A month in the NHL can repaint the awards picture. The November portrait still has some of broad strokes that we can see in this latest NHL Awards Watch. But there’s a lot of blue and gold that has been erased from the image.
A month ago, the Buffalo Sabres were the talk of the NHL. Now they’re outside the playoff picture, which impacts the MVP and coach of the year derbies. A month ago, Pekka Rinne was the clubhouse leader for the Vezina Trophy. Now one wonders if he’s still the unquestioned starter for the Nashville Predators.
Much has changed. But a few awards remain locked down by the previous leaders.
Here’s the NHL Awards Watch for December. Again, this is a prediction of how I expect the voters would consider the current candidates, as well as 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)
Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)
Hart Trophy (MVP)
As a comics fan, the notion of a “multiverse” has always struck me as intriguing. What if there were another NHL, in another universe, that looked like ours but was just a little different? Like, maybe Hartford still has a team. Or ties still exist. Or the Hart Trophy race goes to the three players who are arguably more valuable to their teams this season than the three players listed here are to theirs?
McDavid has 19 goals and 51 points to lead the Oilers through 29 games, potentially en route to another Art Ross Trophy. He has 9.5 goals above average for a team that he has helped carry to a division lead. He has won the Hart once and is a two-time finalist in his four seasons in the NHL. Oh, and he has created more individual highlights in the span of three months than most players create in their entire careers.
Yet linemate Leon Draisaitl is right there with him, with 18 goals and 50 points in 29 games, and is nearly tied with McDavid in wins above replacement (1.5 for Leon, 1.6 for Connor). Draisaitl has been on the ice for 16 of McDavid’s 19 goals, assisting on 13 of them. Although it can be a specious stat, he has five game-winning goals, including two in overtime.
Outsiders might see Draisaitl as a creation of McDavid’s or, at best, the beneficiary of a symbiotic relationship. But ask around the Oilers, and you’ll hear plenty of people testifying that Draisaitl has had the better season — and is just as valuable as McDavid. But honestly, take either of them at this point: Of Edmonton’s 89 goals scored, McDavid or Draisaitl has been on the ice for 64 (71.9%). That is incredible.
MacKinnon has two of the primary attributes of a Hart Trophy finalist. He’s well ahead of his teammates in scoring: Through 26 games, MacKinnon has 42 points in 26 games, which is 16 more than any other Avalanche player. He has accomplished this with Mikko Rantanen having been limited to 10 games and Gabriel Landeskog to 11 games due to injuries.
Yet it’s rookie Cale Makar who leads the Avalanche — and the entire NHL — in goals above average (12.8) and wins above replacement (2.2), though MacKinnon is right there in the latter category (1.9).
Finally, Pastrnak leads the NHL with 25 goals and has 42 points overall. His scoring pace early in this season is the stuff of legend: Pastrnak is the third player in the past 25 years to have scored at least 25 goals in his first 27 games, joining Jaromir Jagr (who did it twice) and Mario Lemieux. As with McDavid, many of these goals have gone straight to the highlight reel. His play is one reason the Bruins are near the top of the NHL in points and have positioned themselves as Stanley Cup favorites again.
Yet linemate Brad Marchand has a legitimate claim to the Hart as well. He has been on the ice for 23 of Pastrnak’s 25 goals, assisting on 13 of them. He’s second in the NHL in goals above average (12.5) and wins above replacement (2.1). Like McDavid and Draisaitl, take your pick: Of Boston’s 99 goals scored, Pastrnak or Marchand has been on the ice for 61 (61.6%).
In this timeline, it’s McDavid, MacKinnon and Pastrnak for MVP. But on some other version in the hockey multiverse, the one that values analytics and devalues celebrity, it’s Draisaitl, Makar and Marchand for the Hart at this moment.
Norris Trophy (top defenseman)
Carlson probably wrapped up this award — if he stays healthy — when Alex Ovechkin started calling him “Johnny Norris.” As it stands, he has 37 points in 28 games, best among defensemen and sixth among all scorers. As the Norris remains forever a “best offensive defenseman” award, that doesn’t just put him in the driver’s seat. It puts him dangling off the hood, Mad Max-style.
Truth be told, some of his other even-strength metrics aren’t as stellar. He’s around 50% in shot attempts between the Capitals and opponents. Although he’s a plus-10 in goals scored, he’s right on the edge of teams managing more scoring chances and high-danger chances with him on the ice than do the Capitals. His expected goals-against per 60 minutes (2.5) is eighth-highest by a defenseman who has 450 or more minutes at 5-on-5.
All of which is to say that Josi might have a stronger analytics case. His expected goals-against per 60 minutes is 1.83, which is fourth overall in the NHL through 26 games. He’s well into the plus side of every metric, including scoring chances (58.02%), in which he’s fourth among defensemen. He has 24 points in 26 games, again fourth in the league, putting him in the conversation from an offensive standpoint. Don’t discount the notion that he’s “due” for the Norris, either.
But there’s a caveat with Josi and with Dougie Hamilton, who is second in the NHL among defensemen with 28 points: How much of their success is due to their defensive partners? Ryan Ellis of the Predators has been remarkably good, ranking fourth in goals above average (10.9) and wins above replacement (1.9) among all players.
Ditto Jaccob Slavin of the Hurricanes, who is arguably the best defensive defenseman in the league right now. His 9.1 goals above average ranks him sixth. Hockey Reference has an advanced stat called expected plus-minus, which factors in where shots are taken. Slavin is at a plus-8.5, best in the NHL. But alas, 16 points in 27 games doesn’t get him on the Norris radar. He didn’t receive a vote in a recent canvassing of NHL.com’s writers.
Three names to watch here: Kris Letang, who was an early contender before injuries once again limited his game total, and rookies Cale Makar of the Avalanche and Quinn Hughes of the Canucks, though a rookie finishing in the top three for the Norris is a rarity. The past four defensemen who won the Calder didn’t crack the top 10 for the Norris.
Calder Trophy (top rookie)
What a battle between brilliant young defensemen. Makar, 21, is the clear front-runner, as he leads all rookies in scoring with 26 points in 26 games and has more hype than “The Irishman.” Hughes, 20, has 23 points in 27 games, plays slightly more and is less insulated (52.3% of his shifts start in the offensive zone vs. 60.8% for Makar). Makar leads the NHL in goals above average (12.8) and wins above replacement (2.2); Hughes is fifth (10.3 and 1.8) in those categories.
Olofsson, our favorite for the award in the previous Awards Watch, still leads all rookies with 10 goals, and a recent six-game point streak got him back in the conversation. But his best path to the Calder, at the moment, is a silent prayer that these ridiculous rookie D-men split the vote.
Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)
Note: The NHL’s general managers vote for this award.
Kuemper has to be considered the favorite here after two months in the books. His record (10-6-2) is the only stat that doesn’t dazzle you. Otherwise, he leads the NHL in overall save percentage (.935), goals-against average (1.97, the only netminder with a sub-2.00 GAA) and even-strength save percentage (.942). He was fifth for the Vezina last season and has built on that case.
If the MVP race weren’t already so crowded, Hellebuyck has a convincing case, given that he’s the primary reason the Jets overcame the loss of two thirds of their defense to stubbornly remain in a playoff seed. By Hockey Reference’s metrics, he has 15.79 goals saved above average, which is the best in the NHL. He was a Vezina finalist in 2018, so he’s on the radar, too.
So is Binnington, obviously, after leading the Blues back from the grave and to their first Stanley Cup last season. He’s 13-4-4 through 21 games, with a .928 even-strength save percentage. There are a few other known quantities in contention, such as Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars, Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins and Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights. But Binnington might have the edge for now, with the Blues atop the Central Division. Residual goodwill can carry a goalie to the Vezina top three.
Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)
Couturier has the lead for the Selke for a few reasons, some fact-based and some narrative. The Flyers are playing well, which gives his accomplishments a larger spotlight. Ditto the idea that he’s “due,” having been nominated for the award just once in nine seasons, despite his defensive acumen. He’s a center, which has its obvious advantages in the Selke race. He’s also a center with 21 points in 27 games, which is another (maddeningly) mandatory facet for this award.
But mostly, he’s winning the head-to-head battle with Bergeron, which is what you have to do to win the Selke as a center. According to Natural Stat Trick’s stats per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, Couturier has the advantage in shot attempts (the Flyers get 57.77%, the Bruins 55.70%), scoring chances against (21.45 to 22.36), high-danger shot attempts (9.51 to 10.25), on-ice save percentage (.917 to .891) and faceoff percentage (57.9% to 55%). Couturier also leads in games played (27 to 21), but a deficit there never stopped Bergeron from winning the Selke before.
It’s hard to imagine that Stone won’t be in the mix, given how much attention his candidacy received last season, when he finished second to Ryan O’Reilly for the award. His underlying defensive numbers have improved after an average start, but he still isn’t having a prototypical Mark Stone campaign. Yet something as simple as leading the NHL in takeaways for forwards (35 in 28 games) could sway some voters as Stone tries to become the first non-center to win the award since 2003.
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 or the NHL’s on-ice officials, who are perhaps the most qualified to assess such matters.
As currently constituted, the Lady Byng generally goes to the player with the most points who has the fewest penalty minutes. All that established, Nathan MacKinnon has 42 points and one minor penalty, which seems rather gentlemanly.
Jack Adams Award (best coach)
Note: The Professional Hockey Broadcasters Association votes on this award.
When John Tavares took his bed sheets and absconded for the Toronto Maple Leafs, there was a discussion about who would lead the New York Islanders into their next phase. The obvious choice was Mathew Barzal, a 22-year-old offensive dynamo. Well, it turns out the real answer was a 57-year-old head coach. The Islanders are a team made in Trotz’s image, buying into his dogma and being better than anyone anticipated for a second straight season. He won the Jack Adams in his first season on the Island. So far, he’s the most deserving of it again. Trotz has a .656 winning percentage through 106 games with the Islanders. Incredible.
Tippett deserves credit for giving the Oilers the structure they needed to win hockey games they lost in the past, but ultimately, it’s the two stars factoring in on more than 70% of their goals who are carrying them. As for Tocchet … hey, any coach who gets the Coyotes into the playoffs is going to get Jack Adams love, as Tippett did in 2010.
Bruce Cassidy of the Boston Bruins might be in that spot where the team he’s icing is so good that his contributions to its Presidents’ Trophy chase aren’t acknowledged properly. But he’s in the mix.