Let me state my bias right here at the get-go: I believe Ben Bishop should be the midway point frontrunner to win the NHL’s Hart Memorial Trophy. Yes, I am a fan of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and yes, the amount of Lightning games I watch dwarfs the amount of games I watch played by any other team, and thus, yes, I have seen Bishop play far more than any other candidate. Yet still, I’ll brazenly go one step further and say also: At this point in the season, with still plenty of time for things to change, I don’t think the race is particularly close.
I’m sure that doesn’t go over well with Sidney Crosby fans. At this point in the season, Crosby has 48 games under his belt, which is what constituted a full schedule last year, and has 68 points to show for it. That’s a fantastic number, especially when you consider our own Marty St. Louis led the league in scoring last season, in 48 games, with 60 points. And I’m sure Alex Ovechkin fans are crying bloody murder about Ovi’s 34 goals, just as I’m sure Ryan Getzlaf fans are pointing to the Ducks’ outstanding season and Getzlaf’s hand in it. And then of course there’s this season’s darkhorse, Patrick Kane.
But you know what? I don’t care. (The bias is showing again.) I don’t care because of one simple reason: Ben Bishop steals games. Forget the numbers – throw them out the window. Keep in mind the Hart Trophy’s criteria, which has nothing to do with the league’s best player (otherwise we would simply hand it to Crosby at the end of each season he manages to stay healthy), but is rather awarded to the player most valuable to his team. Let me say again: Ben Bishop steals games.
But then, of course, there are the numbers. And Ben Bishop’s numbers, try as you might to brush them off, are quite staggering, and do nothing to hurt his case. If anything they cement it.
Since the days of Jacques Plante, which we won’t count because of the whole apples and oranges thing, the Hart Trophy has been awarded to a goaltender just three times. Jose Theodore was awarded the trophy at the end of the 2002 season. Before that, Dominik Hasek won the trophy in back-to-back years, 1997 and 1998.
Theodore’s 2001/2002 season is still remembered as magical. He carried the Montreal Canadiens that year to an unlikely Stanley Cup Playoff berth. He stole a lot of games. But the numbers? Here are his numbers for that year: 30-24-10, 2.11 GAA, .931%, 7 SO. Excellent numbers by any standard.
But now let’s take at the numbers Bishop has posted so far this season, with 34 games under his belt: 23-5-4, 1.80 GAA, .938%, 4 SO.
If you’re eyes are popping out of your head, don’t worry – that’s the correct reaction. Bishop’s numbers are that good. They’re so good, in fact, it almost causes them to be dismissed, the way back-up goalie numbers are often dismissed (and the way Josh Harding’s numbers, also eye-popping, are currently being dismissed).
Now, this next statement is not going to go over well with many a fellow Canadian hockey fan: I’ve seen a lot of goalies play, I’ve seen Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur and Curtis Joseph, and healthy amounts of all of them, but the best goalie I’ve ever seen in my life is without a doubt Dominik Hasek. And this is another case where I’ll say it’s not even close. Between roughly 1994 and 2001, Hasek was otherworldly, and he racked up six Vezina Trophies to go along with his pair of Hart Trophies, both of which feats are unmatched by any other modern-era goalie. Now, I know there are arguments about longevity, because Hasek didn’t really find his groove until he was already a little long in the tooth, and therefore didn’t have 20 or more years to offer like Brodeur and Roy. But to those arguments, allow me to offer Exhibit A: Bobby Orr.
And yet, crazily enough, even Hasek’s numbers during that stretch don’t match what Bishop has done so far this year. Hasek’s 1996/1997 numbers: 37-20-10, 2.27 GAA, .930%, 5 SO. Hasek’s numbers in 1997/1998: 33-23-13, 2.09 GAA, .932%, 13 SO (that particular number, the shutouts, is of course almost mythical). Statistically speaking, Hasek’s best year probably didn’t come until the following season, in which he didn’t win the Hart Trophy but did manage to take home yet another Vezina. 1998/1999: 30-18-14, 1.87 GAA, .937%, 9 SO. And even in that season, Hasek’s numbers don’t quite match what Bishop has managed to do so far this year.
I’m not saying Ben Bishop is better than Dominik Hasek. Anyone who knows me knows, and perhaps even from reading this article you’ll know, I keep Hasek on a special pedestal that’s reserved for only the very best. Gretzky? Lemieux? Orr? Sure. And I keep Hasek right there with them because I’ve never seen a player so capable of single-handedly winning games over a long period of time.
What I’m saying is, given the numbers and the comparables, it’s a crime that Ben Bishop isn’t the absolute shrug-of-the-shoulders obvious frontrunner for this year’s Hart Trophy. To this point in the season, and it’s not lost on me that there’s still plenty of season left and things can change (although Bishop’s GAA has been trending from miniscule to microscopic as the season progresses), he’s put up numbers that are aren’t just as good as every goalie who’s won the trophy since he’s been born – they’re better. And in Theodore’s case, you can even argue they’re a lot better.
Oh, and there is that other little fact: he steals games. And that’s something that can only be judged by the eye test. Unfortunately, not enough important eyeballs, like the eyeballs of those whose opinions weigh heavily in NHL hardware debates, wind up watching Tampa Bay Lightning games all that often. Or, at least, that’s what the case must be, since otherwise, there’s no reason I can think of why Bishop wouldn’t be the clear-cut frontrunner in the race.
But to those of us who watch him: we know. We know that the Lightning were ready to fight tooth and nail for the eighth and final playoff spot coming into this season. We remember how tentative we were when first we saw Bishop rob the Chicago Blackhawks in the second game of the season, and how over time our guarded optimism turned into full-blown confidence. Turn-over in the neutral zone? Forget it – Bishop’s in net. And we all remember how the season was reported over, and believed so even by many of us, when Steven Stamkos crashed into a post in Boston and broke his leg. But the team kept winning, and again, guarded optimism turned into full-blown confidence. It stopped mattering who was in the lineup, who was out – the only thing that mattered was who would be between the pipes on any given night.
So now, with the Bolts second in the Atlantic, in a season in which they were written off from the get-go by every hockey pundit on the planet, it appears all the same pundits are now writing Bishop off as well. How they think he’s come up with those magical numbers is a mystery to me, since they all laughed at the Lightning defense coming into the season and predicted the Bolts would be once again a favorite opponent of the NHL’s mega-snipers.
Oh well. Whether Bishop finishes the season as he’s started it is anyone’s guess. If that happens he won’t simply have had a great season, he’ll have had a historic season. Unfortunately, that might go under the radar as well. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe that’s part of the recipe for the Lightning’s success this year – the only thing anyone in the hockey media seemed to notice was when Steven Stamkos broke his leg, thus jeopardizing Team Canada’s potential scoring ability. And yet the Lightning keep winning, they won before and they’ve won since, and no one seems to know why…