We asked the Globe's team of hockey writers to get out their ballots a little early this year and vote for the goalie they think deserves the Vezina Trophy as the league's top netminder.
I have to go with Carey Price, who should also be considered for the Hart as the most valuable player, not just top goaltender.
Price has at times carried the Montreal Canadiens on his back this year. And let us not forget the hullabaloo (how's that for a word lost in time) caused just last summer when Montreal general manager Pierre Gauthier elected to let playoff hero Jaroslav Halak go off to the St. Louis Blues and stick with Price. Those who said it was the stupidest decision imaginable aren't saying much of anything these days, as Price continues to be among the leaders in all categories.
Besides, if the great Martin Brodeur says Price is the best there is these days, who can argue?
Will anyone be surprised that I nominate Carey Price? Pipe down Sekeres, at least your guy has them Swedish twins to pump in goals at the other end.
Yes, I'll be accused of being a massive homer, but having watched Price every night this year, I have to go with Marty Brodeur's assessment: he's the goalie who means the most to his team and has consistently played the best in the NHL this year. Tim Thomas has more garish numbers, so does Pekka Rinne (both of whom will be nominated) but Price has more starts, more minutes, more shots faced and a crappier defence than either of those teams. Add in the pressure he faced coming into the season, and it spells Vezina.
New Jersey Devils' goaltender Martin Brodeur made an interesting observation this week: That in his mind, the 2011 Vezina Trophy should go to a guy who was on the bench at the end of last year; booed unmercifully in training camp; and in some people's minds, should have been the one leaving Montreal last summer instead of Jaroslav Halak.
Yes, Carey Price has been that good for the Canadiens this year - and in analyzing what went right for him this year, is an object lesson about the fickleness of goaltending, and how, from one season to the next, it is so difficult to project where the next shining light is coming from.
Think about this: Last year, in the playoffs, the Philadelphia Flyers were relying on Michael Leighton, who'd saved their season as a mid-year waiver-draft addition when Ray Emery went out with season-ending hip surgery. Leighton and Brian Boucher - alternating whenever one went out with an injury - provided credible enough goaltending to get the Flyers to within two wins of the Stanley Cup final. But Leighton needed surgery earlier this year and when he was ready to go, the Flyers were happy with the status quo - Boucher and Sergei Bobrovsky, and so Leighton is back in the minors, waiting for another chance, presumably with another organization, next year.
Every year, the NHL's goaltending stats feature a beguiling mix of players - a handful of tried-and-true, year-in and year-out performers spiced with players who've come out of nowhere. The Chicago Blackhawks' Corey Crawford fits the latter category, as does the Toronto Maple Leafs' James Reimer. Last year, Boston's Tim Thomas was the reigning Vezina Trophy winner but he was relegated to the bench by Tuukka Rask, who won the GAA title (an amazing 1.97. This year, Rask is nowhere to be found. Nor is Halak, nor Craig Anderson, nor Evgeni Nabokov. Kari Lehtonen won six games in the NHL last year; this season he has won 30 and is arguably the biggest reason that the Dallas Stars are in contention for a playoff spot after a two-year absence.
Some in Pittsburgh believe that Marc-Andre Fleury is a Hart trophy candidate, for the way he's helped keep the Penguins in contention for top spot in the Eastern Conference, despite injuries to Jordan Staal early, and then subsequently to Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. That the Penguins have been so competitive - and stayed so competitive - is a testament to a variety of factors, including coaching, but Fleury's contributions need to be right at the top of the list.
It's hard to imagine that the Nashville Predators would be where they are without Pekka Rinne (2.09 GAA, .930 save percentage). The Predators are a latter-day New Jersey Devils with their commitment to (and application of) defensive hockey principles, but it only works if the goaltender is making a whole lot of first saves.
And we haven't even mentioned the NHL's top defensive team - the Vancouver Canucks - where the numbers of the starter, Roberto Luongo, are virtually identical to those of the back-up, Cory Schneider, which might undermine the former's chances. Or what Jonas Hiller did for the Anaheim Ducks (26-16-3, .925 save percentage) before an injury knocked him out. Or Miikka Kiprusoff's role in Calgary's surge.
So Price has a lot of good company this year, and my guess is the general managers, who vote for this award, are going to have to look past the stats (2.38 GAA, .922 save percentage, 34 wins) and examine the intangibles: That he did all this playing behind an injury-ravaged defence, in the fishbowl of Montreal, needing to re-prove to people that he could be an elite-level goaltender. In short, a vote for Carey Price will require GMs to put some thought into the process and look beyond the numbers. I'm not convinced it'll happen - or that it'll happen enough to get Price into the top three.
The easy answer is Boston's Tim Thomas, who is having a Dominik Hasek-like season for the Bruins. He is the league leader in goals against average (2.06) and save percentage (.937), but there is one stat that works against Thomas. He has only played 50 games, and even if he makes every start from now until the end of the regular season, he's only going to play three-quarters of the schedule.
Of course, his main competition is in a similar boat.
Nashville's Pekka Rinne has played 56 games. He is second to Thomas in goals against average and save percentage, and the Predators wouldn't be fighting for a playoff spot minus his efforts.
Vancouver's Roberto Luongo is the only goalie in the top five in wins, goals against average and save percentage, but he, too, has benefitted from a lighter workload (54 games).
For the moment, my ballot looks like this: 1) Thomas, 2) Rinne, 3) Luongo. But Montreal's Carey Price (workload, wins), and Henrik Lundqvist (shutouts) of the New York Rangers could force their way onto the ballot depending on what happens in the final 10 games.
The answer depends on how you frame the question.
By definition, the winner of the Vezina Trophy is the NHL's outstanding goaltender for the entire season. But goaltenders are also eligible for the Hart Trophy, which goes to the player most valuable to his team.
So if you throw in a little Hart definition, as Elliott Friedman points out in his 30 Thoughts column at cbc.ca, there are three goaltenders who can claim to be mostly responsible for their teams' success this season - Ilya Bryzgalov of the Phoenix Coyotes, Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens and Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators.
When it comes to numbers, Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins rules the roost with a .937 save percentage and 2.06 goals-against average, not bad for a 37-year-old coming off last summer's hip surgery. Also worth consideration when it comes to numbers are the Canucks' Roberto Luongo (2.23, .925), and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers (2.31, .922).
But as Matty Sekeres says, when it comes to workload, Thomas gets off easy at 50 games. Both he and Luongo have two excellent youngsters behind them to share the load, Tuukka Rask and Cory Schneider, respectively.
Combine numbers and importance and you get Rinne (56 games, 2.07, .930) and Price (65 games, 2.35, .922) with a narrow lead over Bryzgalov (61 games, 2.51, .920).
Thus my ballot, barring Lundqvist posting shutouts in the rest of this season's appearances, will have to go: 1. Rinne; 2. Thomas; 3. Price.