NHL Awards Watch: Calder, Norris Trophy races in state of chaos

Since the previous NHL Awards Watch, the Professional Hockey Writers Association published its midseason awards ballot. This gives us a good idea on where the wind is blowing on the major awards. While a lot can change over the next few months, and particularly in tight playoff races, note that four of the five PHWA-voted awards leaders at the midpoint last season went on to win their respective trophies.

Here’s the NHL Awards Watch for February. 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 PHWA votes for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Lady Byng trophies; broadcasters vote for the Jack Adams; and general managers handle the Vezina. Also keep in mind my “You Gotta Be In It To Win It” protocol for the Hart and the Jack Adams.

All stats 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: Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (83 points)
Watch out for: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (79 points)
Dark horse: Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers (70 points)

Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leader: David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins (38 goals)
Watch out for: Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (36 goals)
Dark horse: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (30 goals)

Hart Trophy (MVP)

Leader: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
Finalists: David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins; Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

McDavid topped the PHWA midseason poll, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. A hockey writer’s appetite to cast a caveat-free MVP vote for McDavid is eclipsed only by our appetite for free candy in the press box.

But McDavid is going to have a Leon Draisaitl problem.

Draisaitl has moved ahead of McDavid in points (where he currently leads the NHL) and points per game, and he’s done so playing on a different line than McDavid, which is going to deflate the “product of Connor” counterargument. As I’ve written here before, there are those around the Oilers who believe Draisaitl has had the better season, even before his stats climbed ahead of McDavid’s. So while the default setting in the voting might be McDavid — and again, understandably so — what if Draisaitl ends up leading Edmonton in scoring, or the entire NHL for that matter?

MacKinnon was second on the PHWA Hart ballot and, for my money, continues to build the strongest case. Through 50 games, he has 72 points; that’s 35 more points than Cale Makar at No. 2 for the Avalanche. He was without Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog for 16 games this season, and yet the Avalanche remain snugly in a playoff seed in the competitive Central Division. He’s sixth in goals scored above average (17.4), better than McDavid, Draisaitl and Pastrnak. Again, leading your playoff-bound team in scoring by a country mile is a surefire way to stake claim to the Hart Trophy. Two years after being runner-up to a Taylor Hall, who did just that, I feel MacKinnon is a compelling Hart pick.

But sometimes the voters just go for the best offensive player on one of the most successful teams, something to which Nikita Kucherov can attest. Pastrnak’s 38 goals still led the NHL entering Monday’s games, and his 1.42 points per game still ranked him fifth overall. As we said last month: If you’re picking a Boston Bruins forward for the Hart Trophy, then Brad Marchand might have the stronger case analytically, at seventh in the NHL in goals scored above average (17.1). But Pastrnak, right now, has the glamor stats lead for a conference title contender. Hard to argue with that.

While Pasta is sticking to it now, that third Hart nomination is wide open. Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs has a case, as he’s in position to potentially win the Rocket Richard goal-scoring title as a center, something only Sidney Crosby (twice), Steven Stamkos (twice) and Vincent Lecavalier have done since the award’s inception in 1998. Florida Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau (65 points in 50 games) is having a Hart-caliber season, but will have to overcome the general voting indifference to his franchise for major awards not named the Lady Byng.

Buffalo Sabres star Jack Eichel and New York Rangers star Artemi Panarin are as worthy of the award than any of the current leaders, but their teams need to be a heck of a lot closer to the playoff bubble for consideration.

The biggest dark horse for the Hart, however, has to be Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks. He has 65 points in 52 games, or 21 more than the next-leading scorer on his team. He doesn’t have a strong analytics case (he’s seventh on his own team in goals scored above average), but if the Blackhawks somehow creep into the wild card and Kane’s traditional numbers hold up, it’s not outlandish to think the 2016 Hart winner could end up a finalist.

Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Leader: John Carlson, Washington Capitals
Finalists: Roman Josi, Nashville Predators; Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues

Expect to see a lot of this sort of thing as the Norris Trophy race heats up:

That’s an analytic deep dive into Carlson vs. Josi for best overall defenseman in the NHL this season, courtesy of Jason Paul. Carlson has maintained his scoring lead among defensemen, with 62 points in 53 games; in other words, an incredible 1.17 points per game average that would rank as the eighth highest in 30 years. But Josi’s offensive case is strong, too: He has 51 points in 51 games, which would make him just the seventh defenseman since the 2005 lockout to average a point per game in a season (assuming Carlson does as well).

The analytics case for Josi is stronger. He tops Carlson in 5-on-5 possession metrics and expected goals percentage. He steamrolls him in goals scored above average, 14.9 to 8.4. And as noted in that chart, the Predators are a better defensive team as far as shot suppression and save percentage with Josi on the ice than the Capitals are with Carlson on the ice.

As we know, asking Norris voters to consider the full picture of a defenseman rather than his offensive stats is a rather elephantine request, which is why Carlson’s offensive season certainly keeps him in the driver’s seat for another month. But Josi’s case — which has been made without partner Ryan Ellis since the Winter Classic — is an increasingly strong one. Perhaps already stronger.

The least surprising news in the NHL is that St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo is having the best offensive season of his career ahead of unrestricted free agency, with a 0.81 points-per-game average in 24 minutes, 15 seconds of average ice time. The good feelings from the Stanley Cup run could come into play here, as should the fact he has a tremendous 19.8 goals scored above average. Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning (13.4 GAR) is right there, too, and has a higher points-per-game average (0.84). He’s also on a Nicklas Lidstrom-esque run of three consecutive years as a Norris finalist, which can’t be ignored.

Dougie Hamilton of the Carolina Hurricanes finished third on the PHWA ballot, but his season-ending injury likely spells the end of that campaign. If only we could convince the voters who were doing the Dougie to transfer their support to the actual best defenseman on the Hurricanes, Jaccob Slavin. Alas, 25 points in 52 games likely isn’t going to be enough to entice them.

Calder Trophy (top rookie)

Leader: Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks
Finalists: Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks; Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

This is the best race of the awards season. Two rookie defensemen. Two very strong cases. Hughes has 39 points in 52 games, averaging 21:36 per game while being the best Canucks defenseman in possession (52.94 in Corsi for percentage) and expected goals percentage (53.88). Makar has 37 points in 42 games for an outstanding 0.88 points-per-game average, while playing 20:40 on average and being the best Avalanche defenseman in possession (51.24 Corsi for percentage) and expected goals percentage (53.29).

Where Hughes has an advantage is in deployment. Makar has started only 35.4% of his shifts in the defensive zone, while Hughes has started 42.8% of them here. But neither of them sees much ice time short-handed.

Where Makar has the advantage is in goals above average (12.8 to Hughes’ 11.9), although the two are nearly deadlocked in wins above average (2.1 to 2.0).

I have Hughes ahead here by the thinnest of margins. Like, one-ply toilet paper at a terrible motel thin.

I think the voters will respect the raw points total over the point-per-game argument; remember, that’s partially how Panarin beat McDavid for the Calder in 2016. I think Hughes got some necessary exposure at the All-Star Game. And I think the Vancouver media is already pumping the tires for him, and will continue to do so until the case is made. It’s entirely possible folks will start going door-to-door like zealots, clutching a Canucks yearbook and asking if you’ve “heard the good Hughes?”

All of this is bad Hughes, er, news for John Marino of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Adam Fox of the New York Rangers, two rookie defensemen who could easily stake a claim to being the best rookie in the league this season, but whose candidacies can’t crawl out from the shadow cast by these two star rookies.

As I can’t imagine the voters giving all three Calder spots to defensemen, one assumes the leading scorer among forwards slots in with Makar and Hughes. The injury to Victor Olofsson of the Sabres opened the door for Canadiens center Nick Suzuki (33 points in 54 games) and Blackhawks winger Dominik Kubalik (32 points in 50 games), who gets the nod here because he’s running away with the goals race for rookie forwards, currently at 21.

Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

Note: The NHL’s general managers vote for this award

Leader: Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars
Finalists: Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets; Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

This is a two-horse race at the moment. Bishop has a .930 even-strength save percentage and a .925 overall save percentage. Hellebuyck hit a pothole before the All-Star break, but he’s still put up some tremendous numbers (.925 even-strength save percentage in 43 starts). Hockey-Reference.com’s goals saved above average metric has Bishop leading (17.06); Evolving Hockey, which includes expected goals in its goals saved above average metric, has Hellebuyck with a wide lead (17.1, to Bishop’s 13.9). Hellebuyck leads the NHL in goalie points share (8.8).

Something to keep in mind here are the fortunes of the Jets, as a second-half fade could seriously affect Hellebuyck’s candidacy. Ask John Gibson, midseason leader for the Vezina in 2018-19, about that.

While Darcy Kuemper of the Arizona Coyotes was third on the PHWA list, keep in mind that the hockey writers don’t vote on this one. It’s the general managers, and they haven’t had three Western Conference goalies as the finalists since the Vezina Trophy voting started in 1983. So Rask, who has stellar numbers (.927 even-strength save percentage, 16.18 goals saved above average) could get that spot. An 18-4-6 record doesn’t hurt either.

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Leader: Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers
Finalists: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins, Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues

If you’ve read any previous editions of Awards Watch, you know there are two gospels from which I preach: The one that says Sean Couturier deserves a Selke, as one of the finest two-way forwards in the NHL; and the one that says Mark Stone deserves a Selke, because it’s high time we give a winger his due in this category.

Stone didn’t make the PHWA ballot — seriously, ask the players and they’ll tell you this guy is basically Pavel Datsyuk, except a winger — but Couturier was first for the Selke. Hooray! That’s great. Save for one thing: Bergeron, who was second on the ballot, and O’Reilly, last season’s winner who placed third for the PHWA, have been better.

Bergeron has the lowest expected goals per 60 minutes (1.84) and defensive goals above average per 60 minutes (0.233), and the best possession stats (55.94 Corsi for percentage). O’Reilly has the lowest scoring chances against per 60 (22.64) and high-danger goals against per 60 (0.71). Couturier leads in actual goals against per 60 (1.94), in faceoff percentage (58.5) and in defensive point shares (1.8, or the points contributed to his team in the standings through his defense).

It’s hard not to have Couturier on top after the voters had him there, especially when he leads in the laziest metrics on which some voters rely — faceoff percentage and plus/minus (plus-16). But when it’s scrutiny time, one wonders how his numbers will stack up against the other current finalists.

Of course, when it’s scrutiny time, one wonders if the voters will recognize the Selke worthiness of Tampa Bay’s Anthony Cirelli; outside of faceoff percentage, he’s got numbers that trump the three current Selke nominees.

A lot can change. Keep in mind that O’Reilly wasn’t even in the top three for the Selke at this time last season.

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 National Hockey League Players’ Association, and not by the thin-skinned masses who occupy the majority of the press box seats.

That said, here’s how the PHWA voted:

1. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
2. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
3. Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues

Auston Matthews winning the award for gentlemanly behavior, given his offseason, would be the squirmiest thing since … well, since O’Reilly finished fifth for the Byng the season after he crashed his truck into a Tim Horton’s drive-thru.

Jack Adams Award (best coach)

Note: The Professional Hockey Broadcasters Association votes on this award.

Leader: John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets
Finalists: Craig Berube, St. Louis Blues; Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins

It’s a two-coach race here, and it’s just a matter of whether the broadcasters are more enamored with Sullivan’s narrative, in which he coached the Penguins to a playoff spot through a mountain of injuries, including to Sidney Crosby; or Tortorella’s narrative, in which he led a team that had significant offseason defections and a parade of Latvian goalies to a playoff spot.

Someone from the Western Conference will get into the top three, and we still think it’ll be the residual love for Berube from last season over worthy candidates in Travis Green of Vancouver, Dave Tippett of Edmonton, Rick Tocchet of Arizona and Geoff Ward of Calgary, the last of whom took over that team when Bill Peters resigned in shame.

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