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Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Vezina race: Top contenders, our winner

By Pierre LeBrun

The NHL's 30 general managers will soon have to fill out their annual Vezina Trophy ballots to determine the league's top goaltender for the 2010-11 season.

I canvassed nine GMs on Wednesday; obviously, none of them would tell me exactly where they ranked each goalie, but I got a feel for the group of netminders likely in contention.

Let's take a look at the field:

The contenders (in alphabetical order)

Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix Coyotes
Stats: Tied for second in wins (35), ninth in save percentage (.922), 17th in goals-against average (2.47), fourth in shutout wins (7).

Breakdown: Last season's Vezina Trophy runner-up to Ryan Miller, Bryzgalov has come on really strong in the second half and is once again a major reason the Coyotes are sitting fourth in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. He'll be the big dog among unrestricted free-agent goalies come July 1 unless the Coyotes can reel him in before then. Contract talks are on hold until their ownership saga is finally resolved.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins
Stats: Tied for fourth in wins (34), 15th in save percentage (.918), eighth in GAA (2.32), tied for 17th in shutouts (3).

Breakdown: Imagine just how better his numbers would be had he not stunk up the joint in the opening six weeks of the season. I actually remember having to ask Pens GM Ray Shero at the November GMs meetings in Toronto about all the criticism Fleury was taking at home and Shero calmly saying his star goalie would be fine. Well, of course, Fleury recovered. The Penguins have survived the injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evegni Malkin in large part to Fleury's standout goaltending, especially in the second half.

Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks
Stats: First in wins (36), third in save percentage (.927) and GAA (2.16), tied for 17th in shutouts (3).

Breakdown: Funny how Luongo's name is barely mentioned in the Vezina conversation despite top-three numbers in wins, save percentage and goals-against average. My sense is Luongo will be penalized by some GMs for playing on the NHL's top team. After all, backup goalie Cory Schneider has a .930 save percentage and 2.16 goals-against average. The thought might be, "Does it matter who plays in goal?" I think it does matter and Luongo has had one of his best seasons of his career.

Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
Stats: Tied for seventh in wins (33), fifth in save percentage (.924) and GAA (2.24), first in shutouts (11).

Breakdown: Previously nominated for the award, King Henrik's Vezina campaign has really only caught on nationally in the past few weeks, in line with his team's red-hot, late-season stretch. His league-leading 11 shutouts definitely make a statement. Much like Carey Price in Montreal, you wonder where Lundqvist's team would be without him and whether it would be sitting in a playoff spot.

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
Stats: Tied for second in wins (35), seventh in save percentage (.922), 10th in GAA (2.38), third in shutouts (8).

Breakdown: Perhaps the statistic that makes the best case for Price is his league-leading 68 games played. This guy has been a total workhorse for the Canadiens. Making his story more compelling is the pressure that weighed on him as he replaced last spring's playoff hero, Jaroslav Halak, in a combustible market like hockey-mad Montreal. That Price delivered under those circumstances is nothing short of sensational. This is a pedestrian hockey team without him in net.

Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
Stats: Tied for 13th in wins (30), second in save percentage (.929) and GAA (2.10), tied for fifth in shutouts (6).

Breakdown: For a team that gets almost no national attention, the Preds netminder has enjoyed a nice league-wide buzz and it's ultra-deserved. As Preds coach Barry Trotz told me last Friday, "I've got one of the best goalies in the world." The Predators have been ravaged by injuries up front all season, and without their standout netminder, I doubt they'd be sitting in a playoff spot right now.

Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins
Stats: Tied for seventh in wins (33), first in save percentage (.940) and GAA (1.96), second in shutouts (9).

Breakdown: I don't get a vote, but, to me, this is the best season a goalie has had since the Dominik Hasek days in Buffalo, where he was at his best and winning Hart Trophies. The only possible knock against Thomas is his number of games played (his 53 are only 16th in the league), but why penalize him for the fact the Bruins can rest him due to having a terrific backup in Tuukka Rask? Nothing should take away from the superb season Thomas has put together.

Honorable mentions: Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles; Cam Ward, Carolina; Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary.

The other nominees

Thomas is a lock, Rinne deserves to be runner-up and I have Lundqvist and Price in a dead heat at No. 3. I don't think any of these three goalies' teams make the playoffs without them this season.

The winner

Drum roll, please ... Thomas. It's highway robbery if the 36-year-old Michigan native doesn't capture his second Vezina Trophy in three seasons. What a wonderful bounce-back campaign after fighting hip issues last season.