Why Antti Niemi Will Not Win the Vezina

Full disclosure: I fully believe Evgeni Nabokov should have won the Vezina in 2007-08, and still haven't gotten over it.

From 1927-1981, the Vezina Trophy was awarded to the goalie (or goalies) who allowed the fewest goals in the league. It was the Rocket Richard of goalie awards; there was no debate about who won the Vezina because it was a binary statistic award. In 1981, however, the William M. Jennings Trophy was created and usurped that award description. The Vezina Trophy's description was changed to the goalie "adjudged to be the best at this position." Suddenly, this objective award turns into a subjective one, and experiences all the negatives that come with a group of people who have their own individual ideas as to what "best at this position" means.

There have been 29 Vezina Awards that have been given out to NHL goaltenders since that change. 29 times NHL general managers have voted on who they judge to be "best at this position." Out of those 29 times, I can count on one hand the number of Vezinas awarded to a goalie on a Western Conference team. Four times has the Vezina been awarded to three Western Conference goalies, meaning 50% of the league has won it only 13.7% of the time.

Those lucky few were Grant Fuhr of the Edmonton Oilers in 1988, Ed Belfour of the Chicago Blackhawks in 1991 and 1993, and Miikka Kiprusoff of the Calgary Flames in 2004.

Notice anything else about those goalies? They either played for a Canadian or an Original Six team. That means in the entire history of the Vezina award, no goalie outside of Canada, the Original Six, or the Eastern Conference has ever won. Ever. And with 46 years of two conferences, that becomes a bit concerning.

Below is a breakdown of the first, second, and third place votes based on current conferences and divisions. The data only goes back to 1993 because that was the earliest I could find.

Vezina Voting Results since 1993-94

Category 1st Place 2nd place 3rd place Overall
Eastern Conference 17 6 13 35
Atlantic 5 4 6 15
Northeast 10 1 4 15
Southeast 2 1 2 5
Western Conference 1 12 6 19
Pacific 0 4 1 5
Northwest 1 3 4 8
Central 0 5 1 6

The voting breakdown certainly does not help disprove any sort of bias towards the Eastern teams. If you combine any two division in the East, they will have earned more votes than the entire Western Conference. The ten teams who are not in the Eastern Conference, Canada, or the Original Six combined for a total of 12 votes.

Granted, the dominance of two goalies during this time period - Martin Brodeur and Dominik Hasek - has skewed the results some. However, even if you remove Brodeur's 9 votes and Hasek's 6, the Eastern Conference still comes out ahead on both number of Vezina Trophies and total number of votes.

Four times, the top three goalies were all from the Eastern Conference. Nine times, there were two East goalies and two West. Five times, there was a single East goalie and two West. Never were there three West goalies. That would be absurd.

The vast majority of Western Conference votes were second place ballots. To me, that looks like many times GMs were confronted with two, strong options for Vezina, and decided to go with the guy that got more press - the Eastern Conference goalie. Or it could be GMs throwing the West a bone, mollifying Western teams by including a Western goalie on the ballot. Whatever the reason is, it has led to almost two thirds of the votes cast go towards Eastern goalies.

Currently, the top four candidates for Vezina this season are Sergei Bobrovsky, Henrik Lundqvist, Tuukka Rask, and Antti Niemi. All four have played outstanding this season, with three of the four being the primary reason why their respective team is vying or in the playoffs at this point. Three belong to ET teams, and one way out in the Pacific. You can see where this is going.

With the lack of inter-conference play, as well as a majority of his games starting at 10 PM or later in the East, Niemi has little chance of even making the top three lest one of Bobrovsky or Lundqvist fails to make the playoffs. It's a reality for the Vezina, a reality that has been proved over and over and over again. Does Niemi deserve to win the Vezina? It is certainly debatable. Is he a top three goalie this season? Absolutely. But he might not be, because of long-established Vezina voting norms.

I mean, I'm not saying East Coast Bias, but East Coast Bias.