NHL – Award Watch update

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Since our last NHL Awards Watch, the Professional Hockey Writers Association released its first “midseason awards” ballot in decades, which gave us all a glimpse of what the voters are thinking halfway through the campaign. (Keep in mind the PHWA votes for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Lady Byng; broadcasters vote for the Jack Adams, and general managers handle the Vezina.)

Basically, it reaffirmed the chalk favorites for the awards — but we frankly disagree with some of the picks.

Here are my picks for the NHL Awards as we hit February, as a Professional Hockey Writers Association voter and through a dozen conversations with those around the game. Please keep in mind that all advanced stats are via Corsica.

Put your agreements, disagreements and alternative candidates in the comments.


Art Ross Trophy (points leader)

Current leader: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning (66 points in 52 games)

Watch out for: Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins (63 points in 54 games)

Dark horse: Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames (59 points in 52 games)

Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leader: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (32 goals in 52 games)

Watch out for: Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins (29 goals in 50 games)

Dark horse: Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks (25 goals in 49 games)

And now, the nominees are …

Hart Trophy (most valuable player)

Leader: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

Finalists: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche; Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

There’s a bit of inevitability creeping into Kucherov’s candidacy, which was evident when the PHWA recently voted the Lightning winger as the top Hart candidate in its midseason awards. The Lightning are the best team in hockey; Kucherov has 66 points in 52 games for a 1.27 point-per-game average. So it goes.

MacKinnon was in our top spot last month, but he left the lineup on Feb. 1 and is out two to four weeks with an upper-body injury. Even if he misses a chunk of games, MacKinnon might still have a Hart Trophy claim if the Avalanche make the playoffs and he maintains his absolutely sick points-per-game average. He has 61 points in 49 games, which is 11 points better than Colorado’s second-leading scorer, Mikko Rantanen (50), and 21 points clear of the Avalanche’s third-leading scorer, linemate Gabriel Landeskog (40).

(Please note that I’m placing aside my “gotta be in it to win it!” mandate momentarily for the Avalanche, who stand a point out of the wild card with a game in hand on the Wild.)

With Ovechkin, the Capitals are leading the Metro, and he’s the only Washington player with more than 20 goals — in fact, he has over double the goals of the team’s next leading scorer Evgeny Kuznetsov (14). The best Ovechkin seasons for the Caps are the ones in which he lifts his entire team with a goal or a play, and this one has been a textbook example of that (he has three goals in overtime, for example).

John Tavares of the Islanders (58 points, third in the PHWA balloting), Johnny Gaudreau of the Flames (59 points), Anze Kopitar of the Kings (55 points) and Taylor Hall of the Devils (51 points) are all in the conversation, or at least should be. Auston Matthews of the Leafs (40 points) would need to get on a scoring bender to get back into the conversation. I’m fond of the chatter about Patrice Bergeron getting an MVP look for all he does for the Boston Bruins, but let’s face it — he has 44 points in 45 games, and that’s the problem with a lot of these candidacies.

As Tom Gulitti of NHL.com noted recently, only two forwards since 1960 have won the Hart without finishing in the top two in goals or points. Which brings us to the player we haven’t mentioned yet: our sweet boy, Phil Kessel.

The Penguins star just completed a January in which he scored 17 points in 12 games and generally electrified the team every time he stepped onto the ice. He fits the statistical requirement for a Hart winner: He’s second in the NHL in points with 63 — and closing fast on Kucherov.

As usual with anything Phil Kessel-related, there’s an army of supporters trumpeting his accomplishments and ready to bemoan the media’s ignorance of them — they’re still justifiably bitter about, for example, Kessel not winning the Conn Smythe in 2016. But it’s hard to make a case for Kessel when Malkin has 60 points and Sidney Crosby has 58. Frankly, it was Crosby’s 21 points in 12 games in January that really pointed the Penguins’ ship toward the playoffs.

That said, we’re all for Phil Kessel being the Art Ross winner and becoming only the second American in NHL history to win the points-scoring title.

Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Favorite: John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

Finalists: Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings; P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators

You’ll notice that Victor Hedman isn’t listed here, despite being named the midseason leader for the award by the PHWA. While he would make my top five, this deep into the season it’s safe to say that Hedman’s candidacy is overhyped because the Lightning are a dominant team.

I’ve long felt Hedman’s underlying numbers don’t match up with other candidates for the Norris, and he hasn’t done much to dissuade that. He’s starting 53.3 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, more than Klingberg (51.0) and Doughty (52.3). His Corsi for percentage of 52.69 is a shade lower from that of Klingberg (53.55) and Doughty (53.48). Ditto his expected goals plus/minus of 4.8, lower than Doughty’s 6.0 and Klingberg’s epic 11.49. (Expected goals is a metric that estimates a player’s contribution to his team’s expected goals per 60 minutes.)

Subban, meanwhile, has played himself into the top three. The 2013 Norris winner has 22 points in his past 25 games and is third among defenseman in points, with 40. While some of his underlying numbers don’t blow you away — 51.47 in Corsi for percentage and a minus-1.05 in expected goals — the key is context. Subban has had a remarkable season when you factor in that he’s starting just 41 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone and has been dragging around the possession abyss that is Alexei Emelin all season.

Hence, I think he just edges Hedman for the top three.

Why Klingberg on top? The Stars defenseman is leading NHL blueliners with 50 points in 53 games, with 32 of them coming away from the power play. He’s playing 23:34 per night on average in all situations and has a plus-131 Corsi count. Working under Ken Hitchcock and Rick Wilson has done wonders for his game, along with finding a little pushback this season.

There’s a significant case to be made for Doughty, especially with that NHL-best 27:04 per game in ice time and that plus-6.2 Corsi relative to his teammates.

I think Klingberg can win the Norris vs. Doughty, but the voters will have to do two things they don’t always do: get over themselves when it comes to offensive defensemen and perceptions of their defensive prowess; and not overrely on reputation as a candidacy crutch. Which is what gets you Hedman as the midseason Norris leader.

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Leader: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

Finalists: Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers; Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

Of course, sometimes reputation and achievement just happen to coincide.

Bergeron has won the Selke four times, and another win would break his tie with Bob Gainey for most all time. Last season’s winner is fourth in the NHL with a 56.8 faceoff winning percentage (minimum 900 faceoffs), but that jumps to an NHL-best 59.8 percent when he’s killing penalties for the Bruins, averaging 1:55 in time on ice per game shorthanded. As usual, he leads the Bruins in possession (58.32 in Corsi for percentage), and Boston goalies have a .952 save percentage when he’s on the ice. If there’s any knock on him, it’s that he starts 58.8 percent of his even-strength shifts in the offensive zone.

Couturier, meanwhile, starts just 43.5 percent of his shifts in the attacking zone, making his season all the more impressive. He leads the Flyers in possession (54.5 in Corsi for percentage), is second in faceoff percentage (53.9) and plays over two minutes a night on the penalty kill. All of this while being nearly a point-per-game player, with 51 points in 52 games. Just a remarkable season.

Kopitar finished out the top three in the PHWA voting and does so here as well. He plays 2:14 per game shorthanded and has a Corsi for percentage of 52.46. He starts over 50 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone.

Aleksander Barkov of the Panthers, Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks, Ryan O’Reilly of the Sabres and Mikael Backlund of the Flames also should be in the mix.

Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

Leader: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

Finalists: Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets; Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

The Lightning goalie continues to lead the field, with a .936 even-strength save percentage. His goals saved above average (GSAA), essentially how many goals he’s saved compared with a league-average goalie facing the same number of shot attempts, is best in the NHL at 22.56. He’s second in the NHL with a .988 save percentage on low-danger chances; in other words, he’s making the saves he’s expected to make.

Rinne has been outstanding this season: He has an NHL-best (for goalies with at least 30 starts) .939 even-strength save percentage, a GSAA of 15.70 and has a quality start percentage — a stat cooked up by our own Rob Vollman that basically tracks if a goalie gave his team a chance to win — of .703.

We had Sergei Bobrovsky of the Blue Jackets in our top three for the Vezina last month, but we have to agree with the PHWA voters: Hellebuyck belongs here. He’s appeared in 43 games for the Jets, with a .930 save percentage at even strength and a .979 save percentage on low-danger chances. He’s third in GSAA at 14.90.

Mike Smith of the Flames deserves a stick tap here for how he’s stabilized that team, though he’s unlikely to win the Vezina. Frederik Andersen deserves a medal for valor and some muscle ointment for facing 1,477 shots in 44 games.

Two goalies worth watching: Carter Hutton of the St. Louis Blues, who has just 19 starts but leads the NHL in even-strength save percentage at .953. There is no goalie controversy between Hutton and Jake Allen … yet. Also, one wonders whether the GMs who vote on this award might look at the sum total of Marc-Andre Fleury‘s season — the stats and the situation — and decide to kick him some love. The Vegas Golden Knights‘ goalie has a .936 even-strength save percentage in 21 starts.

Lady Byng (most gentlemanly player)

The PHWA said Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames should win the award for a second straight year. He seems like a nice boy, so who are we to argue?

Once again, our only hope is that the voting on this award is transferred to the NHL Officials Association, which has a much better understanding than the writers do on who deserves a sportsmanship award.

Jack Adams Award (best coach)

Leader: Gerard Gallant, Vegas Golden Knights

Finalists: Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning; John Hynes, New Jersey Devils

Considering the Golden Knights just became the winningest first-year expansion team in NHL history in roughly half the time it took to establish that record, Gallant might be a unanimous winner. But maybe someone tosses a vote or two toward Hynes for the Devils’ incredible season or Cooper for overseeing the potential Presidents Trophy winner. It’s a wasted vote, because Gallant has this thing in the bag.

Calder Trophy (top rookie)

Leader: Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks

Finalists: Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders; Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

Barzal finished first in the PHWA balloting and continues to lead all rookie scorers with 53 points in 53 games. Among the voters, he’s likely the leader. But not here.

To restate it: What Boeser has done in scoring 25 goals this season (with 21 assists) is more impressive than what Barzal has accomplished. Boeser bounced around the Canucks’ lineup after linemates Sven Baertschi and Bo Horvat went down, and he generates offense with those other groups. Barzal, in contrast, has found stability in playing with Jordan Eberle for the vast majority of his minutes. Boeser doesn’t have the luxury of a player like John Tavares drawing the toughest defensive assignments either.

The knock on Boeser is that he’s been extraordinarily sheltered — just 36 percent of his shifts have started in the defensive zone, vs. 46.9 for Barzal. But again, the goals are exceptional: At his scoring rate this season, Boeser could add 15 goals to his total if he stays healthy. That would put him at 40 goals — a threshold that since 2005 only Alex Ovechkin and Auston Matthews crossed as rookies, and they both won the Calder.

While Barzal has the points lead, Boeser’s 0.94 points per game isn’t shabby.

If the forwards split the vote, that could clear the way for McAvoy. He’s averaging 22:43 in ice time per game, tops for rookies, and has a solid 25 points and a plus-19. It’s not out of the question that he skates away with the Calder, winning it for Boston for the first time since Andrew Raycroft in 2004. Quite a legacy there!

But right now, our pick is Boeser, and not just because he’s the runaway winner for best hair in the NHL.





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