Rask or Howard or both?
This is the latest instalment of CBCSports.ca's "On Second Thought" series, in which our writers make a case against conventional wisdom on a sports issue. This week, we question the recent trend of overrating games played as a factor for goalies in the selection of Calder Trophy finalists, and the seemingly unwritten rule that two goalies can't be finalists for the Calder.
Let's preface this by stating unequivocally that Jimmy Howard is having a tremendous rookie season, as we know Detroit Red Wings fans (and some of the team's beat men) are known to scour the internet for any perceived slight to one of their own.
Howard has allayed doubts over his NHL future that began to creep in after spending a healthy number of seasons in the AHL.
A consensus has seemed to emerge among many hockey pundits that the Calder Trophy trio of finalists will be Buffalo's teenage defenceman Tyler Myers, Colorado centre Matt Duchene and Howard.
Boston goalie Tuukka Rask hasn't seriously entered the discussion among most observers, and it seems to be solely related to the fact that Howard has started 21 more games (as of April 5).
Because nearly all other statistical indicators favour Rask over Howard (see table).
|Games allowing 4 or more goals:||5||11|
Detroit has been battered by injuries up front, but Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, two of the best puck-moving defencemen of the modern era, have been on the back end throughout the season in front of Howard.
Boston has been battered by injuries up front, with top two defencemen Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman largely escaping the injury bug. Chara's had a slight dip from last year's Norris Trophy campaign, while Wideman's season is nowhere close to the level of play he established in 2008-09.
Boston was an Eastern Conference winner last season, Detroit is coming off two Stanley Cup final appearances.
Howard has a much better won-loss record. He has undoubtedly won games for Detroit, but you can't discount the fact the savvy Wings have won a few for him, too. That case can't as convincingly be made with Boston (more on that later).
But first, the workload argument. Howard has started 58 games, 22 more than Rask.
The sense that a rookie goaltender should only get consideration for the Calder for a heavy workload (i.e. 60-ish games) is strictly a conceit, and a recent one at that.
Evgeni Nabokov, Andrew Raycroft and Steve Mason are goalies who were Calder finalists in the last decade, and they started between 55 and 65 games.
But Tom Barrasso won the award in 1984 after appearing in 42 games, not all of them starts. Martin Brodeur appeared in 47 in 1994 and also won.
Heck, Glenn Resch in the 1970s was a nominee playing in just 44 and was eligible even though appeared in 25 games the previous year.
Rask will end up at around 45 games played and 39 started. It's admittedly a low-sounding number in comparison to recent Calder finalists, but the salient point is that there was never going to be a scenario other than a Tim Thomas injury in which Rask was going to play even 55 games. He was coming into his first full NHL season as part of a tandem with the reigning Vezina Trophy winner!
Why Rask should be deemed less worthy of consideration than Howard because Detroit's Chris Osgood was much more mediocre this season than Thomas is a little bit confusing.
At the end of November, Howard had played 13 games and Rask 11.
Howard had a 2.56 goals-against average, no shutouts and a. 908 save percentage. Rask had a 2.02 GAA, one shutout and a .929 save percentage.
By the turn of the new year, Howard had played in 24 games and Rask 16.
Howard had one shutout, a 2.25 GAA and .921 save percentage. Rask had two shutouts, a 1.85 GAA and .935 save percentage.
If you were considering the two goalies in a vacuum, it would be Rask who would have the stronger case to merit more playing time.
But that's not what happened because goalie workload doesn't occur in a vacuum. It's a function of the relative play of two men and is often affected by salary (aside from being the Vezina winner, Thomas earns $3.5 million US more than Osgood, who's been benched before by Detroit).
Howard has pulled away in total games played not because he's necessarily been any better than Rask, but because he got the chance to take the ball and run with it (and he sure did) after Osgood was completely abandoned by Detroit in late January as an option.
In fact, Rask's case for a Calder nomination is made stronger than Howard's from the standpoint that Thomas actually hasn't played that badly this season.
He has a 2.55 average and .910 save percentage, but his teammates haven't helped him in the least. He's endured a level of goal support that even Montreal's Carey Price wouldn't envy.
Thomas has started 17 games in which Boston has scored one goal or less, compared to 11 games for Price.
Thomas has five shutouts, giving Boston 10 in total. It's a staggering number considering the Bruins have just 23 regulation wins - in other words, Boston has won just 13 games all season within 60 minutes in which the other team has scored a goal.
Yet, Rask has become Boston's money goalie during a critical playoff run over Thomas, a fact that has been completely underrated as a calling card at the expense of Howard's workload argument.
Think about what a feat this is for a moment. A perusal of the Vezina winners over the past quarter-century reveals that Jim Carey was the only man in the following season to really fall from his No. 1 perch the following season, and that was only by trade.
There is no recent example of a Vezina winner being supplanted as the go-to-guy for his team the following season, let alone by a rookie.
You simply cannot overrate games played between two rookie goalies because they experience entirely different scenarios. Leaving Rask and Howard out of the equation and just considering this philosophically, relying heavily on games played per the current trend will give the preference for rookie goalies whose tandem mates just so happen to get injured, as most teams don't go into October casting their lot with a first-year netminder.
How does that make any sense?
Throwing out games played (within reason) as a big asset will lead to asking the type of questions that are admittedly fuzzier to consider, such as: If both goalies had a similar workload, who'd come out ahead? How would Rask do in Detroit and how would Howard fare in Boston? Which goalie would you rather have starting a playoff game right now, irrespective of team?
But they're questions that should be considered.
The numbers through the first half of the season seem to indicate there's no basis to believe that Rask wouldn't have sterling numbers if he was assigned Howard's workload. Put more bluntly, Rask could have a goals-against-average of 3.22 over 17 more games and still end up at Howard's current numbers.
In a certain way, this is more about the annoying tendency of some hockey pundits to etch in stone their award candidates by early March. Fellas, the season ends in mid-April.
Again, Howard is a deserving Calder candidate and there's a strong case to be made for both goalies being named finalists at the expense of Duchene. Shouldn't 40-ish games for a rookie goalie be the equal to a full season for a skater?
For some reason, it rarely seems to be that two rookie goalies get picked as finalists. Steve Mason of Columbus had a tremendous season in 2008-09, but Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne and his seven shutouts were overlooked in favour of Kris Versteeg, who finished the season on a stacked Chicago team with four points in his last 14 games.
And no, just because Myers is going to win the thing doesn't make this debate moot.