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NHL Awards Watch: Likely finalists, hipster picks, unfair snubs

When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced the “return to play” postseason tournament format, he announced that the regular season was considered completed as of March 11, the day before the league shut down for the coronavirus pandemic.

While there was some brief confusion about where statistics from the qualification round would end up, they’re now playoff stats and the regular-season numbers are set in stone. Hence, we got the news that the stat-based regular-season awards for 2019-20 have been decided, with Leon Draisaitl taking home the Art Ross Trophy for most points, Alex Ovechkin and David Pastrnak tying for the Rocket Richard Trophy (most goals), the Boston Bruins winning the Presidents’ Trophy for most standings points, and the Bruins’ goalie tandem earning the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals.

Are the 24 teams that will play on this summer “playoff” teams? This might seem like semantics, but for awards like the Hart Trophy and the Jack Adams that are heavily influenced by the success of one’s team, it’s an important designation. Technically, teams have to be in the top-four round-robin tournaments or win in the qualification round to be considered “Stanley Cup playoff teams.” But do you think a Jack Adams voter is going to strike John Tortorella from a ballot because the Columbus Blue Jackets were technically ninth in the East?

With the regular season done, it’s time to survey the field for the major awards. In this edition of NHL Awards Watch, we’ll predict the probable top three, shout out a hipster pick and lament a likely snub.

Keep in mind that the Pro Hockey Writers Association (PHWA) votes for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Lady Byng; broadcasters vote for the Jack Adams; and general managers handle the Vezina. Let ’em know your picks!

All stats from Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick and Evolving Hockey.

Jump ahead:
Hart | Norris | Calder
Selke | Vezina
Byng | Adams

Hart Trophy (MVP)

Probable finalists: Leon Draisaitl, C, Edmonton Oilers; Nathan MacKinnon, C, Colorado Avalanche; David Pastrnak, RW, Boston Bruins
Hipster pick: Artemi Panarin, LW, New York Rangers
Snubbed: Connor Hellebuyck, G, Winnipeg Jets

I think Draisaitl and MacKinnon are locks. The Edmonton center won the Art Ross Trophy with 110 points in 71 games in a walk over teammate Connor McDavid (97 points). His 1.55 points-per-game average ranks second only to 2019 Hart winner Nikita Kucherov (1.56) for highest average of the past 20 years. Draisaitl and McDavid saw time on the power play together, where Draisaitl scored 44 of his points, and he drove his own line for most of the season at 5-on-5. The knock on him is going to be goal suppression, where he was a brutal minus-5.2 goals above average on defense. He also registered a minus-7; since 1960, the first season the stat was tabulated officially in the NHL, no one has won the Hart Trophy with a negative plus/minus. (Stan Mikita won it in 1968 with a plus/minus of zero.)

MacKinnon has the “country mile better than his teammates” Hart Trophy case locked up, with 93 points in 69 games. The next-highest scorer on the injury-plagued Avalanche was Cale Makar, at 50 points in 57 games. That 43-point spread is greater than the one Taylor Hall had in 2017-18 when he captured the Hart with the New Jersey Devils — beating out MacKinnon for the award.

Ear to the ground, I sense there’s more support for Pastrnak — who split the Rocket Richard with Alex Ovechkin after 48 goals in 70 games — than for Panarin when it comes to that final spot. I imagine that’s based partially on their respective teams’ places in the standings. Even though the Rangers are a “postseason team” at the moment, they were invited to the qualification round while the Bruins finished atop the conference. Both players had 95 points, but Panarin was 20 points better than the Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad (75), although the latter player did that in just 57 games for a 1.32 points per game average — Panarin’s was 1.38.

I’d put Panarin ahead of Pastrnak on my ballot. As would ESPN’s Dimitri Filipovic, who writes:

“Panarin may not have led the league in scoring, but considering the context of his performance, his 95 points were every bit as impressive as Leon Draisaitl’s 110. No one generated more offense than he did at 5-on-5 (pacing the league with 59 points), and he did so without the benefit of a single notable linemate of whom to speak. The two forwards he shared the ice with at even strength most often this season were Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast, freeing up players like Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider to carry less of the burden than they had in years past. To show his unique impact on the team, consider that the Rangers outscored opponents 75-38 at 5-on-5 with Panarin on the ice, while getting outscored 105-75 when he wasn’t out there. Not only did he make every player he shared the ice with better (which we can discernibly see in his teammates’ with-vs.-without-you stats), but he got better as the season went along. In 33 games after the Christmas break, he had 50 points, got held off the scoresheet just seven times, and led the Rangers to a 20-12-1 record that helped them progressively work their way up the standings and back into the postseason picture.”

A convincing case. Then again, there’s a very good argument that Connor Hellebuyck should be ahead of both Panarin and Pastrnak. He had a league-best 26.7 goals saved above average and 4.8 wins above replacement to go along with a quality starts percentage of .643. He appeared in 58 of the Jets’ 71 games. He did all this after the Jets lost four of their six regular defensemen from last season. But given the market and given that Tuukka Rask had better traditional stats, I’m not sure he’ll get the support.

Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Probable finalists: John Carlson, Washington Capitals; Roman Josi, Nashville Predators; Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
Hipster pick: Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
Snubbed: Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues

Carlson’s 1.09 points-per-game average is the highest for any defenseman since 1993-94. He finished with 75 points in 69 games. But despite a plus-12, his critics see him as a defensively deficient defenseman, with a minus-3.4 defensive goals above average.

Josi had an outstanding 65 points in 69 games, playing 1:09 more per game on average than Carlson and skating to a plus-22. He had a 54.50% expected goals percentage, and was on the plus side (3.5) of defensive goals above average. He wins the defensive argument against Carlson, but Carlson emphatically wins the offensive one. What does that mean? Well, The Athletic’s writers — many of whom have PHWA ballots — went for Josi by 63% in a vote in late March. NHL.com’s writers, who do not have ballots, gave Carlson 16 out of 18 possible first-place votes. ESPN’s Emily Kaplan and Vince Masi lean Josi, while Chris Peters leans Carlson.

Hedman was a finalist for the past three seasons, and with 55 points in 66 games figures to be one again. He was fourth among defensemen in goals scored above average (18.1), better than Josi (12.4) or Carlson (7.6).

Dimitri Filipovic would give the Norris to Josi, but had Pietrangelo second on his ballot, and for good reason: The Blues’ captain had 52 points in 70 games, skating 24:11 on average. His 18.2 goals above average put him third in the league.

Slavin was part of one of the NHL’s top defensive pairs with Dougie Hamilton before Hamilton’s injury. He ended up with a career-best 36 points and a plus-30. At some point, one of the best defensive defensemen in hockey deserves Norris love.

Calder Trophy (top rookie)

Probable finalists: Cale Makar, D, Colorado Avalanche; Quinn Hughes, D, Vancouver Canucks; Elvis Merzlikins, G, Columbus Blue Jackets
Hipster pick: Mackenzie Blackwood, G, New Jersey Devils
Snubbed: Victor Olofsson, RW, Buffalo Sabres and Dominik Kubalik, LW, Chicago Blackhawks

Cale or Quinn? Quinn or Cale? As the Joker once said to Batman, “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”

The partisan Colorado Hockey Now did a deep dive that led to Makar winning the Calder. Mitch Brown of The Athletic put together a great video analysis that gave Hughes the edge. Chris Peters, our prospects guru, gives “a slight lean” to Hughes. Both The Athletic writers and NHL.com staffers voted Makar first for the Calder. Mark Scheifele of the Winnipeg Jets favored Hughes in his Players Tribune awards piece. “I think both Makar and Hughes are going to have outstanding careers. They’re part of a new wave of D-men who, even though I’m not that much older than them, are a lot different from those who have come before. It’s close, but for me it goes to Hughes. He’s just been that much more creative, and also done more to help his team,” he said.

By the numbers, Hughes is fourth among defensemen with 53 points in 68 games, solidifying the Canucks’ blue line in skating 21:53 per game. Makar is third in points per game at 0.88, with 50 points in 57 games and skating 21:01 per game. This could be one of the closest rookie of the year votes in the history of the award.

One thing is clear: A defenseman is going to win the Calder for the first time since Aaron Ekblad in 2015. The question is whether it’s a clean sweep, as Adam Fox of the Rangers (42 points in 70 games) has had an outstanding season too.

But most likely the third finalist will be from another part of the ice, and we think it might end up being goalie Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who went 13-9-8 with a .923 save percentage with five shutouts. There’s a strong case to be made for the Devils’ Blackwood, who went 22-14-8 with a .915 save percentage for a team that gave up the sixth-most shots per game (32.7).

But Merzlikins was briefly a sensation. Few goalies in the NHL this season had the run that Merzlikins did. From Dec. 14 through the season’s pause, the Blue Jackets goalie earned points in 18 out of 23 games (going 13-5-5), and that might stick with the voters. He was the only player outside of Makar and Hughes to get a first-place vote on NHL.com.

It’s an odd year for the Calder, and that could mean neither a 30-goal scorer (Kubalik) nor the leader in points per game among forwards (Olofsson, with 0.78) are finalists. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because it’s either Makar or Hughes winning the award.

Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

Note: The NHL’s general managers vote for this award.

Probable finalists: Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets; Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins; Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
Hipster pick: Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes
Snubbed: Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars

Hellebuyck is perhaps the easiest call of awards season, as ESPN’s Dimitri Filipovic explains:

“No goalie played more than he did, no goalie faced more shots than he did, and no goalie made more saves than he did. And that’s before accounting for his situation, playing in a defensive environment that was arguably one of the least forgiving in the entire league. He saved nearly 20 goals above expected this season. For context: There’s no one else in double figures, and Hellebuyck himself saved 12.8 goals above expected two years ago when he finished second in Vezina voting (securing seven first-place votes that season). The Jets were closer to the Californian cellar dwellers based on every underlying metric, but because they had the best player at the most valuable position they were hovering around the playoff bubble instead.”

Rask should have strong support from the general managers for his 26-8-6 record, while leading the NHL in save percentage (.929) and goals-against average (2.12). He was second in goals saved above average (19.7). But he’s played 41 games to Hellebuyck’s 58 games. Vasilevskiy doesn’t have a strong analytics argument (he’s 20th in goals saved above average), but he leads the league in wins with 35, which is sometimes enough to win the GMs’ fancy.

Kuemper actually won the NHL.com straw poll in January, but an injury in December limited his season to 29 games. That’s not nearly enough in a traditional season, but those stats are stellar: 16-11-2, .928 save percentage, 2.22 goals-against average and a .759 quality starts percentage. He was fourth in goals saved above average (15.6).

Bishop was fifth in goals saved above average, and is a three-time Vezina finalist, including last season. He had a strong season with a 21-16-4 record and a .920 save percentage. But he might get squeezed out — especially if the GMs decide to retroactively reward Jordan Binnington for last postseason’s run with the Blues with a Vezina nomination.

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Probable finalists: Sean Couturier, C, Philadelphia Flyers; Patrice Bergeron, C, Boston Bruins; Anthony Cirelli, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
Hipster pick: Valeri Nichushkin, RW, Colorado Avalanche
Snubbed: Ryan O’Reilly, C, St. Louis Blues

The wait should be over for Couturier. He was runner-up for the Selke in 2018, the only time he has been nominated since entering the league in 2011-12. He’s got the goods this season: 59.7% on faceoffs, including 59.5% in the defensive zone. Puck IQ’s numbers show he was outstanding against elite competition, with his line scoring 76% of the goals at 5-on-5.

Cirelli’s line scored 62.5% of the goals against elite competition in a season that really saw him break out as a defensive force. He was the Lightning’s top forward on the penalty kill in ice time (2:49 per game) and 3.5 defensive goals scored above average. He could win this award if momentum builds for him … but we still think Bergeron’s typically outstanding season (57.8 faceoff percentage) will earn him second in the voting. Andrew Berkshire’s piece on Bergeron’s dominance from March is worth a read.

O’Reilly won this award last year and has been tremendous again this season, with a 2.01 expected goals-against average in 71 games, which is better than Couturier (2.08) but not as good as Cirelli (1.94) or Bergeron (1.86). O’Reilly is a key penalty killer (2:09 per game) and crushes it in the defensive faceoff circle (56.5%). He could be a finalist again, but this top three seems solid — unless it’s not Cirelli’s time yet.

Nichushkin? Random, right? ESPN’s Vince Masi really likes him for the Selke, as his underlying numbers are outstanding. The Avalanche winger led the league in defensive goals above average (6.3). But as we know, when it comes to winning the Selke, wingers need not apply.

Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play)

Probable finalists: Nathan MacKinnon, C, Colorado Avalanche; Aleksander Barkov, C, Florida Panthers; Ryan Suter, D, Minnesota Wild
Hipster pick: Teuvo Teravainen, LW, Carolina Hurricanes
Snubbed: Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs

The award usually goes to the player with the most points and the fewest penalty minutes. MacKinnon (93 points, 12 PIMs) would fit that template, although he was never previously nominated. Barkov (62 points, 18 PIMs) won the award last season and was a finalist in 2017-18. Suter played 69 games, skated 24:38 per night and had just 12 penalty minutes. Could he become the second defenseman, and the first since Brian Campbell in 2011-12, to win the Lady Byng since 1954? Teravainen (63 points, 8 PIMs) is another player with a good number of points and little time in the penalty box. Matthews also had just eight penalty minutes … but will the PHWA vote him for a “gentlemanly” award after what happened last offseason?

(Then again, the writers shouldn’t even vote on this award. It should be handled by either the on-ice officials or the NHLPA, who know better than we do about gentlemanly play.)

Jack Adams Award (best coach)

Note: The NHL broadcasters association votes for this award.

Probable finalists: Alain Vigneault, Philadelphia Flyers; Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins; John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets
Hipster pick: Bruce Cassidy, Boston Bruins
Snubbed: Dave Tippett, Edmonton Oilers

Vigneault took the Flyers from a .500 team to a .645 points percentage team that secured a playoff spot by virtue of finishing in the top four in the Eastern Conference. He dramatically improved their offense (seventh) and their defense (2.77 goals against per game). He implemented shorter shifts to make them a better team late in the game. “The shorter shifts have been very important,” Vigneault said. “Short-shift hockey is high-tempo hockey. High-tempo hockey is very important to more puck possession, more chances to attack. The guys see that they are skating just as many shifts as they did before, so they get in the habit of playing that way,” he said.

Sullivan has a heck of a case, as ESPN’s Dimitri Filipovic explains:

“It certainly helps having one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin to lean on as an anchor, but the results Sullivan got out of a group that seemingly lost one important player after another all season warrants recognition. The list of injuries they incurred is so long that it’s easier to just mention the players that didn’t miss at least eight games: Marcus Pettersson, Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, Jack Johnson, Jared McCann and Dominik Simon (who is now out for the season himself). All things considered, it’s remarkable that they’re not only in a playoff spot in the best division in hockey, but are actually tied for the fifth-most regulation plus overtime wins in the entire league. It’s easy to joke about how the Penguins can seemingly insert anyone into the lineup and get immediate production out of him, but the reason why it’s true has to at least be chalked up to their coach’s ability to consistently push all of the right buttons and put his players in a position to succeed.”

Tortorella could flip-flop with Tippett, especially if the voters opt not to nominate three coaches from the East. Both did a solid job. Torts did it through a season of key departures, key injuries and without Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid.

Cassidy led the Bruins to the best record in the NHL with 100 points, as Boston once again was the league’s top defensive team. But the coach of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning team has won the Jack Adams only twice in the past 20 years: Joel Quenneville in 1999-2000 with the Blues, and Barry Trotz of the Capitals in 2015-16.

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