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John Gibson, the Man Who Saved the Ducks

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Why a Vezina Trophy nomination should be in his near future

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

John Gibson has firmly entrenched himself as one of the top goaltenders in the NHL. But is anyone paying attention?

The 2017-18 is nearing its end, and because of that postseason awards have become a topic for debate; some argued upon more intensely than others. That Hart Trophy race is going to be a fun one.

The Vezina Trophy hasn’t been as heavily discussed. Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevsky started off strong but has struggled in recent months. Pekka Rinne is probably the current favorite, considering his standard statistics and the fact that he plays for the NHL’s best team. Sergei Bobrovsky, last year’s winner, is always lurking in the conversation.

Then there’s Gibson, who has arguably been better than anyone else at his position. It’s time the rest of the hockey world takes notice.

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The Vezina Trophy is unique because it’s voted on by the NHL’s 31 general managers and not by the media. Of course, GMs have better things to do than study up on who the top goalies have been. Plus, despite living in this age of advanced statistics, many use archaic standard numbers like win-loss record and goals against average to determine performance.

If they do so again for 2017-18, Gibson has an uphill battle to climb into serious Vezina consideration — his standard statistics, 29-17-7 with a 2.42 GAA and .927 save percentage, are noteworthy but not otherworldly.

The average numbers for a Vezina finalist over the last five full seasons (which doesn’t include the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season) are a 40-17-6 record with a .926 save percentage and 2.14 GAA. For winners, those average numbers are bumped to 42-15-6 with a .929 save percentage and 2.05 GAA.

Unfortunately for Gibson, his current GAA works against him. Over the last 10 seasons, only one goalie (Semyon Varlamov in 2013-14) has been a finalist for the Vezina with a GAA of 2.40 or higher. Since 2011-12, only three goalies even received a vote with a GAA as high as Gibson’s currently is.

Judging by average goalie records of typical Vezina finalists (which, along with GAA, is an incomplete way of assessing a goalie’s performance), Gibson falls short. With seven games left, Gibson can finish with a maximum of 36 wins. Even with a very optimistic view it’s far more likely he finishes with 33 wins or so, which is well below the average of 40 by recent Vezina nominees. The last five full seasons, only two goalies — Jonathan Quick in 2011-12 and Ben Bishop in 2015-16 — were Vezina finalists with 35 wins or less.

Should GAA and wins matter? Of course not. Take Gibson’s performance Friday against the Winnipeg Jets for example — Gibson stopped 39 of the 42 shots thrown his way by the Jets, including 15 medium-danger chances and 10 high-danger chances, but he’s ultimately saddled with three goals against and an overtime loss despite being the best player on the ice.

There are far better ways of determining a netminder’s success, and that’s where the argument for Gibson begins.

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The Ducks’ season essentially can be split into two parts: Before and after Ryan Getzlaf returned from facial surgery on Dec. 11. Prior to Dec. 11, the Ducks were one of the league’s unhealthiest teams — Getzlaf, Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen (prior to being traded) and Ryan Kesler all missed significant time with injuries and their absences affected Anaheim’s ability to defend a great deal.

It’s because of the Ducks’ goaltending — mostly Gibson — that Anaheim remained in striking distance for a playoff spot. Gibson played 23 of Anaheim’s 30 games up to that point and faced the third-most shots against (789) of any goalie while the Ducks coughed up the second-most shot attempts of any team. He still managed a .920 save percentage.

What he’s done post-Dec. 11 is what stands out — among goalies with at least 25 games in that span, Gibson ranks first in save percentage (.932). His win-loss of 21-7-4 and GAA of 2.06 (this is for you, traditionalists!) are also stellar.

Gibson’s recent success is important, but it’s crucial to remember when examining a goalie’s body of work that not all shots are denied equally. Some come on dangerous chances, some while your team is on the penalty kill, some when you’re team decides to sit on a lead in the third period (which the Ducks are prone to do).

Anaheim is one of the most penalized teams in the NHL (currently rank first in total minutes on the penalty kill, fourth in amount of times shorthanded) but are in the middle of the pack in goals against while down a man. That’s largely because of Gibson — he possesses unique athleticism and agility, and that comes in handy when the opposition is swinging the puck around to tee up a high-quality scoring chance. His penalty kill save percentage is No. 1 in the NHL.

How about shot quality? It could be argued that Gibson’s low-danger save percentage — he currently ranks second in the league — inflates his overall percentage. However, Gibson is one of only three goaltenders (minimum 2,000 minutes in all situations) to rank in top 10 for low-danger, medium-danger and high-danger save percentage. The other two are Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury and Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck, and Gibson ranks higher than both of them in each category. About 66 percent of shots against Gibson would be considered medium- or high-danger, which is the highest in the league.

Inflated numbers? Certainly not. No goaltender has been as consistently hard to beat, irregardless of the quality of shot, than Gibson.

Gibson’s Goals Saved Against Average, which measures a goalie’s performance versus the league average (more in-depth information about GSAA can be found here) ranks second in the league (ahead of Rinne and narrowly behind Sergei Bobrovsky). It’s essentially the baseball equivalent of WAR, so if you’re an Anaheim sports fan and recognize the greatness of Mike Trout...well, Gibson is almost like the Mike Trout of goaltending.

While voters will likely favor Rinne (he has impressive standard statistics and he’s the goaltender for the best team in hockey) Gibson deserves recognition for his season. When the Ducks were at far less than 100 percent, he kept them in the race. As the team has inched closer to full strength, he’s excelled.

There were questions when the Ducks elected to trade Frederik Andersen to Toronto about Gibson’s viability as a full-time goalie due to his lack of experience and nagging injury history, but he’s answered the bell. Gibson took the reins to start the 2016-17 season and only Bobrovsky has a superior save percentage since then. He already exceeded his previous career-high in games started and is on pace to play in over 60 games (which is a perfect number for goalies nowadays).

Will it result in a Vezina nomination? A stellar finish would help, but Gibson is absolutely deserving.

(statistics courtesy of NHL.com and corsica.hockey)