Sharks vs. Blue Jackets: Niemi vs. Bobrovsky

Playoff berths and the Vezina Trophy are on the line as Antti Niemi and the Sharks face Sergei Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets.

When the Sharks host the Blue Jackets this evening, they'll have a chance to clinch their ninth consecutive playoff berth. Despite the tumultuous route that got them here, it's more or less where we expected San Jose to be with a week remaining in the regular season. What's unexpected is that this late-April game is genuinely meaningful for Columbus as well. The Jackets currently hold down the 8th seed in the Western Conference with one more standings point (but one fewer game remaining) than 9th-place Detroit and will likely need to run the table in order to secure the franchise's second ever postseason appearance.

Both the Sharks and Blue Jackets are where they currently find themselves in large part due to goaltending. Antti Niemi and Sergei Bobrovsky are each in the midst of career-best seasons and are currently second and third in save percentage among NHL starters. As a result, they've both received a good deal of Vezina Trophy buzz, the annual award voted on by GMs that goes to the goaltender "adjudged to be the best at his position." Given that the man who ranks first in save percentage, Craig Anderson, has only appeared in 21 games and that other leaders like Tuukka Rask and Henrik Lundqvist are quite a few clicks south of Bobrovsky and have had lesser workloads than Niemi, it seems safe to declare Nemo and Bob the front-runners. But which one deserves the prize?

Objectively adjudging goaltenders is a notoriously difficult task in large part because the majority of goalie stats provided by the NHL are, to put it bluntly, useless. Wins are obviously a team stat; goalies have no control over the amount of offense their team generates 200 feet away from them and essentially no control over the number of shots they face, making it pointless to evaluate them by that criteria. Shutouts are similarly flawed in that it's much easier for a goalie on a team that allows an average of 23 shots per game to record a shutout as compared to a team that allows 33. Goals-against average once again factors in the volume of shots faced; given that even the greatest puck-handling goalie of all time has had a fairly negligible impact on shot prevention, it seems silly to use GAA as a goalie metric.

So we're left with save percentage, which in itself is somewhat imperfect because it conflates multiple game states; teams that take more penalties force their goalies to spend a greater amount of time killing those penalties, thereby adversely affecting their save percentage. On the other hand, there exists compelling evidence that including PK SV% is beneficial over small sample sizes, which this season certainly qualifies as. Here's a look at how Niemi and Bobrovsky stack up in terms of shots faced at even-strength, shorthanded and overall as well as their SV% in each of those game states.

Goalie Games Played EV GA EV SA EV SV% PK GA PK SA PK SV% Ovr GA Ovr SA Ovr SV%
Antti Niemi 40 64 947 .932 17 154 .890 84 1145 .927
Sergei Bobrovsky 35 52 847 .939 16 130 .877 69 997 .931

Shot quality effects tend to be fairly insignificant at even-strength but there's likely more of a team-to-team spread in defensive shot quality on the penalty kill. Niemi's season seems like a case study for this; he posted a .858 shorthanded SV% behind the Sharks' abysmal penalty kill unit from 2010-12 but is sporting sparkling numbers this year, likely buoyed by a revamped system that clamps down on allowing those cross-ice, through-the-box attempts the Sharks were notorious for yielding when down a man. Overall, Bobrovsky's numbers are a few degrees north of Niemi's but he's also faced 148 fewer shots. Factoring that in is a subjective call; it's likely Bobrovsky would regress over those extra shots but the Vezina is supposed to be for actual performance, not future likelihoods.

It's a tough call to make, doubly so because there's no apparent strategic benefit to ensuring Niemi doesn't win it or that Bobrovsky does. Niemi's contract runs through 2015 and it's unlikely winning the 2013 Vezina would figure heavily into the negotiations at that time. Bobrovsky is an impending restricted free agent but with Columbus moving to the East there's no real benefit to Doug Wilson or other Western Conference GMs purposely screwing over Jarmo Kekäläinen. I'm also not a big believer that Columbus has to make the playoffs in order for Bobrovsky to merit consideration; it isn't his fault the team around him is dreadful. Ultimately, Lundqvist will probably just win it because he's Lundqvist, rendering this debate pointless, but it would be nice to see the Sharks put a dent in Bobrovsky's case by lighting him up tonight.

Columbus Blue Jackets


San Jose Sharks
21-17-7, 49 points
24-13-7, 55 points
8th in Western Conference 5th in Western Conference

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Projected Sharks Lineup

T.J. Galiardi - Joe Thornton - Brent Burns
Patrick Marleau - Logan Couture - Martin Havlat
Raffi Torres - Joe Pavelski - Tommy Wingels
Andrew Desjardins - Scott Gomez - Adam Burish

Scott Hannan - Dan Boyle
Marc-Edouard Vlasic - Justin Braun
Matt Irwin - Brad Stuart

Antti Niemi
Thomas Greiss

Projected Blue Jackets Lineup

Vinny Prospal - Mark Letestu - Marian Gaborik
R.J. Umberger - Ryan Johansen - Nick Foligno
Blake Comeau - Brandon Dubinsky - Cam Atkinson
Colton Gillies - Derek MacKenzie - Jared Boll

Fedor Tyutin - James Wisniewski
Tim Erixon - Adrian Aucoin
Jack Johnson - Dalton Prout

Sergei Bobrovsky
Michael Leighton