NHL Awards Watch: Hart Trophy race even more chaotic with one month left

It’s undeniable that NHL awards campaigns can be made or abandoned in the last month of the season.

Recency bias is very much a thing, considering that the ballots aren’t sent out until near the end of the season and the votes are sent in right up until the first game of the playoffs. This is especially true of the Hart Trophy race, for which players such as Taylor Hall, Corey Perry and Joe Thornton won tight races with late surges.

What does the awards picture look like as we sprint into the playoff races?

Here’s the NHL Awards Watch for March. Again, this is a prediction of how I expect the voters would consider the current contenders 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.

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 (107 points)
Watch out for: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (94 points)
Dark horse: David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins (91 points)

Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leader: David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins (47 goals)
Watch out for: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (45 goals)
Dark horse: Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (45 goals)

Hart Trophy (MVP)

Leader: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
Finalists: Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers; Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers

In the most recent edition of Awards Watch, we told you that Connor McDavid‘s Hart Trophy candidacy had a Leon Draisaitl problem, and look what we have here: The Oilers’ contenders have flip-flopped, thanks in no small part to Draisaitl’s performance while McDavid missed some time recently: four goals, eight assists in six Connor-less games.

Draisaitl is starting to run away with the Art Ross Trophy too, and that’s significant: Of the past 10 Hart Trophy winners, eight of them have led the league in either points or goals. The only two that didn’t were Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens, when he became just the second goalie since 1998 to win the award; and Taylor Hall of the New Jersey Devils, who carried that team on his back for a month to get them into the playoffs and led the next leading scorer on the team by 41 points. Which brings us to the cases for our next two hopefuls …

The Rangers are close enough to the playoff bubble that our “Gotta Be In It To Win It” protocol doesn’t apply to Panarin quite yet. If they do manage to get into the postseason, this is quite a case he has built for himself as MVP. Panarin has 90 points in 64 games en route to new career highs in points per game (1.41) and goals per game (0.50). He has 35 more points than the team’s next leading scorer, Mika Zibanejad, who has 65 points in 52 games — 24 of them on the power play, where he has spent the majority of time playing with Panarin.

The Russian winger leads the NHL in goals scored above average, at 24.6, and is running away with the wins-above-replacement lead (4.4). The transformative effect that he has had on that team and that roster is observable and quantifiable. It’ll be hard to deny him the Hart if the Rangers get in, and there’s about a 30% chance they will, per Money Puck.

There’s about a 100% chance that the Avalanche are a playoff team, and MacKinnon’s case for the Hart remains our favorite combination of team success and individual achievement. His 86 points in 65 games are nearly an identical pace to his 2017-18 campaign that saw him finish second for the Hart. That season, MacKinnon finished 13 points ahead of linemate Mikko Rantanen. This season, MacKinnon is 39 points (!) ahead of Cale Makar, the Avalanche’s second-leading scorer, as of Monday night. MacKinnon is a very respectable 10th in goals scored above average (17.3), behind Panarin but well ahead of Draisaitl (13.5).

The downside for MacKinnon is that he is unlikely to lead the NHL in either goals or points like Draisaitl can; and MacKinnon already has seen what happens to his MVP chances in a season when one player single-handedly elevates a New York metropolitan team to an unlikely playoff berth.

But heading into the final month and a half of the season, MacKinnon is our leader.

Among the potential spoilers: David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins; McDavid of the Oilers; Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs; Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals; and last year’s winner, Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning, especially now that Steven Stamkos is injured. In a perfect world, Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets would get some MVP love too, but we imagine that love will come in a different trophy form.

Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Leader: John Carlson, Washington Capitals
Finalists: Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning; Roman Josi, Nashville Predators

Carlson’s case for the Norris Trophy is an offensive one, and a historic one. His 1.12 points-per-game average would be the best scoring season by a defenseman since 1993-94 and the 11th best in the past 30 years — and he is only 0.02 points per game away from being eighth best. He is on track for 92 points, which would be the highest point total for a defenseman since Phil Housley‘s 97 in 1992-93.

There are certainly knocks on Carlson’s candidacy. His expected goals (9.4) ranks him 27th, and that’s due to his defensive goals scored above average being in the negative (minus-3.4). His expected goals percentage is barely in the positive at 5-on-5 (50.72) despite scoring 47 of his points at even strength. He isn’t a bad defender, just not as good as some other contenders. But none of them has been the offensive juggernaut thing that Carlson has.

Josi entered Monday second in the NHL in points by a defenseman (60 in 64 games), and from a glamor-stats perspective, it would be impressive to get that average back over a point per game. He actually leads the NHL’s defensemen by a wide margin in individual scoring chances (121), and he is the only defenseman to play at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 to have over 100 of them. Hence, he also leads all defensemen in individual expected goals (6.92). Josi has a plus-9.5 difference in expected goals, while Carlson is at plus-5.9.

Josi is sixth in goals scored above average (15.6). He also starts 50% of his shifts in the offensive zone, while Carlson starts over 53%.

If you want to make the case that Josi is the best all-around defenseman in the NHL this season, there is a good one to be made.

Hedman was third in the most recent NHL.com Trophy Tracker, voted on by their writers. That’s fine. He has had a tremendous season for the Lightning, with 16.6 goals scored above average and 4.5 defensive points share, better than Josi or Carlson in both categories.

Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues is having his best offensive season (0.75 points per game) but leaves something to be desired defensively.

Jaccob Slavin of the Hurricanes is the best defensive defensemen in the NHL and is right behind Hedman in goals scored above average (16.2) while skating 23:17 per game. With any justice, he gets into the top three. But that’s a tall order when the other contenders make up the top three in defensemen scoring and Slavin is at No. 25 overall with 35 points. For context, he finished behind two rookies in the latest NHL.com Trophy Tracker.

Calder Trophy (top rookie)

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

Unless a goaltender sneaks into the top three, this is likely going to be the Calder Trophy field. And it’s still a two-defenseman race.

Hughes leads all rookies with 51 points in 64 games, while Makar just edges him in points per game (0.84 in 56 games to Hughes’ 0.80). Hughes plays slightly more (21:45 to Makar’s 21:00 on average, heading into Monday), and Hughes is less sheltered, starting 58.1% of his shifts in the attacking zone to Makar’s 62.6%.

But Makar has a strong analytics case. He leads in goals scored above average, with 14.2 to 11.1 for Hughes. His 7.4 expected goals plus/minus tops Hughes (1.3), as does his points share (7.1 to 6.6), which estimates the number of standings points contributed by a player to his team.

Hughes caused a stir this week by telling The Hockey News that, “I’m not the one making the call, but especially the last 30 games I don’t know if anyone has been better than me.” That might be true, but in the totality of this season, it’s a neck-and-neck race between these young defensemen, and Makar was picked first by the PHWA midseason ballot and the latest NHL.com Trophy Tracker. But we have to give Hughes the edge here as long as he continues to lead all rookies in points.

Kubalik leads all rookies with 29 goals in 63 games. That puts him on pace for 36 goals, which would tie him with Patrik Laine for sixth most for a rookie since the 1999-00 season. Kubalik’s 1.76 goals per 60 minutes leads all rookies, as well.

While Sabres forward Victor Olofsson (0.80 points per game in 50 games) is still in the mix, Kubalik’s biggest concern is a collection of outstanding rookie goalies in the Devils’ Mackenzie Blackwood (21-12-8, .916 SV%), the Capitals’ Ilya Samsonov (16-6-1, .917 SV%), the Blue Jackets’ Elvis Merzlikins (12-9-8, .922 SV%) and the Canucks’ Thatcher Demko (11-8-2, .903 SV%). The Rangers’ brilliant Igor Shesterkin is going to end up with some very flashy stats, but probably not the work rate to make the top three.

As for Rangers standout rookie defenseman Adam Fox? Son, you picked the wrong rookie crop in which to be this good.

Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

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

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

Dedicated Awards Watch readers will note that Bishop led this category last month. But it has become an undeniable fact that no one who has played as many games as Hellebuyck (54) has had a better season … because there’s only one goalie (Carey Price) who has played more games.

The Vezina can sometimes function as a de facto goalie Hart Trophy, and if the general managers operate in that manner, then Hellebuyck is the only choice. He is 27-21-5 with a .919 save percentage that jumps to a .924 save percentage at even strength. He has a league-best five shutouts behind a defense that lost four of six players from last season’s unit. Evolving Hockey’s goals saved above average measurement has him leading the NHL (21.7), while Hockey Reference has him fourth (16.10). When it comes to expected goals saved above average, Hellebuyck is basically untouchable: He is at 12.49, and no other goalie is north of 10.

The sole reason the Jets are in a playoff race is because of this goaltender’s performance this season — his 11.1 points share puts him fourth among all players this season — and one has to assume the general managers will take notice.

Bishop has had an outstanding season and is a three-time finalist, which makes him a known quantity to the voters. He had a better season in 2018-19 statistically, but 15.8 goals saved above average is nothing at which to sneeze. But his candidacy runs into the same problem that it did last season, whereas “backup” Anton Khudobin has just-as-good-to-better numbers in that Dallas system, albeit in fewer games.

Rask could be the leader for the Vezina at this point if Hellebuyck isn’t. Sure, Rask sometimes runs into the same issue as that of Bishop, given how good Jaroslav Halak is as the Bruins’ other netminder. But there’s some separation between the two this season, as Rask has just simply been dominant. He has 20.55 goals saved above average and a .684 quality starts percentage per Hockey Reference data, to go along with a .928 save percentage and a 24-7-6 record.

Watch out for Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who leads the NHL in wins (33), which is the most glamorous of glamor stats; Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom (23-16-4), who has been revelatory at times for the Canucks; and don’t sleep on Colorado’s Pavel Francouz, who is 19-5-3 in 29 starts with a .929 SV% for a team that could do quite well down the stretch. Has Francouz stolen the starting gig from the injured Philipp Grubauer?

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

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

We wish there was a way to get Anthony Cirelli of the Tampa Bay Lightning into this top three, because he is having an incredible season. He tops Bergeron in defensive goals above average, with 3.3 to the Bruin’s 2.8, and their teams have identical 1.92 expected goals against per 60 when they’re on the ice at even strength. Cirelli is in the top 25 in takeaways (49). The Lightning have an incredible .943 save percentage when Cirelli is on the ice at 5-on-5, and they are a plus-25 in goals scored. We’ll allow that his 48.1 faceoff winning percentage is a bit underwhelming.

But is the 22-year-old Tampa center really going to be able to climb over O’Reilly, last season’s Selke winner, or Bergeron, who is seemingly a preordained finalist any time he plays a (mostly) full season?

O’Reilly was third on the PHWA midseason ballot with some impressive numbers — a 2.0 defensive points share, the Blues’ 1.99 expected goals against per 60 minutes with O’Reilly on the ice — and some specious ones, like a minus-6.24 in shot attempts against per 60 minutes relative to his teammates.

Bergeron was second on the PHWA ballot at midseason, and more importantly, he has been a Selke finalist for eight (!) straight seasons, whether he plays 80 games or 64 games. His numbers case hasn’t given the voters any reason to drop him off this season.

Cirelli finished 11th for the Selke last season, and he likely will finish higher this time, but it takes a while before a worthy contender truly lands on the radar for this award.

Ask Couturier.

The Flyers center is wiring the field. He has an expected goals plus/minus of plus-10. He is winning faceoffs at a ridiculous 59.3% clip. He has a plus-7.15 shot attempts percentage relative to his teammates, and the Flyers have a .924 save percentage with him on the ice. He is right there with Bergeron (2.2) in defensive points shares, at 2.1. But more than anything, it feels like it has been Couturier’s time all season, both in the numbers and in the eye test. He finished second for the award in 2018. The wait should be over for him this June.

Unless, of course, the voters decide to give another Selke to Bergeron to break the all-time wins tie (4) he currently has with Bob Gainey of the Montreal Canadiens.

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.

That said, this award is usually given to the best player (read: forward) with the fewest penalty minutes, and that would be Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, at eight penalty minutes in 66 games. But since we can’t image the voters giving a “gentlemanly” award to someone with the kind of off-ice incident Matthews had last summer, we’ll go with Nathan MacKinnon, who has 12 penalty minutes through 64 games.

But what if it was time for a defenseman to win this award? Brian Campbell‘s win in 2012 is the only such one since 1954! Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter has 12 penalty minutes, playing 24:34 per night. Maybe he should get one.

Jack Adams Award (best coach)

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

Leader: Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins
Finalists: Jared Bednar, Colorado Avalanche; John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets

That the Blue Jackets could make the playoffs through offseason defections, significant injuries and a meat grinder of a division means Tortorella likely will be up for this award.

But Sullivan won the NHL.com Jack Adams poll this month, and he has a similar case when it comes to injuries and being in a competitive division. Except the players he lost at various points during this season — including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bjugstad, Brian Dumoulin and John Marino — could have been its own all-NHL team.

Bednar, whose team has seen a bunch of top players miss a bunch of time and yet still has climbed up the standings, also has a similar case to make.

It’ll be intriguing to see if any of the Pacific Division coaches with a stake in this race — Travis Green of the Canucks, Dave Tippett of the Oilers, Rick Tocchet of the Coyotes — can break through in the voting. Geoff Ward of the Flames and Rick Bowness of the Stars both took on their gigs under emergency conditions and have fared well. Then there’s Bruce Cassidy, who followed up a Stanley Cup Final appearance with what looks to be a Presidents’ Trophy win; and Barry Trotz, who will continue to get the lion’s share of credit for the Islanders’ success.

One name to watch: Alain Vigneault of the Flyers, who are surging at the right time with their coach having a palpable effect on this team. He last won the Jack Adams in 2007.