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NHL Awards Watch: Will a defenseman win the Hart?

The Hart Trophy for NHL most valuable player has a clear front-runner. But the contenders for the award could produce the first back-to-back MVP winner since Alex Ovechkin did it 15 years ago or the first defenseman to win the award in over 23 years.

Welcome to the second NHL Awards Watch of the season. 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 the voting pool represented 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.

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

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

Art Ross Trophy (points leader)

Current leader: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
Watch out for: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Long shot: Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leader: Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks
Watch out for: Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
Long shot: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Hart Trophy (MVP)

Leader: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
Finalists: Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks; David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

The Lightning are in a spiral now, having lost four in a row and falling out of a playoff seed. That’s a surprise, considering they just got Andrei Vasilevskiy back in their lineup. But the Vezina Trophy-winning netminder has one win in four starts. Perhaps more surprising was how well they played without their ace in the net, which our voters wholly credited to the start that Nikita Kucherov had in the first two months of the season.

Entering Sunday, he led all scorers with 40 points in 24 games, which is a pace (137) that would eclipse the 128 points he posted in 2018-19 when Kucherov first captured the Hart Trophy. He’s also in the top five in goals scored, with 15.

Kucherov was first on nearly 40% of our surveyed ballots.

“Kucherov has maybe looked the most dangerous he has ever been,” one voter said.

“The Lightning received sub-average goaltending for a quarter of the season while Andrei Vasilevskiy was out but were in a playoff spot when he returned,” another voter said. “Kucherov’s offensive wizardry was the primary reason for that.”

One of the things that has factored into Hart Trophy voting in the past is the gap between a team’s highest scorer and the next highest scorer in the lineup — like when Taylor Hall won the Hart in 2017-18 while finishing 41 points ahead of the No. 2 scorer on the New Jersey Devils.

Kucherov is 10 points clear of Brayden Point on the Lightning. But that scoring gap is one reason Pastrnak remains right in the Hart Trophy mix.

Pastrnak was a runner-up in our last Awards Watch. He entered Sunday with 36 points in 23 games, which was tied for second behind Kucherov. Pastrnak’s 14 goals were also one off Kucherov’s pace. But he was 16 points clear of Brad Marchand for highest scorer on the Bruins this season, and the only Boston player through 23 games that had a double-digit goal total.

If the question was how the Bruins would find ways to put the puck in the net after losing a handful of impact forwards last offseason, the answer has been David Pastrnak.

“Kucherov has been great, but Tampa is mid,” one Pastrnak voter said.

Those two forwards have solid voting support. Then it gets interesting.

Since 1969, the Hart Trophy has been awarded to only two defensemen: Hall of Famers Bobby Orr, who won the award three straight seasons from 1969 to ’73, and Chris Pronger, who won the award with the St. Louis Blues in 1999-2000. It’s a rarity, to the point that no defenseman has won the award in the NHL 2.0 era, which started with a slew of rules changes for the 2005-06 season.

That could change this season. At the moment, Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks has the most juice, and actually finished second to Kucherov in first-place votes. He entered Sunday tied for the fourth-leading scorer and highest scorer among defensemen in the NHL (34 points in 25 games). His 24:47 time on ice per game puts him right outside the top 10. As the Canucks continue to be one of the NHL’s surprise Stanley Cup contenders, much of the credit goes to Hughes.

“Hughes has done everything asked of a top-pairing defenseman for a Canucks team that has not only been arguably the best in the league but on a defense that was overhauled quite a bit,” one voter said.

But the player with whom Hughes is tied in scoring among defensemen has his own supporters: Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche, who received one first-place vote and a lot of acknowledgements from the voters.

“I don’t feel like one forward rises above the rest at the moment, but Makar has been outrageously good and gets my vote,” the Makar backer said.

There are a few other forwards in the MVP mix. New York Rangers leading scorer Artemi Panarin received two first-place votes.

“For the second straight month, I’m sticking with the best player on the best team in the NHL,” one Panarin backer explained.

“The Rangers are atop the standings despite early offensive struggles for Mika Zibanejad, missing Adam Fox for 10 games and Igor Shesterkin still not playing at top form,” another voter said. “Of their most important players, Panarin has easily been the best.”

Devils center Jack Hughes, who led the voting last month, still received a first-place vote despite missing five games to injury. He has a 1.76 points-per-game average in 17 games.

“I still expect the Devils to level off. With apologies to the sensational Nikita Kucherov, Hughes has been the best player in the league this season,” the Jack Hughes voter said. “For now, I’m giving it to Hughes … until Connor McDavid inevitably runs away with it.”

Which brings us to Connor McDavid, last season’s Hart winner and a finalist in five of his eight NHL seasons.

As the Oilers bottomed out in the first two months of the season, McDavid didn’t receive a first-place vote in last month’s Awards Watch. This time, he received two of them, with a few voters predicting that McDavid would collect more than a few more by season’s end.

“Look, we can all see where this is going. McDavid is back and by the end of the season, when the Oilers are safely in the playoff picture, he’s going to win handily,” one voter predicted.

Edmonton is 7-3-0 in its past 10 games. To no one’s surprise, McDavid had 19 points in those 10 games after tallying only 10 points in all of the games that preceded them.

“Projecting ahead with this. He’ll still win it, even after the slow start,” one McDavid voter concluded.

Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Leader: Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
Finalist: Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks

Last month, Quinn Hughes had the most support of any player for an individual award when he placed first in the Norris Trophy balloting.

This month, he’s running a clear second to Makar.

Makar earned around 56% of the first-place votes this month in what remains one of the tightest Norris Trophy races we’ve ever seen.

“This is the toughest vote. He and Hughes will be neck and neck all year,” one voter said. “Great battle.”

“This is stupid close,” another said.

“For now, it’s these two and nobody else,” another noted.

Hughes and Makar are close in vote totals and stats on the ice — tied for highest-scoring defenseman with 34 points, although Makar had played two fewer games as of Sunday. That both have also received MVP consideration speaks to how incredible they’ve been.

But Makar has the slight edge in the Norris race.

“Makar is on pace for 127 points. We’re talking Orr/Coffey numbers now,” one voter said. “Never mind his effective work on Colorado’s penalty kill, which only adds extra shine to an already elite resume.”

Makar won the Norris in 2021-22 and has been a finalist for three straight seasons. Hughes has never been a finalist.

We couldn’t in good faith put a third defenseman in the mix for the Norris at this point. That’s how heavy the support for Makar and Hughes was from our voters. The only other defensemen mentioned by our panelists were Miro Heiskanen of the Dallas Stars and Evan Bouchard of the Edmonton Oilers, both of whom are on the negative side of plus-minus at the moment.

Calder Trophy (top rookie)

Leader: Connor Bedard, Chicago Blackhawks
Finalists: Luke Hughes, New Jersey Devils; Joseph Woll, Toronto Maple Leafs

If you needed more confirmation that it’s Connor Bedard’s world and we’re just living in it, the Blackhawks rookie was a unanimous choice for rookie of the year from the voters we surveyed.

The first overall pick in the 2023 draft was named NHL Rookie of the Month for November, with six goals and 12 points in 12 games. When the 18-year-old tallied two goals and two assists on Nov. 9 against Tampa Bay, he became the third-youngest player in NHL history to produce a four-point game.

“Bedard either leads this year’s rookie class or his team in several categories,” one voter said. “Above all, he’s playing the minutes that are expected of a top-line center, which makes him stand out in a rookie class that has seen a number of players receive the necessary trust to play in key roles.”

“Can you imagine what he’d be able to do with worthy linemates? Might be a few years until we find out, unfortunately,” another said.

Bedard is projected to score more than 40 goals this season. The last rookie to hit 40 goals was Auston Matthews in 2016-17. The Maple Leafs star earned 164 of 167 first-place votes that year for the Calder.

Could anyone break the Bedard hold on the Calder voting?

Yes, according to our panelists.

“It’s a close race with Luke Hughes,” one voter said.

“In the non-Bedard division, it’s Luke Hughes,” another commented.

The Devils defenseman leads rookie blueliners with 14 points in 22 games, which is one better than Pavel Mintyukov of the Anaheim Ducks (13 points in 24 games). That total made Hughes the second-highest rookie scorer through Sunday’s games.

With Dougie Hamilton out for the Devils indefinitely, it’ll be interesting to see how Hughes reacts to an increased role and how voters react if he thrives in it.

Woll, 25, had an 8-5-1 record in 14 appearances, with a .915 save percentage and a 2.82 goals-against average — stats that stand in stark contrast with those posted by veteran Leafs goalie Ilya Samsonov (.878 save percentage). He was mentioned by a few voters, which earns him a spot in our top three.

But the rest of the rookie race behind Bedard and Hughes is wide open, with players like Mintyukov, Anaheim teammate Leo Carlsson, Minnesota’s Brock Faber and Marco Rossi, Arizona’s Logan Cooley and Nashville’s Luke Evangelista among other names to watch.

Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

Note: General managers vote for this award.

Leader: Thatcher Demko, Vancouver Canucks
Finalists: Adin Hill, Vegas Golden Knights; Jake Oettinger, Dallas Stars

Our panelists felt this was an easy call: Thatcher Demko is the early Vezina favorite, with well over 70% of the first-place votes.

Demko was 12-6-0 in his first 18 appearances, the second highest number of games in the NHL. He had a .924 save percentage and a 2.26 goals-against average in those games. He entered Sunday with 12.7 goals saved above expected.

“Adin Hill obviously has better numbers, but I think Demko has been a massive part of Vancouver’s great start this season,” one voter concluded.

Hill does have better numbers: 10-2-2 overall, with a .935 save percentage and a 1.87 goals-against average. He has two shutouts for the Golden Knights, who he led to the Stanley Cup last postseason.

But even the voters that made him the second choice for the Vezina were rubbing the skepticism from their eyes.

“I still can’t believe his ascent,” one voter said. “It’s insane.”

“There is no easy choice because of Sergei Bobrovsky, Thatcher Demko, Alexandar Georgiev and Cam Talbot,” another voter explained. “But when you look at how Hill compares in the notable categories, he’s leading or in the top three.”

Those goalies have been good, but it was another Western Conference netminder that earned the other first-place vote: Jake Oettinger of the Stars, who was fifth for the Vezina last season. He’s 10-4-2 in 16 appearances, with a .920 save percentage and a 2.43 goals-against average.

Oettinger’s underlying numbers aren’t elite, but as one panelist noted, that’s usually not a consideration for those who actually do the Vezina voting.

“This is going to be a real tough one this season,” they said. “Good thing this award is in the hands of the — checks notes — general managers?! Sigh. Well, Alexander Georgiev has the most wins.”

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Leader: Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Finalists: J.T. Miller, Vancouver Canucks; Jordan Staal, Carolina Hurricanes

One of the first ballots we received had the word “Patrice Bergeron” listed for the Selke winner.

“Whoops, sorry. Force of habit,” the voter said, “I meant Sasha Barkov.”

If the NHL is looking for a successor to Bergeron’s Selke dominance as a top-line scoring center who locks down opponents too, it could be Barkov. He’s a two-time Selke finalist who won the award in 2020-21. The Panthers have tremendous expected-goals against numbers when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5, along with an impressive goal differential.

Barkov was the top choice on roughly 50% of our ballots.

“He’s a sleeper Hart candidate,” one Barkov backer said. “His metrics are awesome.”

Miller and Staal were the only other players to receive multiple first-place votes. Miller has been grabbing headlines for his offense, with 36 points in 25 games. But he’s been strong defensively, even if the metrics aren’t quite as gaudy as they are for other players.

Staal and Miller are pretty close in terms of goals against per 60 minutes, but Staal wins the analytics battle: 1.64 expected goals against per 60 minutes for Staal vs. 2.82 for Miller.

“I know the trendy pick here is Jordan Staal, and the advanced metrics support it,” one Barkov voter said. “Great player, great defensive forward. But actual results have to count for something, and the Hurricanes have been outscored at 5-on-5 with Staal on the ice. You can’t be the best defensive forward in the game if you have a negative goal differential on a Cup contender.”

Other players to receive first-place votes for the Selke included Los Angeles Kings center Phillip Danault, Vancouver Canucks center Elias Pettersson, Calgary Flames forward Mikael Backlund, Boston Bruins center Charlie Coyle and one vote for Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby.

“He’s winning 60% of his draws, has always been a strong defensive center and still doesn’t have one of these yet to add to his trophy case. Could this be the year?” our Crosby voter asked.

It’s an exciting race. Anything can happen. All we know is there won’t be a back-to-back Selke winner this season, despite our voters’ desires.

“Can I still vote for Bergeron?” one voter joked.

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.

Elias Pettersson has 32 points in 25 games with no penalty minutes. Why not him?

Jack Adams Award (best coach)

Note: The NHL Broadcasters’ Association votes on this award.

Leader: Rick Tocchet, Vancouver Canucks
Finalists: Peter Laviolette, New York Rangers; Jim Montgomery, Boston Bruins

The Rangers are near the top of the NHL in points percentage. So why is Laviolette, who took over the team in the offseason, the second choice behind Tocchet, who had around 40% of the first-place votes? Perhaps because Lavy has turned a playoff team from last season into a Presidents’ Trophy contender, while Tocchet has helped turn a non-playoff team into a conference title contender?

“Peter Laviolette has to be in the mix. It’s amazing how much of an upgrade he’s been over [Gerard] Gallant,” one voter said. “But I also feel like Rick Tocchet has to be up there. Vancouver is near the top of the West and I didn’t even think they’d be a playoff team.”

Said another voter: “Anyone who saw the Canucks when Tocchet arrived could see they were onto something. But what they have done this year has not only carried over but it’s been beyond emphatic with how well it’s worked.”

Montgomery was actually tied in first-place votes with Paul Maurice of the Florida Panthers, but had more mentions down the ballots.

“The Bruins are still at the top of the Atlantic without Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci,” one voter explained.

But Maurice was also impressive considering what the Panthers have been missing this season, having played without defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour.

“Maurice and Panthers went from ‘how will they survive all these injuries?’ to ‘Oh, THAT’s how they’re surviving?’ which also deserves credit,” one voter noted.

Said another voter: “I’d love to see him recognized for the job he’s done in Florida with this Panthers group. He’s really been the perfect fit for them at the right time.”

The other coaches to receive first-place votes were Bruce Cassidy of the Vegas Golden Knights and André Tourigny of the surprising Arizona Coyotes.

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