Ever since the NHL realigned its teams into four new divisions and decided to have those teams play each other for just 56 games, there’s been a lingering question about how this format would impact NHL Awards voting.
This week, we gained some clarity on that question: The Profession Hockey Writers Association announced a “single-season adjustment” to its voting process.
“This season’s divisional realignment created an unprecedented disparity in divisional representation that needed to be rectified to ensure a more equitable delegation. As such, the PHWA’s Executive Board unanimously moved to better balance the voting bloc by selecting 20 voters from each division, plus 20 at-large voters, for a total of 100 voters,” the PHWA said in a statement.
Essentially, instead of 155 members voting on the awards, it will be 100 voters split up by the four divisions and at-large members — the latter category is where you’ll find yours truly and Emily Kaplan.
It’s a necessary recalibration to balance the voting as best we can. Otherwise, it would have been 82 voters from the North Division stuffing the ballot box. And we can’t have that, can we?
Here’s the NHL Awards Watch for April. This is informed speculation, taken from conversations around hockey and with voters, regarding the current contenders for each award. Keep in mind that the 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 unofficial “you gotta be in it to win it” protocol for the Hart and the Jack Adams.
Art Ross Trophy (points leader)
Current leader: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (64 points, 39 games played)
Watch out for: Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (57 points, 39 GP)
Dark horse: Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks (49 points, 39 GP)
Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)
Hart Trophy (MVP)
I’m not familiar with the engraving process for the Hart Trophy. However long it takes, they could save valuable time and just put Connor McDavid’s name on it now under “2020-21.”
McDavid was the top MVP choice for every voter we surveyed, the only unanimous awards pick. There’s no reason to contort logic and find another candidate: The Oilers have a 97.3% chance of making the postseason this season, per Money Puck, and McDavid is the primary reason for that. No “but they’re not a playoff team!” caveats negating his candidacy. We’re free and clear to get behind Connor as MVP.
Consider that he leads the NHL with 64 points and has a 1.64 points-per-game average. Yes, it’s a truncated season, but that would be the highest single-season average since Mario Lemieux‘s 1.77 points per game over 43 games in 2000-01, which is pretty good company to keep. McDavid leads the NHL with 17 goals scored above average, and he is responsible for adding three wins to the Oilers this season. He’s also playing the best defense of his career, which is to say he’s playing defense. A truly special season for a truly special player.
The knock on Matthews was that he missed time to injury and he wasn’t leading his team in scoring. Well, he missed only three games, he has moved within a point of Mitchell Marner‘s 47 points and has the Leafs’ leading scorer beat in points per game (1.28), which is really where the focus should be in this janky season. Otherwise, Matthews is having an incredible goal-scoring season, with 27 in 36 games, nine of them qualifying as game-winning goals, the highest total in the NHL this season.
These three candidates were also our top three last month, although one wonders if Kane will meet the “gotta be in it to win it” threshold with the Blackhawks’ playoff chances hovering around 11.9%, per Money Puck. But he’s your classic MVP candidate on a bubble team. His 49 points are 13 clear of the next-highest scorer on the team, Alex DeBrincat, who directly benefits from playing with Patrick Kane. I think he makes the top three if the Blackhawks make the playoffs.
There are five other candidates worth mentioning here, two of whom have Hart trophies on their mantles already.
Draisaitl is three goals and seven points away from McDavid’s totals. What happens if Connor has the narrative, but last season’s MVP has him beat in both of those categories?
Nathan MacKinnon has finished second for the Hart twice, and he is in the middle of a monthlong offensive heater that has turned the Colorado Avalanche into a juggernaut. His 1.32 points-per-game average is impressive, and he could get that “best player on the best team” shine.
I’d watch out for Sidney Crosby, too. He has 43 points in 37 games to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he has gotten support on the NHL.com trophy tracker. If a “33-year-old Crosby carries injured Penguins to postseason” narrative gains steam … well, it’s not a coincidence the guy’s been nominated for the Hart eight times. Voters love Sid, and the Penguins might well win the East Division.
The other two players are found in the Sunshine State. Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy should absolutely be on the short list for MVP candidates. He’s dominating in traditional stats (.932 save percentage) and analytically (27.3 goals saved above average, adding 4.7 wins to the Lightning this season).
Finally, Aleksander Barkov of the surprising Florida Panthers does so much to help that team win on both ends of the ice. He leads the Panthers with 1.21 points per game, and he has an impressive 10.9 goals scored above replacement. Given what division he’s in and where he plays, it’s going to be tough to generate enough widespread support to overtake the more famous names. But this could easily be a season in which Barkov gets the Selke Trophy for a Hart-worthy year, aka “The Ryan O’Reilly Award.”
Norris Trophy (top defenseman)
Everything is pointing to Hedman here.
He was first on every ballot we surveyed, save for one. He’s leading his team and all defensemen in scoring with 36 points in 38 games, skating 25 minutes, 31 seconds per game on average. He has the residual glow of an awesome championship run in which he won the Conn Smythe. He’s also due: This would be his fifth straight Norris nomination and he hasn’t won since 2017-18.
But after Hedman, things get interesting. The Norris Trophy race might be the one most affected by the conference realignment and intradivisional scheduling.
Darnell Nurse of the Edmonton Oilers and Jeff Petry of the Montreal Canadiens have been absolutely awesome in the North Division. Jakob Chychrun of the Arizona Coyotes has had a breakout campaign in the West Division. So has the Avs’ Samuel Girard, who was the only non-Hedman defenseman to get a first-place vote in our canvassing. His teammate Devon Toews has been great, and so have two of Toews’ former New York Islanders teammates: Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock.
But how much have voters from other divisions seen of these defensemen, considering none of them can really get by on reputation alone?
The exception to that is the Rangers’ Fox, who we think has played himself into the top three even if he was actually better last season. Fox has 33 points in 36 games this season, has averaged 24:42 of ice time per game and has respectable underlying numbers. But he’s getting those “is this the next Brian Leetch?!” stories on national websites that, say, Girard and Toews aren’t. I think he has broken through the realignment boundaries.
In a season this isolated, I do think reputation plus performance equals a Norris nomination. Shea Theodore had a breakout postseason for the Vegas Golden Knights and has been terrific this season. Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings has had a bit of a renaissance. Kris Letang has 28 points in 36 games, is averaging 24:36 of ice time per game and has been awfully steady for the Penguins.
But if we’re going with a reputation-based finalist, then we’re going with John Carlson. He has 32 points in 36 games for the Capitals, and he has been in the top five for the Norris for the past three seasons. I’m not sure he ends up here — especially as a minus player — but for now it’s a comfortable known commodity.
The Avalanche situation for the Norris, by the way, is fascinating. Cale Makar has 25 points in 26 games to lead all defensemen in points per game (0.96). It’s all going to come down to sample size and whether missing 12 games in a 56-game season is too large of an absence. Girard is the hipster pick: 30 points in 36 games and a much better all-around season than Makar analytically. Toews, however, has the best expected goals percentage of the three (62.55).
Do they all cancel each other out, or does Makar overshadow the other two like he’s Conner4Real and they’re The Style Boyz?
Calder Trophy (top rookie)
Kaprizov pretty much has this locked up at this point. He has 31 points in 37 games, several reels of highlights and is credited — correctly or incorrectly — with igniting the Wild with his offensive spark. He was named first for the Calder on all but one of the ballots we canvassed.
One of his teammates, goalie Kaapo Kahkonen, has a real case for also getting a Calder nomination. He has gone 12-6-0 with a .920 save percentage in his first 18 appearances. But it’s a really crowded field: Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers has been solid after a so-so start; Jake Oettinger of the Dallas Stars has been good in Ben Bishop‘s absence; and Alex Nedeljkovic has turned the Carolina Hurricanes‘ two-headed goalie monster into a hydra. But none of them have the work rate of Vitek Vanecek of the Capitals (26 games) or Lankinen of the Blackhawks (27 games), and Vanecek doesn’t have Lankinen’s stats (.918 save percentage) or impact on his team. So we’ll say that the Chicago netminder still has a lane for the Calder.
The other spot could go to a forward such as Jason Robertson of the Stars or the Ottawa Senators‘ Josh Norris or Tim Stützle. But we’ve long predicted it’ll be a forward, goalie and defenseman for the Calder, and Ty Smith of the Devils remains the third finalist for now. He has 19 points in 36 games, skating 19:41 per game, and has been a difference-maker for them. But he could have some competition from across the river in K’Andre Miller, who plays more (20:43) and is a plus-13 while partnering with Jacob Trouba and Brendan Smith.
Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)
Note: The NHL’s general managers vote for this award
Vasilevskiy is the only lock as a finalist here. Vezina voters have historically tended to overvalue wins, so his 23-5-1 record is a huge plus mark in his column. So is his .932 save percentage, which is the best for any goalie with at least 25 appearances this season. He’s been a Vezina finalist for three straight seasons, winning the award once. There’s no reason to believe that streak will be broken.
Grubauer had more wins than Vasilevskiy (24-7-1) through Monday’s games, with a tremendous .926 save percentage and a 1.83 goals-against average. He has also appeared in 32 of the Avs’ 38 games in a season in which his backup, Pavel Francouz, has missed the entire campaign. The Avalanche are quite good beyond their goaltending — they’re first in shot suppression (25.2 shots against per game) by a wide margin — but Grubauer’s work shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Fleury probably still has the third spot, although Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets is making an increasingly compelling case after having won the Vezina last season. Hellebuyck is the last line of defense for a team whose blue line is its weakest aspect, and he is fourth in goals saved above average (19.1) while playing in 31 games. Fleury is fifth in GSAA (18.5), continues to have gaudy traditional stats (17-9-0, .924 save percentage) and has that redemption narrative going for him, too. But Hellebuyck has been a Vezina finalist twice in four seasons. Fleury has been never been one in 17 years. Maybe the GMs just don’t like him like that; maybe he breaks the streak this year.
Other goalies to watch: Semyon Varlamov of the New York Islanders (16-7-3, .922 save percentage), Juuse Saros of the Nashville Predators (.928 save percentage) and Mike Smith of the Edmonton Oilers (13-3-2, .919 save percentage).
Oh, and let’s not forget the most intriguing Vezina question: How many games does Jack Campbell of the Toronto Maple Leafs have to play in a 56-game season to qualify? He’s 9-0-0 with a .944 save percentage and a 1.53 goals-against average in nine games.
Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)
As mentioned earlier, Barkov has a Hart Trophy case: 40 points in 33 games, a team-best 64.05 expected goals percentage and skating 21:04 per game. But we’ve seen this movie before with players such as Ryan O’Reilly, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews; a well-rounded player with MVP bona fides gets the Selke as an acknowledgement of his value.
It does help that Barkov has a legit case for top defensive forward, too: He has won 53.6% of his faceoffs, plays a role on the penalty kill, and the Panthers have 1.74 expected goals per 60 minutes when he’s on the ice. All of this while committing only three minor penalties. Barkov has never been a Selke finalist, so there’s a certain “his turn” aspect of this, too.
It’s never not Bergeron’s turn, having been a Selke finalist for a record nine straight seasons. Both the Bruins center and Barkov were listed for the Selke on two ballots. Bergeron’s calling card is the faceoff circle, and he has an astounding 63.1% winning percentage this season. The Bruins have a 1.86 expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 with Bergeron out there. Also, he’s Patrice Bergeron, and he’s seeking his record-breaking fifth Selke win.
Mark Stone was also listed on two different ballots from the voters we canvassed. The Vegas star is trying to become the first winger to win the Selke since Jere Lehtinen in 2002-03. He has a slightly higher expected goals against per 60 (1.99) than the other two finalists, but no one in the NHL since the great Pavel Datsyuk has been this adept at stealing opponents’ pucks as Stone, who leads the NHL with 39 takeaways in 36 games. (If you’re curious, he has 239 over the past three seasons, and no other player has more than 182.)
Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play)
This is the part where I mention that the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play should be voted on by the league’s on-ice officials or by the National Hockey League Players’ Association.
This award typically goes to the player with the most points and the fewest penalty minutes, which could mean Matthews (8 PIM) or Barkov (6 PIM) or Anze Kopitar (6 PIM). But what we really want to see is a defenseman win the award for only the second time since 1953-54. There’s only one name that matters here: the Carolina Hurricanes‘ Jaccob Slavin, who plays 23:14 per game and has taken one penalty in 34 contests this season.
A goalie, meanwhile, has never won the award. Do Marc-Andre Fleury‘s two penalty minutes disqualify him?
Jack Adams Award (best coach)
Note: The NHL Broadcasters’ Association votes on this award.
The Panthers have a .718 points percentage through 39 games. Unless they plummet in the standings without Aaron Ekblad — and they won their first five games without him — Quenneville is going to win his second Jack Adams in a walk. He never won one with the Chicago Blackhawks, having only previously won the Jack with the St. Louis Blues in 1999-2000.
The rest of the field is anyone’s guess. One of our voters lobbied for Rod Brind’Amour of the Carolina Hurricanes. Another liked Mike Sullivan of the Pittsburgh Penguins. We imagine that Minnesota Wild coach Dean Evason, Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice and Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar will get some attention. But if the Maple Leafs win the North, and remain in the top 10 defensively, it’s easy to see Keefe getting some deserved credit. Trotz, meanwhile, has two Jack Adams wins, including with the Islanders in 2018-19. New York is vying for a division title. Their coach is their MVP.