Since the award was first given out in 1924, a goaltender has won the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player in the NHL just eight times.
Does it seem likely that in the nearly 100 years of the Hart Trophy’s existence, a goaltender was the most valuable player in the league only eight times? Consider that Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, widely considered the two best goaltenders of all time, never won the Hart, though Roy finished second in Hart voting once.
Dominik Hasek won the Hart twice, which might say something about who should actually be considered the greatest goaltender in NHL history, but it took two absolutely incredible seasons to do it. The last four times a goaltender won, including Hasek’s two wins, required a stupendous .930+ save percentage across more than 60 starts to carry an otherwise mediocre team.
Even Hasek didn’t get his due: his best ever season, when he had a ludicrous .937 save percentage in 64 games in 1998-99, he finished third in Hart voting. The next-best save percentage that season was .926. Hasek was robbed.
Everyone knows that goaltenders are immensely valuable. A great goaltender can bail out a bad team and carry them to the playoffs, while a bad goaltender can sink even the best teams. It’s arguably the most important position in hockey, so shouldn’t the best goaltender in the league also be the most valuable player?
When it comes to the Hart Trophy, however, there seems to be a tacit agreement: ignore the value of a goaltender and just focus on the best skater, usually the highest-scoring forward, unless a goaltender has a truly phenomenal season that cannot be brushed aside.
McDavid's historically-great season
That brings us to this current season. Connor McDavid is having an incredible year, with 21 goals and 60 points in just 34 games. Over a full 82-game season, that’s a 51-goal, 145-point pace, which would be the highest-scoring season in 25 years. 144 points would be the 22nd-best season of all time, comparable to the high-flying 80’s when goaltenders had .880 save percentages.
Understandably, McDavid is the obvious front-runner for the Hart Trophy this season. How could he not be?
Even if you look beyond goals and points at advanced analytics, McDavid is a step above the rest of the NHL. Evolving Hockey’s goals above replacement (GAR) statistic has McDavid at 16.1 goals above a replacement-level player, ie. the type of player that could be called up from the AHL or snagged off the waiver wire.
That’s huge. The highest GAR all of last season, in more than twice as many games, was Artemi Panarin’s 24.9. McDavid is on-pace to surpass that total even in the pandemic-shortened 56-game season.
It isn’t the highest GAR in the NHL this season, however. Not even close.
Goaltenders, GAR, and Thatcher Demko
The highest GAR belongs to goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is having a fantastic season for the Tampa Bay Lightning. His GAR of 25.5 has already surpassed Panarin from last season.
Right behind Vasilevskiy is Thatcher Demko, the Canucks’ young number one goaltender at 21.5. According to GAR, Demko has saved 21.5 more goals for the Canucks than a replacement-level goaltender that could be found in the AHL or on waivers.
Also ahead of McDavid this season are Cal Petersen (16.9), who has been obscenely good for a bad Los Angeles Kings team, and Marc-Andre Fleury (16.8), who somehow has the best save percentage of his career at the age of 36.
If we are to take this statistic at face value, then, Demko has been more valuable this season than McDavid and should be in the running not just for the Vezina Trophy, but also for the Hart. It’s just science.
It’s not that simple, of course. Goaltenders have an inherent advantage when it comes to statistics like GAR.
“Raw GAR includes an inherent time-on-ice component,” said Josh and Luke Younggren, the twins behind Evolving Hockey. “Obviously goalies spend at least 30 minutes more on the ice per game. This means they have much more time to ‘add’ value — or not add value.”
That makes intuitive sense. Even though a goaltender plays fewer games than a skater because a backup takes their place every now and then, they still end up playing a lot more minutes than even the most heavily-used skater.
Consider the last full 82-game season in 2018-19. Ryan Suter led all skaters in ice time with 2188:45 but 34 different goaltenders played more minutes. Goaltenders have a greater impact on the game than skaters simply because they never — or rarely — leave the ice.
This season, McDavid has played the most out of any NHL forward — 762:27 in ice time so far — while Demko, in 24 starts, has played nearly twice as much, 1436:22. That gives him nearly twice as much time to have a positive impact.
“If we look at rates, McDavid’s GAR/60 is about 1.3, while Vasilevskiy’s is just a little over 1,” said the Younggrens. “What generally drives goalie GAR to the levels we see is often just the amount of time they play.”
In other words, in the minutes that McDavid plays, he has been the most valuable player in the NHL. It’s just that he can’t play all of the minutes that a goaltender can, which makes it all the more impressive that his GAR is as high as it is. On the other hand, McDavid can have an impact at both ends of the ice that a goaltender can’t.
“The flip side is goalies don’t generate offence at all, so their entire value relies on preventing goals,” said the Younggrens. “Where skaters have the ability to add value both offensively and defensively.”
"He's going to win you a hockey game by himself."
So maybe Demko isn’t more valuable than McDavid, really, but the Canucks certainly know his value.
“Some nights, he’s going to win you a hockey game by himself,” said J.T. Miller.
That’s been particularly true in March. While Demko had a rough start to the season, he has a .942 save percentage across 10 starts so far in March, only surpassed by the .943 save percentage of Philipp Grubauer, who plays behind a Colorado Avalanche team that is much better defensively. Demko’s faced 99 more shots this month than Grubauer in the same number of starts.
Clear Sight Analytics, which goes in-depth into shot tracking to evaluate goaltenders, has Demko near the top of the league. As of last week, Demko was at 17.21 goals saved above expected, ahead of Vasilevskiy and behind only Marc-Andre Fleury.
“Man, he’s playing well,” said Canucks head coach Travis Green. “We’ve always thought Demko was going to be really good and has a chance to be a great goalie in the league and he’s showing that.”
There’s an argument to be made that Demko is already a great goalie in the league, but to make that argument sound, Demko will need more than a month of excellence. That’s the next step, one that he’s been working on all year — to become a workhorse goaltender that can carry the number one load across an entire season.
If Demko can continue to play at a high level for the rest of the season, he may not end up in the Hart conversation, but he should definitely be in consideration for the Vezina.