Trying to predict the NHL Award winners after the first month of the season is like trying to prove that the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres will still be first-place teams come April. We can observe where they are currently. We can project what they might become eventually. But who in their right mind thought these teams would be in first place now, let alone expects them to be there months from now?
Nevertheless, it’s time to survey the fields for the NHL’s major 2019-20 hardware such as they are.
Here’s the NHL Awards Watch for October. Again, this is a prediction of how I expect the voters would consider the current candidates, with a look at their merits. 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. Also keep in mind the “you gotta be in it to win it” protocol for the Hart and the Jack Adams.
Art Ross Trophy (points leader)
Current leader: David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins (23 points in 11 games)
Watch out for: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (21 points in 12 games)
Dark horse: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (15 points in 11 games)
Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)
Current leader: David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins (11 goals in 11 games)
Watch out for: Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (Nine goals in 12 games)
Dark horse: Mark Stone, Vegas Golden Knights (Seven goals in 13 games)
Hart Trophy (MVP)
Last season, McDavid finished third in the Hart voting despite his team’s finishing 11 points out of a playoff spot. Imagine how many votes he’ll get if the Oilers make the postseason! Though 12 games, they’re a playoff team, and that can be directly credited to the play of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who each have 21 points in that span. McDavid has been on the ice for 14 of the Oilers’ 21 even-strength goals and all 11 of their power-play goals. He has had more highlight-reel plays in a month than most players have in a season.
One could make the argument that Draisaitl is just as worthy of the Hart because one could make the argument that he has been even better than McDavid this season — he’s second to Alex Ovechkin in expected goals in all situations — but it’s hard to imagine him getting more support than McDavid, a magnet for postseason accolades. This is the plight of “the other guy” on a team with two superstars. Just ask Evgeni Malkin.
What McDavid didn’t have through the first 12 games was the NHL points lead. That belonged to Pastrnak, the burgeoning superstar for the Bruins who was averaging an astounding 2.09 points per game. His line with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron is next-level: The Bruins get 65.49% of the shots with the three of them together and 47.71% without any of the trio on the ice (at 5-on-5). That’s evidence that the Bruins are being driven by this line, much like the Oilers are by the McDavid line. Yet it’s easy to see voters putting McDavid over for the Hart when considering the perceived quality of the defending Eastern Conference champions vs. that of the Oilers.
The third Hart spot has a variety of possibilities, with Draisaitl, Marchand, Ovechkin, Nathan MacKinnon and Mark Stone among them. Sidney Crosby‘s seven-game point streak as the Pittsburgh Penguins lost Malkin to injury was a strong opening bid from the seven-time MVP finalist. He’s right in the mix. But the call, for now, is Eichel.
The Sabres are one of the biggest stunners in the first month of the season, and Eichel’s 17 points in 13 games can be seen as a catalyst. In the team’s nine wins, he has 15 of his points. He’s averaging 2.59 points per 60 minutes at even strength, right around the lead for the Sabres, and that’s with eight of his points coming on the power play. The strongest Hart candidates, as far as vote-getters, are the ones who put some separation between themselves and their teammates in the scoring register; think Taylor Hall‘s win in 2018, when he finished 41 (!) points better than any Devils teammate. Eichel’s up six on Jeff Skinner already.
But at the moment, it’s a two-horse race for the MVP between McDavid and Pastrnak — nless you believe Draisaitl is actually the Oilers’ entry in said race.
Norris Trophy (top defenseman)
If the vote were held today, would any other defenseman get one? Carlson has 21 points in his first 13 games. This is not an anomaly: Since 2017, Carlson (159 points) trails Brent Burns by only three points for the most among NHL defensemen. It’s a hallmark of the Norris Trophy that the leading point-getter for blueliners is more often than not the favorite to win the award. Through 13 games, Carlson is eight points better than any other D-man.
That said, his underlying numbers at even strength aren’t exactly stellar: He has an expected goals-scored percentage of minus-4.13 relative to his teammates and is on the negative side in shot attempts in most situations. Josi, in contrast, is at a 16.68% expected goals-scored relative to the rest of the Predators at 5-on-5. He was second to Carlson in points (13) through 11 games, starting just 46% of the time in the attacking zone. He’s a plus-10 in goals at even-strength, with an individual expected goals of 1.23, and the Predators are a plus-61 in shot attempts with him on the ice. Carlson is without question the favorite for the Norris, but Josi might be the league’s best defenseman early in the season.
Letang is Letang: strong numbers across the board, skating more than 25 minutes per game (usually critical minutes), scoring 10 points in 12 games. It’s solid stuff, even with the Penguins in an injury flux early in the season. Shout-outs to Dougie Hamilton of the Carolina Hurricanes and Jake Muzzin of the Toronto Maple Leafs for being in the mix.
Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)
This is going to require an explanation of the voters’ lizard brains for the Selke Trophy, in three acts.
Bergeron and Couturier are neck-and-neck at this point for the Selke. Both have been tremendous in preventing high-danger chances and passes to the slot. Both are doing their thing on possession, with the Flyers getting 65.38% of the 5-on-5 shot attempts with Couturier on the ice and the Bruins getting 58.70% with Bergeron out there. Couturier has an expected goals against per 60 minutes of 2.09, and Bergeron’s at 1.72. No player with at least 100 faceoffs this season has a higher winning percentage than Couturier’s (67.3) — not even Bergeron (56.0).
Where the lizard brain comes in: Bergeron is the default Selke choice for many voters. He was a finalist the past two seasons — and had 31 first-place votes on the 2019 ballot — despite playing 65 games or fewer. That’s OK. He’s really good.
What puts him ahead of Couturier at this point is lizard brain, part deux: Couturier is currently a minus-7. In the past decade of voting, only one player with a minus rating has made the top three: Anze Kopitar in 2015, at a minus-2 with the Kings. Before that, the last time it happened was 2007. So one could get nominated, maybe. But one is not winning the Selke with a minus, per lizard brain rules.
Stone, meanwhile, is by reputation and observation one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL. He should have a Selke by now but doesn’t because he plays on the wing rather than at center. He broke through and finished second to Ryan O’Reilly of the Blues in last season’s Selke voting. His profile has never been higher, and for good reason: To watch Stone is to watch perhaps the NHL’s best pickpocket since Pavel Datsyuk, as he has 14 takeaways in 13 games.
Here’s the problem: Defensively, he hasn’t been up to his standards this season. An expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 of 1.94 goals is great. A minus-4 in even-strength goals differential and a .879 on-ice save percentage are less so. Vegas as a team has taken a hit defensively early.
Lizard brain tells us that preseason hype would be enough to get Stone a nomination now, despite all that. And Stone will be fine. But he has some catching up to do.
Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)
(Note: The NHL’s general managers vote for this award.)
Rinne was 6-0-1 with a .960 even-strength save percentage, a 1.98 goals-against average and a shutout in his first seven games for the Predators. His backup, Juuse Saros, has an .872 save percentage in four appearances. The rest of the stats don’t really matter when the glamour numbers are that gaudy, especially for the general managers voting.
But truth be told: Rask has been the better goalie. He leads the NHL with 7.65 goals saved above average and is third in expected goals saved above average (3.84). Every one of his six starts has been considered a quality one by that metric. As usual, playing behind the Bruins is its own reward in the eyes of many — witness that 1.48 goals-against average — but that .959 even-strength save percentage is right there with Rinne.
Fleury fits here as that “great goalie but also MVP” candidate for the Vezina. His numbers are good, with a 6.17 goals saved above average. The Golden Knights have openly discussed how his goaltending has been the difference between a middling start and a disastrous one. “We haven’t been defending well at all. [Fleury] has been bailing us out,” Max Pacioretty said recently. That’s quite an endorsement.
Calder Trophy (top rookie)
Olofsson has cooled off from his torrid start, with two assists in five games after his six goals in seven games introduction. As of Monday, he led the NHL in goals and points by a rookie. Calder voters love when candidates make history, and Olofsson’s scoring his first eight NHL goals on the power play (going back to last season) set an NHL record dating to 1934.
Makar was tied with Olofsson and Toronto’s Ilya Mikheyev with 10 points as of Monday and obviously is in position to thrive with the Avalanche as a rookie defenseman. But coach Jared Bednar admitted that Makar was fighting the puck a bit this month. “It gets harder when you’re playing with the big boys. You put a little more pressure on [yourself], and I just want him to relax and go play his game,” he told the Denver Post.
Hughes has been good for the Canucks on defense, and he’s second to Edmonton’s impeccably named Ethan Bear in average time on ice (20:38) among rookies. He has seven points in 10 games. Both Hughes (65.71%) and Makar (64.29%) are being sheltered with offensive zone starts at 5-on-5, but that’s to be expected.
Overall, the rookie race is just getting warmed up. Jack Hughes seems to be finding his comfort zone in New Jersey, Cody Glass is trying to earn a bigger role in Vegas, and no fewer than three goalies — Washington’s Ilya Samsonov, Vancouver’s Thatcher Demko and Mackenzie Blackwood of the Devils — could have a say before it’s over.
Here’s hoping Kaapo Kakko (one goal, one assist in nine games) joins the party, too. Because speaking from experience, if there’s anyone you want at the party, it’s a Finn.
Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play)
This is where we remind you, dear readers, that the Lady Byng Trophy is given “to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”
As hockey writers, we’re not exactly the greatest arbiters of what constitutes sportsmanship, and we’re the last ones who should be asked to judge “gentlemanly conduct.” This is an award the PHWA should hand over to the players themselves or to the NHL’s on-ice officials, perhaps the group most qualified to assess such matters.
As for the current field, it’s October, and everyone’s on their best behavior. We had to wait until the 28th day of the month for our first suspension for an on-ice incident. Check back in November.
Jack Adams Award (best coach)
This is an easy one to call at the start of the season, as the Sabres shot out of the gate playing solid, complete games and singing the praises of the culture Krueger brought to the team. Plus, because this award is voted on by the broadcasters and Krueger is the kind of philosophical super-brain whom you could listen to for hours, he has an advantage there.
Tippett had the Oilers in first place for most of the month, good enough for a spot in the top three, even if his candidacy is evidence that two players can carry a coach to the Jack Adams as much as one goalie can. Trotz won the award last year for the second time and could make it a hat trick if the Islanders keep rolling on seven-game win streaks this season.