olaf Kolzig Martin Brodeur
1999 Dominik Hasek Ed Belfour
1998 Dominik Hasek Chris Osgood
1997 Dominik Hasek Mike Vernon
1996 Dominik Hasek Patrick Roy
1995 Dominik Hasek Martin Brodeur
1994 Dominik Hasek Mike Richter
1993 Curtis Joseph Patrick Roy
1992 Patrick Roy Tom Barrasso
1991 Ed Belfour Tom Barrasso
1990 Patrick Roy Bill Ranford
1989 Patrick Roy Mike Vernon
1988 Tom Barrasso Grant Fuhr
1987 Ron Hextall Grant Fuhr
1986 Bob Froese Patrick Roy
1985 Pelle Lindbergh Grant Fuhr
1984 Rollie Melanson Grant Fuhr
1983 Pete Peeters Billy Smith
1982 Grant Fuhr Billy Smith
1981 Mario Lessard Billy Smith
1980 Tony Esposito Billy Smith
1979 Mike Palmateer Ken Dryden
1978 Ken Dryden Ken Dryden
Good goalies are obviously more likely to win a championship than bad goalies, and the odds are even better when that good goalie has strong teammates in front of him. However, having the season's best goaltender on your team does not make a huge difference in terms of winning Stanley Cup championships. The best goalies still need great support around them to achieve the ultimate team success.
Despite the advantage of having a goaltender playing at a historically great level, the Bruins were forced to win three game sevens on their way to a championship. In any of those contests, a bounce or two the other way could have easily resulted in Boston's elimination.
Looking forward to this season, even if Tim Thomas is able to reproduce the Vezina-winning form he displayed last year, it is still much more likely than not that the Bruins will fail to repeat as Cup champions. That is why it is important to avoid relying on team results when evaluating netminders, as the record shows that the vast majority of time the best goalie does not end up drinking out of the Stanley Cup at the end of the season.
Philip Myrland is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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