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Friday, October 28, 2005
Updated: November 1, 5:27 PM ET
Only wins should be the measure of a netminder

By Damien Cox
Special to ESPN.com

For years, it was all about goals-against average, the statistic that was supposed to tell you all you needed to know about an NHL goaltender.

Indeed, for more than five decades, they awarded the Vezina Trophy, named in honor of the famed Montreal puckstopper Georges Vezina, strictly on the basis of which goaltender or goaltenders helped their team give up fewer goals than any other team.

That changed in 1981, when the league dreamed up the Jennings Trophy to honor the goalies with the best GAA, leaving the Vezina for the masked man adjudged "to be the best at his position" in the NHL.

Ed Belfour
Ed Belfour's goals-against average might not be a clear indication of how well he is playing for the Maple Leafs.

How to judge that particular issue, of course, has long been a matter of some debate, perhaps no more so than when the netminding blip that was Jim Carey of the Washington Capitals scooped up the silverware in 1996.

In recent years, the wisest of the wise have decided that, like size, it isn't G.A.A. that matters most. After all, if a goalie faces five shots per game and lets in two, a flashy G.A.A. of 2.00 might not be telling you all you need to know.

Instead, save percentage, something those of us who watched the game before the Original 30 never even knew existed, has become the sexy measuring stick for goaltenders.

Like on-base percentage in baseball, save percentage has come to be seen as the true measure of what a goaltender is accomplishing every night.

The problem with this number, of course, is that it doesn't take into account the quality or difficulty of shots a goalie faces. Just how many he stops out of how many he faces.

Well, in the new NHL, it may be time to simplify again. As in, just wins, baby.

Victories are what matter the most, and perhaps should be the decisive issue when it comes to passing on the Vezina legacy.

Like save percentage, of course, wins weren't really a big deal for the majority of the NHL's existence. That was a baseball thing, and perhaps it was just generally thought awarding a "win" to a goaltender was giving him just a little too much credit for a team effort.

Wins and losses stats crept into the game in the 1980s, however, and began to make more sense as a measure of goaltending excellence as minding the twine tent became as crucial to the outcome of a hockey game as pitching was in baseball.

In fact, by the mid- to late 1990s, it could be argued that goaltenders had usurped pitchers as the most single dominant position in any team sport.

With the advent of the "new" NHL, however, that's changing again. In fact, a defenseman who can actually move a body out of the slot area may soon become the MVP of the league.

Or could it be possible that scorers might again become kings of the jungle as they were in the days when a fellow like Bernie Nicholls could pot 70 goals in a single season?

Which brings us back to wins. Given what we've seen in the opening month of NHL activity -- and holy smokes, hasn't it been fun? -- it may well be the only number that truly matters is the number of wins a goaltender records while in goal.

That's not just because the GAA and save percentage numbers seem inflated and out of whack, particularly for veteran goalies like Martin Brodeur, Marty Turco and Nikolai Khabibulin.

It's just that winning the game, or figuring out how to avoid complete and utter embarrassment in the face of nightly offensive onslaughts, is quite likely becoming the only issue that matters.

Take the case of 40-year-old Eddie Belfour of the Toronto Maple Leafs, for instance. The Eagle's personal stats have been taking a pounding this season. As of Thursday, his GAA was at 3.37, hardly a Belfour-type figure, and his save percentage was .889, well below the .900 mark, under which goalies historically assumed to be performing as if the eye holes in their masks were taped over.

On Monday, Belfour's stats weren't enhanced, as he gave up another four goals, making it 13 goals allowed in three games.

But two of those were Leafs wins, including Monday's victory over Boston in which Belfour blocked 43 of 47 Boston shots in regulation, turned away another six in overtime, then blanked Glen Murray, Joe Thornton and Patrice Bergeron in succession to win the shootout (Eric Lindros scored for the Leafs).

All of that, interestingly, overshadowed the mistakes Belfour had made on the night, including a whiff on Murray's very stoppable second-period wrist shot and a screw-up on playing the puck behind his net that led to a goal by Brad Boyes. On that play, Belfour went to play the puck behind the end line outside the trapezoid markings, realized at the last moment that he couldn't, and then was helpless to stop Boyes from firing it home.

The new goaltending gear, particularly the downsized catching mitt, has been giving Belfour fits. As well, he was likely the best goalie at playing the puck outside his crease besides Brodeur, so the restrictions in that area have affected him more than most.

"One minute you're a slug, the next minute you're a hero, so you don't know what to think," Belfour said. "I felt bad about the [Murray] goal that snuck under my glove and then that stupid play where I went out to play the puck and I got caught in no-man's land. You just feel terrible for the guys and you obviously want to do whatever you can to help out."

At the end of the night, Belfour got the big "W," and a Leafs team that has been decidedly leaky in the defensive zone had been saved by its goaltending.

See, figuring out the new NHL seems largely about looking at things in a different way and tossing out old assumptions.

A defenseman who can't bang bodies in his own end might be seen as far more valuable now because he can create in the enemy zone more freely. Forwards who lack brawn or speed might be more useful if they can produce on the power play.

And goaltenders, who before might have been seen as wanting if their GAA was over 2.50 and their save percentage less than .915, should now be viewed more generously, with more of a focus on the number of points their teams generate in the standings.

These fellows are, after all, also dealing with new equipment sizes, with streamlined jerseys still on the way, and veteran goalies would tell you they are working harder these days while facing more difficult shots and elongated offensive-zone possessions by enemy teams on a nightly basis.

So, if we put wins ahead of everything else, as of today, Detroit's Manny Legace (10 wins) and Tomas Vokoun of the Nashville Predators (seven wins) would be the favorites to win the Vezina. Just behind them would be Montreal's Jose Theodore, Florida Panthers puckstopper Roberto Luongo and Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres.

Call it the Grant Fuhr standard. In the 1987-88 season, Fuhr appeared in 75 games for the Edmonton Oilers, registering a GAA of 3.43 and a save percentage of .881.

Nothing special, right?

Except Fuhr won 40 games, and ultimately, helped the Oilers capture the Cup. For his efforts, Fuhr was awarded the Vezina for the first and only time in his spectacular career.

He was, the voters understood, better than the numbers.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.