What a difference a month makes.
Nearly every major NHL award has a new leader, according to our voters, with some runners-up from the first month of the season rocketing into front-runner status.
Well, except for the Selke Trophy. That’s status quo.
Welcome to the NHL Awards Watch for December. We’ve polled a wide selection of Professional Hockey Writers Association voters anonymously to get a sense of where the wind is blowing for the current leaders. We’ve made sure it’s a cross section from the entire league, trying to gain as many perspectives as possible.
Bear in mind that the PHWA votes for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Lady Byng finalists; 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)
Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)
Hart Trophy (MVP)
We’re now living in Jason Robertson’s world.
Through 23 games, the Stars forward led the NHL with 19 goals and was second to McDavid with 36 points. Robertson has become an elite goal scorer over the past two seasons, with the fifth-best goals per 60 minutes average in the NHL over that span (1.40). Through Wednesday, he had a 16-game points streak that included 10 multipoint games.
The 23-year-old had 23 points in the team’s 13 victories. His line with Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz is one of the NHL’s most dominant, with an expected goals percentage of 59.6%. Robertson has an expected goals percentage of 14% relative to his teammates, by far the best on the Stars.
He received nearly 60% of the first-place votes from our panelists.
“Best player on one of the most surprising teams in the NHL this season. He’s the real deal,” one voter said.
“Dallas looks much improved and yet his line is still scoring more than 40 percent of that team’s goals. It’s ridiculous,” another voter said.
“The combination of individual and team results pushes him ahead of McDavid for me,” another Robertson backer said.
McDavid, who led last month’s NHL Awards Watch for the Hart Trophy, was the clear No. 2 choice. With 39 points in 22 games, he led the NHL in scoring and in points-per-game average (1.77). McDavid had 29 points in Edmonton’s 12 victories. He has 12.3 expected goals scored above replacement, second in the NHL.
They’re a different team when he’s slicing through opposing defenses and creating chances. The same could be said about Leon Draisaitl, who had 33 points in 22 games for the Oilers and five game-winning goals.
But even some of the McDavid supporters acknowledged that Robertson could ultimately take the MVP lead. “I’m leaping on Jason Robertson’s bandwagon if he scores another 15 goals and 11 assists in December,” one McDavid voter said.
Coming in third was Pastrnak, the Bruins star winger who had 32 points in 22 games for the NHL’s top team. He’s the second-best shot-generating forward in the league this season. His performances on power plays has been outstanding, but his 5-on-5 play with returning center David Krejci has given the B’s two dominant lines. Like McDavid, there have been only four games in which Pastrnak has played and not earned at least a point. (Robertson, for what it’s worth, has only played three scoreless games.)
The only other player to receive a vote from our panelists? Not Nikita Kucherov, who is putting up MVP numbers for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Not Sidney Crosby (31 points in 23 games) or Matthew Tkachuk (29 points in 21 games, 10 more than any other Florida Panthers forward). Not Erik Karlsson, who is tied with Robertson in expected goals above replacement (12.1).
No, it was Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar. “He’s leading the league with 26:45 per game,” the voter said. “He leads his team in 5-on-5 minutes, second in short-handed minutes while being fourth in power-play minutes.”
Norris Trophy (top defenseman)
Oh, now this is fun. Makar and Karlsson were tied in the number of first-place votes they received. The best offensive defenseman of the past decade is having a resurgent season with the Sharks, versus what might become the best offensive defenseman of this decade, doing what he does with the Avalanche.
We put Makar as the favorite because he was the No. 2 preference for some Karlsson voters. Also, because he’s Cale Makar, who won the Norris last season and was a finalist for the past two seasons. As Nicklas Lidstrom, Duncan Keith, Karlsson and Victor Hedman can attest, the Norris voters can fall in love with a defenseman and stay in love for several seasons.
Makar’s offense is actually down a tick (1.05 points per game) from some of his competitors this season, but he’s playing in all situations and averaging an NHL-best 26:45 of ice time per game. All around, he’s clearly having an elite season by any standard that isn’t “what Cale Makar has done previously.”
Karlsson, meanwhile, is a two-time Norris winner and a four-time finalist who is having a whale of a comeback season with the Sharks. His 32 points in 25 games (1.28 points-per-game average) leads the NHL for defensemen. As usual, there are going to be questions about his effectiveness on the defensive side — he doesn’t regularly kill penalties, for example — but the counterargument has always been that Karlsson’s offense is his best defense.
“Pretty easy choice right now,” one voter said. “The offense is incredible and the Sharks go from plus-5 at 5-on-5 with him to minus-20 without him.”
Fox, who won the Norris two seasons ago, gets the third slot even though he received the same support as other candidates. But enough voters had him as a second choice that we have him in the top three.
He was tied for second in scoring among defensemen with 25 points in his first 23 games, with 17 of them coming at even strength. He’s skating over 25 minutes per game for the Rangers. Fox, Makar and Karlsson are the only defenseman in the top 10 in expected goals above replacement in the NHL.
But even his supporters acknowledge that the Norris is anything but settled. “Really tough not to put Karlsson here,” one Fox supporter said. “Really tough to pick, period. This is going to be a tight race all year.”
Four other defensemen received first-place Norris votes. Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators, a previous winner, is under a point-per-game pace, but skating north of 25 minutes per contest for Nashville. Boston Bruins defenseman Hampus Lindholm is no longer on a point-per-game pace offensively, but was one of the NHL’s best blueliners at the quarter mark.
“He’s the biggest reason the Bruins stayed afloat missing Charlie McAvoy for the first month and the biggest reason they are the NHL’s best team right now,” a Lindholm voter said.
Rasmus Dahlin of the Buffalo Sabres led last month’s Norris Watch but only received one vote here. “If Buffalo keeps on losing, we’ll have to look elsewhere,” the Dahlin backer said. “Josh Morrissey will deserve more attention if the Jets stay hot.”
Morrissey was second to Karlsson in points-per-game average (1.19) through 21 games and is having a resurgent season under head coach Rick Bowness. He was the other defenseman to garner a first-place vote.
Calder Trophy (top rookie)
Hey, remember Shane Pinto? The Ottawa Senators center was the NHL rookie of the month for October with six goals in eight games, a performance that also landed him atop our Calder rankings in the last NHL Awards Watch. Then the calendar flipped to November and Pinto’s trajectory unfortunately matched that of his team, scoring two goals and one assist through Nov. 27.
Suffice to say, Shane Pinto did not make the cut this month.
Instead, it’s a two-rookie race for the Calder at the moment, with Thompson and Beniers as the only two players that garnered first-place votes from our panel. Thompson was first on one more ballot than Beniers, and hence gets the front-runner spot.
He’s more than earned it. With the Golden Knights reeling from losing Robin Lehner for the season due to offseason surgery, they turned to Thompson to bail them out. In front of an improved team defense under coach Bruce Cassidy, Thompson won 12 of his first 16 appearances, with a .921 save percentage.
“The fact that Thompson is top 15 in save percentage and goals-against average while shouldering a No. 1 starter workload put him over the top for me,” one voter said.
“I think this is a toss-up between Thompson and Beniers right now,” another voter declared. “Interested to see how it plays out over the second half, but you’ve got to give to the rookie goalie on a first place Golden Knights team.”
Beniers’ impact on the Kraken has also been demonstrable. Seattle’s thinnest position last season was at center. The University of Michigan alum’s arrival reset their depth chart and gave them a No. 1 center to play with the team’s collection of veteran wingers. He led all rookies with 20 points in his first 22 games, along with a rookie-best nine goals. Only the Flyers’ Noah Cates (17:50) averages more ice time than Beniers (17:09) among rookie forwards.
But a few Beniers supporters did offer caveats:
“Beniers, but damn, Logan Thompson.”
“Tough to choose between Beniers and [Ottawa defenseman] Jake Sanderson.”
“I still love [Winnipeg forward] Cole Perfetti as a finalist and we haven’t seen his best by far this season. But Beniers is next level in this rookie class.”
The third finalist spot goes to Skinner, the Oilers goaltender who has performed admirably behind a specious defensive team. Skinner has a .919 save percentage, going 5-5-0 in 11 appearances. He’s 17th in goals saved above expected (minimum 10 appearances). He’s well behind Thompson among rookie netminders, but he was mentioned by enough voters to earn the other finalist spot.
Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)
Note: General managers vote for this award.
Another tie at the top, as Sorokin and Ullmark each received the highest number of first-place votes. The Islanders goalie was mentioned more by other voters to earn the top spot.
Here’s the thinking with Sorokin: He’s doing more with less. The Bruins have the league’s top offense at 3.95 goals per game. They’re third in expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (2.18). The Islanders are middle-of-the-pack offensively (3.25) but are 31st in expected goals against (3.09). Despite that, Sorokin has a .933 save percentage and an NHL-best 16 goals saved above expected.
“Doing it with less run support than Ullmark,” one Sorokin voter said.
“His excellence in that defensive environment puts him ahead for me,” another Sorokin backer noted.
Ullmark has an extremely good case, too. The Bruins goalie has a 13-1-0 record with a .935 save percentage and a 2.00 goals-against average in 16 appearances. Despite the defense in front of him, he still has 9.6 goals saved above expected and 2.2 wins above replacement.
“He’s No. 1 in goals-against average and save percentage and leads the NHL with 13 wins this season. This is a no-brainer pick,” one Ullmark voter concluded.
“Can’t argue with 13-1-0,” another said.
Hellebuyck won the Vezina in 2020 and then finished fourth in voting the following season. He wasn’t himself last season, with his save percentage dipping down to .910. But he’s back: Hellebuyck has an 11-5-1 record and a .931 save percentage in 17 games. He’s a primary reason the Jets inhabited a playoff seed after the first quarter of the season.
Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)
When Patrice Bergeron decided to return to the Bruins this season, the league’s other centers probably reset their Selke Trophy expectations accordingly. He has five of these things already, more than any other player in NHL history. Why not one more?
Bergeron is doing Bergeron things this season. He wins over 60% of his faceoffs. The Bruins have an expected goals against per 60 minutes of 1.55 when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5, along with a .974 save percentage(!).
“I’m not even trying to be uncreative. His expected goals-against numbers are just still amazing,” one Bergeron voter said.
“It’s getting to the point where this award should be renamed the Bergeron Trophy when he finally retires someday,” another Bergeron supporter said. “I think I’ve voted him at No. 1 for Selke for the last five or six years in a row. He’s just that good as a two-way center.”
But there is something different about Bergeron this season that turned off at least one of our voters, and that’s usage. His offensive zone starts in all situations is over 63%, which would be the highest of his career.
“Bergeron’s zone starts kind of put me off him. He’s still great defensively but doesn’t play that role like he used to. Hasn’t for a while actually,” said one voter who preferred Hischier.
Bergeron has had players come for his crown before. Some have broken through to win the Selke, like Sean Couturier and Aleksander Barkov. Hischier feels like the next in line for that group. The Devils center wins over 57% of his faceoffs, kills penalties and the Devils have a .941 save percentage with him on the ice at 5-on-5. If the Devils keep winning, his profile will continue to rise with the voters.
The other finalist was Danault, who is winning over 52% of this faceoffs and helps the Kings to a .927 save percentage when he’s on the ice. Danault is the only other player to receive a first-place vote for the Selke.
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 NHL Players’ Association.
Jack Adams Award (best coach)
Note: The NHL Broadcasters’ Association votes on this award.
From “fire Lindy!” to “sorry Lindy!” to “Lindy wins coach of the year?”
Ruff, 62, has the Devils leading the Metropolitan Division with an .826 points percentage, a 13-game winning streak to tie a franchise record and 13 wins in November to set an NHL record. New Jersey is playing a dynamic offensive game that’s equaled by an aggressive, puck-pressuring defensive game. He has kept them focused, managed his roster well and helped grow their young offensive stars during his three seasons in Jersey.
“Between him and Jim Montgomery, tie goes to the guy who got fans to chant him an apology,” one Ruff backer said.
Bruins players have credited Montgomery for establishing greater accountability and a sense of fun in their group since arriving last summer as head coach. Of course, the fun comes naturally when a team has a .864 points percentage. Montgomery’s backstory — how he left Dallas and his journey back to a head coaching job — will also make him a compelling candidate.
“It’s Jim Montgomery,” one of his supporters said. “Sorry, Lindy.”
The coach whom Montgomery replaced is the other finalist. Cassidy has improved the Knights defensively, and coached them to the top of the Pacific Division.
“There were a lot of problems at the end of the year in Vegas and Cassidy has done a great job really getting Jack Eichel to buy into what they’re doing in Vegas,” one Cassidy supporter said. “Plenty of good candidates with Jim Montgomery, Pete DeBoer, Lindy Ruff, Dave Hakstol and Lane Lambert all in the conversation as well.”
It’s tough to say whether the broadcasters will feel the same way as the writers, but the scribes think it’s Ruff’s award to lose.
“When you get your fans to apologize to you, you’ve got something going,” one voter noted.