Devan Dubnyk: Can He Win The Vezina?


Devan Dubnyk has been having an astounding run since being acquired by the Minnesota Wild from the Arizona Coyotes on January 15. He’s been fantastic and it’s pretty difficult to dispute. He took a team sliding down the standings, a team who had fallen to last place in the Central Division, and helped lead them back into the playoff picture. Some sites had their playoff probability at 6% when they acquired Dubnyk. Today, has their probability at 93.136%.

In the Devan Dubnyk-era the Wild are a NHL-best 18-3-2 with +26 goal differential at even strength (best in the NHL), a .942 even strength Sv% (third best), 52.7% Scoring Chances For (SCF%, seventh best), and a league-best 1.5 goals against per 60 minutes of even strength play (GA/60). They’re also fifth in the league over that span with a 2.8 goals for per 60 minutes of even strength play (GF/60).

Since Dubnyk joined the Wild, only Carey Price and Cory Schneider have a better Sv% than Dubnyk, and no goaltender has played more minutes or has more wins.

It’s not just Wild fans taking note of the sea change in St. Paul either. Dubnyk was the named the NHL’s #1 star of the month for February, the first full month he spent with the team.

All of this has more than a few people talking about the possibility of Dubnyk winning the Vezina Trophy for league’s best goaltender. It’s even got some people talking about Dubnyk for the Hart Trophy. Former Wild forward Mike Rupp even mentioned Dubnyk in a video discussing potential Hart Trophy frontrunners.

But is any of this reasonable? Until January 15, Dubnyk was a backup goaltender for a team deep in the McEichel Sweepstakes and was performing just ok while getting not-so-many minutes. I’m going to set aside the Hart Trophy discussion, though the argument that the trophy is intended to go to the player who was most valuable to their team does leave room for a compelling argument that Dubnyk should be in the discussion.

I want to instead focus on the Vezina. Is it possible for a goaltender who was only a starter for half a season to win the prize for league’s best goaltender?

Games Played Does Matter

The biggest question for Dubnyk’s Vezina chances is games played. Through the season’s first three plus months he only played 19 games and was serviceable for the Coyotes. He hadn’t played poorly by any stretch, but he wasn’t even an outside candidate for the Vezina.

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In those 19 games with Arizona he had a .916 Sv% with a 9-5-2 record. His performance with the Wild through 23 games has been a remarkable change with a 18-3-1 record and a .940 Sv%, but is there precedent for a goaltender playing as few games as Dubnyk will and winning the Vezina?

Let’s look back to every Vezina winner since the 1990-91 season. The fewest games a Vezina-winning goaltender played in a non-lockout-shortened season was Tim Thomas in the 2008-09 season when he played 54 games.

If Dubnyk plays every game for the rest of the year, which he won’t even though it seems like he will, he’d play 59 games. With just 17 games remaining in the Wild’s season it’s entirely plausible he plays at least 12 of 17 to get to 54 games on the season. So, there is a precedent for a goaltender playing the number of games Dubnyk will and winning the Vezina. In fact, there are a few Vezina winners who have played 59 games or fewer. Here’s a list of the goaltenders who have won since 1990-91 that Dubnyk could potentially catch in games played (excluding the two lockout-shortened seasons).

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It doesn’t happen often, but it’s possible. If you throw the lockout-shortened-seasons back into the mix and look at the games played by Vezina winners as a percentage of the available games, there’s an interesting trend. There’s a balancing act in play and often a goaltender with a lower Sv% gets credit in the eyes of voters (General Managers) for having played more games even if their Sv% is lower than other finalists. A larger body of work can equal, we’ll say, bonus points.

From 1990-91 through the 2009-10 season only three Vezina winners played fewer than 80% of the available games. In the four years since then, every goaltender has been below 80%. There may be a shift taking place in how goaltenders are being evaluated that values the Sv% during play more highly than having had a respectable Sv% through incredibly high minutes.

Over the last six seasons the Vezina winner has been the goaltender with the best or second best Sv% among goaltenders who got at least one vote for the trophy. In the five seasons before that, the goaltender with the best Sv% didn’t win once. Inclusive of those five seasons there’s a run of eight seasons where the goaltender with the best Sv% only one once.

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There’s something to this balancing act of minutes played as a virtue versus Sv%, because every time a goaltender won the Vezina in this time frame, 1990-91 to present, and played fewer than 80% of the available games, they had a Sv% over .930. In those 23 seasons, only four times has a goaltender played over 80% of the available games and had a Sv% over .930. Three of those four instances were Dominik Hasek (because he was inhuman). The other was Jose Theodore in the 2001-02 season when he played in 67 games with a .931 Sv%.

A .930 Sv% is actually an interesting number to use as a cutoff for the Vezina. Only twice since 1990-91 has a goaltender with a Sv% lower than .930 won the Vezina in a year when any goaltender had over a .930 Sv% (among goaltenders in Vezina contention). Both of those instances were Vezina wins for Martin Brodeur and took place in back-to-back seasons where he played 91.4% and 89% of the games.

In case you’re wondering, playing 89% of the games in a season is crazy amount of games for a goaltender to play. That’s at least 73 of 82 regular season games. Since the 2008-09 season a goaltender has played 73 or more games only eight times (Pekka Rinne, Jonas Hiller, Cam Ward, Martin Brodeur, Miikka Kiprusoff x2, Marty Turco, and Henrik Lundqvist). That’s eight times in a five season span (six total, but I’m excluding the lockout). In the five years prior to that it happened 16 times, though that may be a bit of an anomaly, since the periods prior to the 2002-03 season lean more toward the numbers we’ve seen in recent years.

Here’s a look at the trends in and balancing act between save percentage, point percentage, and percentage of games played since the 1990-91 season for Vezina winners.

Using this data to circle back to the original question, yes, there is a precedent for goaltenders playing the number of games that Dubnyk will and winning the Vezina. Is it the norm? No. Is it possible? Certainly.

Still Have to Be the Best

It’s possible, but if games played carries weight, he’ll need to be that much better to win the Vezina, especially since he ranks 21st among goaltenders in games played this year. Assuming he continues to play more games than most, he’s still unlikely to pass many of those goaltenders in games played by season’s end.

How many of those are a threat? Well, two are out injured (meaning Dubnyk may be able to catch them in games played), 12 of those goaltenders (including one who is injured) have a Sv% under .915. So that leaves eight who will have a more significant body of work and have a respectable Sv%.

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  • Even if he plays a ton down the stretch — and he surely will — and he’s able to keep up the strong play he’s exhibited in Minnesota, no small order, it won’t be a landslide in Dubnyk’s favor. He’s a .940 in Minnesota, which is incredible, but he’s a .929 on the season and that’s what counts.

    He still has Carey Price ahead of him, who has played 10 more games and has a .935 Sv%. Schneider is another who could block the way. He’s just a touch behind Dubnyk with a .928 Sv%, but has played 57 games already, a total Dubnyk is unlikely to reach by the end of the season. However, even with 15 more games played than Dubnyk, Schneider only has 24 wins compared to Dubnyk’s 27, which is something that works in Dubnyk’s favor.

    Pekka Rinne is another goaltender who could stand in Dubnyk’s way, with 50 games played and a .926 Sv%. He was maybe a bigger threat before the Predators recent slide that has seen him post a Sv% of .900 or below in five of his last seven games, allowing 23 goals in that stretch.

    Lobbying for a Win

    What does Dubnyk have going for him? There’s a nice narrative that can be constructed about coming to Minnesota and helping turn the season around. And if games played works against him, he’s creating a counter-argument for the incredible workload he’s taken on during his short time as a starter. He’s currently started 23 consecutive games — every game since coming to Minnesota. That’s the most consecutive games any goaltender has started this season.

    His Sv% might be lower than Price’s but you could make an argument about the significance of Dubnyk having a higher Sv% since coming to Minnesota. His time as a backup with the cellar-dwelling Arizona Coyotes is dragging down his season totals.

    You can also look to wins. He hasn’t played as many games as most of the goalies in the running for the Vezina, but he’s been incredibly successful. Among the goaltenders who have won the Vezina since 1990-91, most have gathered between 60-70% of the available points in games they got a decision in (see graph above, which includes point percentage). The highest point percentage in that stretch was Thomas in 2008-09 (the season he started 54 games in, the fewest by a goaltender who won the Vezina in this time frame) when he gathered 73.1% of the available points. The only other instance of a goaltender getting more than 70% of the available points was Thomas’ other win in 2010-11 when he got 71.8% of the available points. (That’s another one of the seasons highlighted above as an example of what a goaltender has to do to win the trophy while playing a smaller number of games. He started just 57 games that season.)

    Even with the 19 games playing for a lousy team behind him, Dubnyk has gathered 75% of the available points this season in games where he earned a decision. That’s a higher total than any goaltender who has won the Vezina since 1990.

    So, again, is it possible? Yes. There’s a precedent and he’s doing all the things right that those examples did, but he’d have to keep doing them over the next 17 or so games (or however many he plays). He should get votes for the Vezina, maybe even be a finalist, but even with the great numbers he’s posted, it’s a difficult argument to make when others, in particular Carey Price, are playing so well.

    Data on the history of Vezina voting via Hockey Reference.

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