by PuckStopsHere on 11/04/11 at 03:36 PM ET
Very early in the season I picked Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars as the early MVP. In time he was passed by Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the early year MVP race. Lehtonen remained the top goalie in the young season. I no longer think that is true.
Lehtonen is playing very well. He posts a .947 saves percentage and a 1.75 GAA to go with an 8-1 record. He is a huge part of the reason the Dallas Stars leads the Pacific Division. There is one other goaltender who has done even better. He is Nikolai Khabibulin of the Edmonton Oilers. Khabibulin is posting a .963 saves percentage and a 0.98 GAA. He has not lost in regulation so far this season. His performance is a big part of the reason Edmonton leads the Northwest Division. Presumably both of these performances are unsustainable because they would be record setting if maintained all season and they come from players who do not have a track record of being the best goalies in the league.
The race between Khabibulin and Lehtonen is closer than their numbers might show because Lehtonen has been a harder working goalie who has had to face 36% more shots so far this season. Dallas has allowed the third highest number of shots per game in the league and his numbers are impressive given the lack of defensive support he has had. Edmonton may not have a top defence either but they have performed better than Dallas so far this season.
Khabibulin is a surprise to perform well this year given that he performed very poorly last year (in fact he was second worst by goals versus threshold in the league last season). At age 38 it didn’t seem like a good bet that he was going to make a comeback.
Khabibulin is up for a new contract next season and it seems that he performs well above expectation in contract years. In 2004, he won the Stanley Cup in goal with the Tampa Bay Lightning. That was a contract year. He then signed a new deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and struggled at the beginning of it. His best year in Chicago was his contract year in 2008/09 where he posted a .919 saves percentage and a 2.33 GAA. This got him his contract in Edmonton. He struggled at the outset of the contract but is putting up some amazing numbers in his contract year. He has been the best goalie in the league so far this season.
Generally I do not believe the idea that players only play well in contract years. There are many players who do not hold that pattern and have uncharacteristically poor years in contract seasons. These players are ignored whenever that claim is made. Normal randomness would have some players exceed their expectation in contract years, while others under produce and others perform at expectation levels. Those who exceed their expectation tend to sign big contracts that we better remember and have a good chance of not being able to live up to their contracts. This leads to the creation of a general contract year myth in our memories when one does not exist in reality. It is merely the way we remember the events. However in Khabibulin’s case the pattern is too obvious to ignore. It seems that he might be a rare case where the player coasts through non-contract years and then really applies himself to succeed in a contract year.
I will be very surprised to see Nikolai Khabibulin actually win the Vezina Trophy, but he is the current leader. I do not think that a player of his age with his recent track record can play at a top level for an entire season. I would be surprised if Edmonton offered good enough defence to allow it. I would not be surprised to see Khabibulin fall to injury before the end of the season. However right now he has been the top goalie in the league and his success is a big reason why the Edmonton Oilers are doing as well as they have so far this year.
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