October 4, 2011

Early Vezina Picks - Finally Some Choice

Last year, there was no Vezina Trophy race, it was more of a “who was second-best to Tim Thomas” Trophy. This year, I am more confident that the league’s elite goaltenders will create a tight race for the Vezina. 
My Top Five (early) picks for the Venzina this year, in no particular order, are Pekka Rinne, Henrik Lundqvist, Marc-Andre Fleury, Roberto Luongo, and Ryan Miller. 
Why no Thomas? History tells us that Thomas’ performance this season may not be up to expectations. The last time Thomas won the Vezina, he came back with a horrible outing, which allowed Rask to take over the starting position and show us what he is capable of. Last season, Thomas took home the Vezina, as well as the most coveted piece of hardware in hockey, the Stanley Cup. Oh, and did I mention the Conn Smythe? With that much hardware, the pressure is going to be on Thomas to live up to those accolades again this year. While he was stellar in the playoffs and regular season last year, and didn’t let the pressure phase him, but he’s had the off-season to reflect on his performance last season. I anticipate that he will over analyze everything, and attempt to fix too many things in his game, which will lead to poor numbers and inconsistency.
Now, it may seem like I am a bit harsh on Thomas, but after winning the Cup, Vezina, and Conn Smythe in the same year, expectations are much, much higher. 
Pekka Rinne
A dark-horse of a draft pick (8th round, #235 overall) in 2004, Pekks has been a perennial favourite of many fantasy hockey managers, and admired by players, GMs, and fans alike. 
His numbers speak for themselves (2.12 GAA, .930 SV% in 2010-2011), but the most notable part of Rinne’s playing ability is his training. The Nashville Predators have one of the most tested and successful goaltending coaches in Mitch Korn, who has been described as the “Yoda of goaltending.” Korn’s training methods and ability to effectively fix a goaltender’s weaknesses have given the Predators goaltending core a massive advantage over the rest of the league. Combine Korn’s insights and coaching with Rinne’s natural instincts and athletic abilities, and Pekks is definitely a front-runner already for the Vezina. 
Henrik Lundqvist
13 shutouts, and multiple strings of stolen games should speak for themselves, but sadly, last season Lundqvist was overlooked as a candidate for the Vezina. After his performance in the first round of the 2010-2011 playoffs, and his uncanny flexibility and athleticism, all eyes are on Lundqvist to yet again be an elite force between the pipes. 
As one of the most flexible and adaptive goaltenders in the NHL, Lundqvist is overdue for not only a Cup victory, but also the accolades he deserves. I would be hard-pressed to find a professional hockey writer, scout, or coach who would disagree with me when I say that Lundqvist is easily one of front-runners for the Vezina this season.
Marc-Andre Fleury
The Pens were without Crosby for half of the 2010-2011 season, and lost Malkin near the end of the season, yet made the playoffs in a decisive fashion. A large part of Pittsburgh’s success over the past season, and over the last few seasons has been the work of Fleury between the pipes. Granted, the rest of the Penguins definitely produced well beyond what was probably expected of them without the two superstars, but Fleury stole a few games for them, and made sure his team’s efforts were not squandered. 
This year, there will be added pressure on Fleury to perform at Hall of Fame levels. Crosby’s uncertain timetable, and the loss of Talbot to the Flyers will put more stress and fatigue on the Penguins’ core, so Bylsma, Pittsburgh management, and the Penguins’ loyal fan base will expect nothing less than perfection from the Stanley Cup winning goaltender. 
Given his performance over the past few seasons, Fleury will likely rise to the occasion, and possibly have a career-high statistical year. If it’s one thing Fleury has been known to handle well, it’s pressure. His shoulders will be the resting place of much of the stress put on the Penguins by their fans and coaching staff. Fleury’s history suggests he will perform well, and rise to the occasion, which is why he is preseason favourite for the Vezina.
Roberto Luongo
Controversial pick, I’m sure, but I have to go with Luongo again for the Vezina nomination, at least right now. Last season we saw Luongo put up career best regular season numbers during 2010-2011, and helped the Canucks win the President’s Trophy and the Western Conference Title. Luongo shared the Jennings Trophy with Cory Schneider, and stayed consistent through most of his 60 regular season. 
The only hurdle Luongo will have to clear this year is his mental toughness. He cares too much about what others think of his performances, which to the fans of Vancouver, must be perfect at every moment. 
Luongo’s limited preseason appearances show a different, better Luongo. He looks more relaxed, and looks like he is not over-thinking every play. With a relaxed and confident demeanor, Luongo will likely produce another statistical-best year.
Ryan Miller
Should Buffalo be smart and limit Miller’s starts to around 60, the Michigan native will hopefully perform on a more consistent basis this season, and help put the Sabres in a better playoff position than 2010-2011. 
Miller’s focus, athleticism, and confidence will play key roles in his success as they have in the past few seasons. The former Vezina winner is not overlooked by most, but I have a feeling his play behind a more solid defensive core now in Buffalo will have critics, fans, and players once again praising Miller as they did in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. 
A Vezina, and perhaps an Eastern Conference Championship are well within Miller’s grasp, as long as he is not fatigued late in the season. If he gets his rest and the confidence of his coaches and players, the hardware is sure to come.

By Greg Summy

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