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NHL Awards Watch: The final push as ballots arrive

The NHL awards voters will fill out their ballots over the next two weeks, scouring every stats site for vital input into their decision-making process before inevitably just voting for someone on their beat or whoever already won the award.

Some awards leaders seem as though they’re cemented. Others can change by the day. There some extraordinarily close races this year, and some late-season cases could still be made.

Here’s the NHL Awards Watch for April. Again, this is a prediction of how I expect the voters would consider the current candidates, as well as a look at their merits. Keep in mind the Pro Hockey Writers Assocation (PHWA) votes for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Lady Byng; broadcasters vote for the Jack Adams, and general managers handle the Vezina. Also keep in mind the “You Gotta Be In It To Win It” protocol for the Hart and the Jack Adams.

All stats from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

Jump ahead to an award:
Hart | Norris | Selke | Calder
Vezina | Lady Byng | Jack Adams


Art Ross Trophy (points leader)

Current leader: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning (122 points)
Watch out for: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (114 points)
Dark-horse candidate: N/A. No one else is close to these two.

Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leader: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (51 goals)
Watch out for: Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (47 goals)
Dark-horse candidate: John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (45 goals)

Hart Trophy (most valuable player)

Leader: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
Finalists: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins; Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

Currently, Kucherov’s 122-point season ranks as the fourth-highest point total of the last 20 years, with Jaromir Jagr‘s 1998-99 campaign of 127 points as the leader in that span. Kucherov has four games left in the regular season, and is averaging 1.56 points per game. So beating that mark is mathematically possible.

Wherever he ends up, Kucherov is winning the Hart race this season by a few furlongs. There was a time when the knock on his candidacy was that he was simply the top player on a historically successful team. That conversation has thankfully shifted to Kucherov being a primary catalyst for the Lightning’s regular-season success. He has 29 more points than anyone else on the team. Seven of his 39 goals are game-winners. He’s a force of nature out there, dangerous on every shift. His points share — i.e. the number of standings points contributed to his team via his overall play, per Hockey Reference — is an NHL-best 13.8. If Connor McDavid or Patrick Kane had managed to nudge their teams into the playoffs — and they’re the best candidates on the outside looking in — Kucherov probably still captures the Hart.

Crosby has 94 points in 76 games, or 16 more than the second highest scorer on Pittsburgh (Phil Kessel). He’s been dynamic on offense, superb on defense (more on that in a bit) and piloted the Penguins to the playoffs through a turbulent, injury-riddled season for the club.

It could be argued that Gaudreau isn’t even the most valuable player on his team — that would be Mark Giordano — but he has 96 points in 79 games, which is 15 more than their second-leading scorer in Sean Monahan. I feel comfortable putting him in the top three because that’s where the PHWA had him in its midseason poll, and Gaudreau hasn’t done anything to repel that support.

I will say that on my ballot, Alex Ovechkin‘s name will be ahead of Gaudreau’s. He’s 15 points better than his teammates and has over double the goals (!) of the next highest guy. I just wonder if the voters would tip the Hart ballot to the Eastern Conference so heavily, and if Ovechkin’s performance in getting a defending champion back to the playoffs is really going to be that valued by the voters. But, he’s deserving.

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, last season’s runner-up, deserves a hard look over Gaudreau, too. Last year’s winner, Taylor Hall, has been limited to 33 games for the Devils. Which, based on their current draft lottery chances, made him a different kind of MVP.

Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Leader: Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames
Finalists: Brent Burns San Jose Sharks; John Carlson, Washington Capitals

So what kind of Edible Arrangement did Giordano send to Drew Doughty for throwing a bucket of sludge all over Brent Burns’s Norris candidacy?

Please recall Doughty, a Norris winner himself, blasting Burns while putting the Flames defenseman over: “Giordano has (72 points) and he plays good defense. Burns get beat three times a game, literally, and everybody has him up for the Norris. I just don’t get it.”

Yikes.

Giordano didn’t really need Doughty to put him thumb on the scale. He was already the front-runner for the award with 74 points in 77 games, putting him right behind Burns (79 points in 79 games) for the NHL lead among defensemen. His 17 goals ranked him second behind the Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly. He’s a plus-39, has a relative Corsi of 5.2 percent and has done this with 51.7 percent of his shifts starting in the offensive zone vs. Burns at 64.0.

This isn’t to say that Burns hasn’t had himself a season. With three games left in the Sharks’ campaign, there’s a chance Burns will pass Erik Karlsson‘s 82 points in 2015-16 for the highest point total for a defenseman in the last 20 years. He’s a shot-generating possession machine. For all the talk about his suspect defense, please recall the Norris is given to the defenseman with “the greatest all-round ability.” His overwhelming offensive season warrants inclusion here.

The last spot was tabbed for Rielly during the midseason balloting, but I think his stock has fallen. Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins (56 points in 63 games) could be the choice here, as he’s the NHL’s best pick-pocket in his own zone among defensemen. As the voters have shown with Patrice Bergeron and the Selke, a lower number of games played can be overlooked for astonishing defensive prowess. Letang has a plus-14.8 in expected goals plus/minus.

I’m hoping voters do give a long look at another Metro Division blueliner in John Carlson of the Washington Capitals, who was fifth for the Norris last season. Carlson has 69 points in 78 games, with 33 of them coming on the Capitals’ potent power play. This is partially a product of his usage, as 56.1 percent of his shifts begin in the offense zone, by far the highest of his career. But he’s been solid on the defensive side, rivaling Letang for defensive zone loose puck recoveries. Carlson has quickly proven that last season’s breakout was not a contract year outlier.

Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

Leader: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
Finalists: Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs; Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars

Vasilevskiy is going to crush this, with a 37-10-4 record, a .627 quality starts percentage and a hefty 24.88 goals saved above average for a goalie that the general managers voted third for the Vezina last season.

But Bishop presents several arguments that he’s having the stronger season, in six fewer games: 26-15-2, .933 save percentage, 2.03 goals-against average, a .682 quality starts percentage and a stellar 30.36 goals saved above average. Bishop is essentially what John Gibson was tracking to be this season until the Ducks imploded.

The third spot is probably still Freddie’s, despite his well-documented struggles down the stretch. He’s 35-15-6 with a .632 quality starts percentage and a 13.32 goals saved above average.

The three wild cards in the Vezina race are Robin Lehner (24-12-5) and his incredible .928 save percentage and 22.47 goals saved above average — not to mention his well-documented comeback from off-ice issues; Darcy Kuemper of the Coyotes, who has a .924 save percentage and 23.29 goal saved above average in 53 games; and then there’s Jordan Binnington of the St. Louis Blues, who has been the best goalie in the league in the 29 games he’s appeared in. But the operative phrase is “29 games,” and it’s difficult to believe the GMs are going to move him ahead of goalies with more than twice that work history.

Calder Trophy (top rookie)

Leader: Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
Finalists: Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues; Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres

Has Binnington made this a race? Yes, in the sense that Pettersson will no longer have the margin of victory he seemed destined for before the 25-year-old goalie relocated the Blues from the basement to a cushy playoff seed. But rest assured, it’s still a victory: Pettersson has 27 goals and 38 assists for 65 points in 68 games. That’s the sixth-highest points per game average for a rookie in the last 20 years. Four of the guys ahead of him won the Calder. The other one was Sidney Crosby.

Binnington’s going to a get a nomination, which is a remarkable thing when you consider the maximum number of games he could play is 33. He’s currently 47th in the NHL in games played for a goaltender. But at 21-5-1, a .928 save percentage, a league-best 1.85 goals against average and 13.68 goals saved above average, his case is strong enough to topple arguments about his work rate. At least when it comes to the Calder.

Let me state for the record that Dallas Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen deserves that last Calder finalist spot over Rasmus Dahlin. While the Sabres rookie has Heiskanen beat in points (41 to 33), Heiskanen has the lead in goals (12 to 8). He also has a much stronger case when it comes to ice time, leading all rookies with 23:12 per game, with Dahlin behind him at 21:09. He played in all situations, including 1:24 per game on the penalty kill. Dahlin also had the more favorable deployment with 58.5 percent of his even-strength shifts starting in the offensive zone.

But Dahlin is likely getting that last nod, with a point total that’s eighth best in the last 20 years for a rookie defenseman and with a splash of East Coast bias. The real hipster pick here would be Anthony Cirelli of the Lightning, but the Calder wasn’t made for defensive forwards. (Offensive defensemen, on the other hand…)

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Leader: Mark Stone, Vegas Golden Knights
Finalists: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins; Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues

The best thing to happen to Mark Stone was the 2019 NHL trade deadline, and not just because he left Eugene Melnyk’s flea circus in his rear-view mirror en route to the glorious Golden Knights.

The derby for his services raise his profile considerably, and almost every accolade had his Selke-worthiness attached as a footnote. His reputation as the Patrice Bergeron of defensive wingers, combined with a growing desire to see someone other than a center win this award for the first time in two decades, has him as the favorite for the award. Expect more analytics valentines like this one from Andrew Berkshire of Sportsnet. Also, please note that Stone has 72 points in 75 games, fulfilling the ludicrous offensive component that’s become mandatory to win this award.

Speaking of Bergeron, the Bruins have three games remaining which means the most he can have this season is 65 games played. He was a Selke finalist last season with just 64 games played, which was a bit ridiculous when either Aleksander Barkov or Mikko Koivu was more deserving. So despite not being listed here, don’t count him out as a potential finalist. He’s having another Patrice Bergeron season — I’d just argue that there hasn’t been enough of him to warrant a spot over these other two forwards.

The “Crosby for Selke” talk has been growing louder all season, and for good reason: He’s one of the best in the NHL in limiting high-danger shot attempts when he’s on the ice, he’s at 55.1 percent on faceoffs and has a 7.30 Corsi relative to his teammates. His expected goals against of 49.8 percent — the metric that averages out goals based on shot location and quality — rivals that of Stone. Sid’s deserving, but it also feels like there’s a movement afoot to get him some notoriety for his defensive game. Because, you know, we simply haven’t appreciated him enough.

Speaking of under-appreciated: It’s a little nuts that Ryan O’Reilly hasn’t been a Selke finalist yet, but three years off the grid in Buffalo will do that for a guy. He honestly should get Hart Trophy consideration for being the best thing about the Blues wire-to-wire this season, with 73 points in 78 games, but a Selke nod might end up being his consolation prize. O’Reilly is the best forechecker in the league, a dominant force on faceoffs (56.9 percent) and is at 47.0 percent in expected goals against.

There are couple of other defensive wizards worth mentioning here in Montreal’s Phillip Danault, Calgary’s Elias Lindholm and Mikael Backlund, as well as Tampa Bay rookie Anthony Cirelli. But along with Bergeron, the biggest omission here is likely Barkov. The Selke remains a reputation-based award. That’s why it wouldn’t surprise me to see Bergeron make the cut, nor would it surprise me to see the voters give Barkov a spot in the top three despite this being a season that just hasn’t been up to his lofty defensive standards.

Luckily, Barkov will still have some hardware to pick up in Vegas…

Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play)

Leader: Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Finalists: Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames; Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues

Barkov has turned into quite the miscreant, now with three minor penalties this season to the 29 (!) called on players trying to defend him. He’s still the leading paragon of virtue for this award, having finished third for it last season. O’Reilly, who finished second to him, should be a finalist again after committing only three penalties. Monahan has committed only two penalties this season while drawing 16. One assumes the inspiration for the “Boring Sean Monahan” Twitter feed is Byng material.

And as always: The Lady Byng should be determined by the NHL Officials Association and not professional hockey writers, because the former is an extremely more astute judge of character than the latter.

Jack Adams Award (best coach)

Leader: Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning
Finalists: Bill Peters, Calgary Flames; Barry Trotz, New York Islanders

It’s a neck-and-neck race between Cooper and Trotz for this award, and it feels like the wind has shifted slightly in the director of the Lightning coach. Keep in mind that it’s the broadcasters that vote on this award. They’ve all seen, first hand, how Tampa Bay has rolled through this season. They’ve counted up the standings points to see that the Lightning are having one of the most successful seasons in NHL history. And they’ve no doubt talked to Cooper, which means they’ve no doubt been charmed by his Michael Keaton-meets-Steve Kerr appeal.

That said, it’s still hard to imagine Trotz not winning this award for the sheer volume of Jack Adams boxes he checks: Being a new coach to the team; making a “bad” team “good”; demonstrable results with that team, in that he turned them into defensive juggernaut; and have an undeniable narrative that attracts voters.

I think Peters gets that third spot as sort of a mirror image of Trotz: Having the same success with a previously also-ran team, but by doing it with offensive improvement. But if the Arizona Coyotes slip into the postseason, this is Rick Tocchet’s spot.

Masterton Trophy

The Masterton is awarded annually by the PHWA to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey. Each chapter of the PHWA puts forth a nominee.

The Masterton is typically your “Lifetime Original Movie” award, in that the most harrowing or heart-tugging story wins it, which is why Robin Lehner of the Islanders is the expected frontrunner due to his candid struggles off the ice with abusing pills and alcohol, and his remarkable turnaround this season.

As you’ll see, many of the nominees this year seem to fall into “veteran players who didn’t quit hockey when things weren’t going too well or are Zdeno Chara.”

Anaheim Ducks: Patrick Eaves
Arizona Coyotes: Michael Grabner
Boston Bruins: Zdeno Chara
Buffalo Sabres: Jason Pominville
Calgary Flames: Mark Giordano
Carolina Hurricanes: Curtis McElhinney
Chicago Blackhawks: Corey Crawford
Colorado Avalanche: Carl Soderberg
Columbus Blue Jackets: Nick Foligno
Dallas Stars: Taylor Fedun
Detroit Red Wings: Niklas Kronwall
Edmonton Oilers: Andrej Sekera
Florida Panthers: Derek MacKenzie
Los Angeles Kings: Jack Campbell
Minnesota Wild: Ryan Suter
Montreal Canadiens: Andrew Shaw
Nashville Predators: Rocco Grimaldi
New Jersey Devils: Cory Schneider
New York Islanders: Robin Lehner
New York Rangers: Brendan Smith
Ottawa Senators: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Philadelphia Flyers: Brian Elliott
Pittsburgh Penguins: Matt Cullen
St. Louis Blues: Jay Bouwmeester
San Jose Sharks: Joe Thornton
Tampa Bay Lightning: Ryan Callahan
Toronto Maple Leafs: Tyler Ennis
Vancouver Canucks: Jacob Markstrom
Vegas Golden Knights: Ryan Carpenter
Washington Capitals: Brooks Orpik
Winnipeg Jets: Dmitry Kulikov

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