NHL Awards Watch: Connor vs. Auston for MVP

NHL News

In our monthly canvassing of NHL awards voters, one thing has become increasingly clear: We need a little FOMO, right this very minute.

As we mentioned in the last NHL Awards Watch, the NHL’s temporary realignment — in which teams play only opponents within their divisions and no one else — has put blinders on a lot of the media members who cast ballots. Like, even more than usual.

Or as one Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA) voter put it: “I’m dreading the awards voting this year. Only really been watching one division.”

So we need that FOMO to kick in. We know voters are watching Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, or at least catching up with the incredible highlights of their latest exploits. As the season progresses, we need them to fear missing out on watching Patrick Kane and Kevin Lankinen power the Chicago Blackhawks, or Charlie McAvoy steadying the Boston Bruins‘ blue line, or any rookie skater not named Kirill Kaprizov.

We’re confident this will happen. But if it doesn’t? I guess we’ll offer our early congratulations to everyone in the All-Canadian Division on their awards wins …

Here’s the NHL Awards Watch for March. This is informed speculation, taken from conversations around hockey and with voters, regarding the current contenders for each award. Keep in mind that the 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, although it’s still a little early for that standard to be applied.

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: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (40 points, 23 GP)
Watch out for: Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks (34 points, 23 GP)
Dark horse: Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (31 points, 20 GP)

Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leader: Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (18 goals, 20 GP)
Watch out for: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (14 goals, 23 GP)
Dark horse: Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks (11 goals, 23 GP)

Hart Trophy (MVP)

Leader: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Finalists: Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks; Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs

Connor or Auston? Auston or Connor? With due respect to Leon Draisaitl and Mitch Marner, who are building their own impressive MVP cases, their teammates have currently made this a two-player race. The voters we polled indicated this. The articles written about the race have indicated it.

McDavid leads the NHL with the kind of points-per-game average the league hasn’t seen in 20 years. Through 23 games, he has scored 1.74 points per game. That would be the highest rate since Mario Lemieux‘s 1.77 points-per-game average in 2000-01 in 43 games. He leads the NHL in goals scored above average (10). His exploits reach beyond the confines of the All-Canadian Division thanks to his compendium of highlight-reel goals and a couple of five-point games this season.

Best of all: For once, his exploits haven’t been undercut by the Oilers’ lack of team success, as Edmonton is in a playoff spot. And he has dragged them there: Through 23 games, McDavid had a point on over 50% of the goals the Oilers have scored this season.

Matthews is also posting historically remarkable numbers. His 0.90 goals-per-game average would be the highest in the NHL since Lemieux’s 0.99 in 70 games during the 1995-96 season. Matthews’ 1.97 goals per 60 minutes would be the highest since Sidney Crosby‘s 2.06 in 2010-11, set during 41 games. Situationally, he leads the NHL in scoring the first goal of the game (5, tied with Ondrej Palat) and game-winning goals (6). He leads McDavid in expected goals scored above average (13), also leading the league in that category.

One of the few knocks on Matthews? That Marner led the Leafs in points through 22 games. Yet Matthews had him beat in points per game (1.55) during that span.

If there’s any player who can interrupt this mano-a-mano MVP duel, it’s Kane. He had 34 points through 23 games this season, with a 1.48 points-per-game average that would be the best of his career. He leads Alex DeBrincat by nine points in the Blackhawks’ scoring race, and he’s also the reason Alex DeBrincat has 25 points in 19 games. Kane just hit 400 career goals and will break 1,000 games played soon, putting him in the national spotlight. There are other reasons for the Blackhawks’ return to relevance, but Kane is undoubtedly a substantial one — and he’s doing it in a season that has yet to see Jonathan Toews appear in a game.

Other names to watch: Draisaitl, Marner, Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele, Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau, Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom and Boston Bruins winger Brad Marchand. We’ll also shout out a couple of goalies in Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights and Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Leader: Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
Finalists: Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning; Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

Makar is the front-runner for the NHL’s best defenseman award, appearing as the favorite on all but one of the voters’ ballots we surveyed.

When Makar won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year last season, there were some questions about his defensive game. So far this season, he has provided the answers: His expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (1.54) is down from last season (2.11). His expected goals percentage (62.29), combining offense and defense, was the best in the NHL through Sunday’s games. The number of scoring chances for opponents while Makar is on the ice is 17.7 per 60 minutes at even strength, way down from last season (24.3).

Offensively … well, it’s Cale Makar. He had 14 points in his first 15 games, playing the kind of electrifying hockey that has made him a sensation. He leads NHL defensemen with 7.9 goals scored above average. We haven’t seen a defenseman create his own highlights like this — by simply skating — since Erik Karlsson at the height of his powers:

But it’s not a runaway for the Norris. The lone dissenting voter I polled cast their ballot for Hedman. He has played more games than Makar, and through 19 games had a higher points-per-game average (1.00) than the Colorado defenseman. The fancy stats aren’t in his favor: Hedman has an expected goals percentage of 48.8% at 5-on-5 and is also giving up more scoring chances than his team is creating with him on the ice. But the fancy stats also weren’t with him early last season, and by the end he had earned his fourth straight Norris nomination, with a strong analytics case.

There are a few other defensemen in the mix for that third finalist spot, including John Carlson of the Washington Capitals (19 points in 21 games), Jeff Petry of the Montreal Canadiens (18 points in 20 games) and John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars (14 points in 16 games). Quinn Hughes, last year’s rookie of the year runner-up, scored 21 points in his first 24 games, but it’s impossible for him to win the Norris with a minus-14 saddled to him.

We think McAvoy might have the most buzz for the third Norris spot at the moment. He has 15 points in 19 games. He has skated a career high 23:48 on average. He has a 57.12 expected goals percentage at 5-on-5, and the Bruins get 56% of the scoring chances when he’s on the ice. McAvoy “taking the next step” after Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara walk away from the Bruins is a compelling narrative.

One spoiler worth mentioning: Drew Doughty. The Los Angeles Kings‘ defenseman doesn’t have a case at all when it comes to analytics: Doughty has a 44.83 expected goals percentage, and his head is barely above water in shot attempt percentage (50.1). But he has 17 points in 20 games — 10 of them coming on the power play — and has played well defensively during this late push to impress Team Canada Olympic scouts.

It’s not like Drew Doughty hasn’t gotten awards love for simply being Drew Doughty before. Combine that with a redemption arc, and he could end up on more than a few ballots.

Calder Trophy (top rookie)

Leader: Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota Wild
Finalists: Kevin Lankinen, Chicago Blackhawks; Ty Smith, New Jersey Devils

The voters were split on Kaprizov and Lankinen for the rookie of the year front-runner, but it’s hard not to sense the buzz building around the Wild’s first-year sensation.

Kaprizov has 17 points in his first 18 NHL games, for a 0.94 points-per-game average to which no one in the rookie scoring race comes close. Incredibly, 16 of those points have come at even strength. He’s getting knocked around by opposing teams and still producing at an impressive clip. Of course, he’s at his best when no one can knock him around. He’s in elite company as far as must-see players in overtime:

Even more than Kane’s contributions, it’s been Lankinen who has revitalized the Blackhawks. He started with a 9-3-3 record in 15 games, with a .924 save percentage this season, and he’s fourth in the NHL in goals saved above average (8.8). He’s the class of a deeper-than-usual field of rookie goaltenders that includes Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers, Kaapo Kahkonen of the Minnesota Wild, Vitek Vanecek of the Washington Capitals, Alex Nedeljkovic of the Carolina Hurricanes and Ilya Sorokin of the New York Islanders, who looks like he’s finally hitting his stride.

Chicago forward Pius Suter and Ottawa Senators forwards Josh Norris and Tim Stutzle are all building Calder cases, but Smith is still the logical third choice. He leads all rookie defensemen in points (11), skating important if sheltered minutes (19:18 per game) for the Devils.

We’ve predicted since the start of the season that the Calder top three will feature a forward, a defenseman and a goaltender, and the first-year fizzle of top pick Alexis Lafrenière certainly opened the door wider for that to happen. Our concern with Smith remains whether voters look at his numbers, then look at what Makar and Hughes did last season and shrug.

Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

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

Leader: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
Finalists: Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights; Kevin Lankinen, Chicago Blackhawks

This is going to be the most fascinating award during the divisional realignment. How much will general managers in one division have seen of the goalies in the other divisions? How many GMs are making time to check out Chris Driedger‘s starts with the Florida Panthers rather than watching their future opponents?

(And they should be watching Chris Driedger, who had a .928 save percentage in starting the season 7-2-1.)

Although we have him here now, it wouldn’t shock us to see Lankinen miss the top three for the Vezina, because he’s an unknown commodity to the majority of the general managers. Plus, rookie goalies don’t always get Vezina love; witness Jordan Binnington finishing fifth for the award despite placing second in the Calder race in 2018-19.

That said, we have to imagine the GMs will take notice of a goaltender elevating a team that many predicted would have the worst goaltending in the league to sixth in team save percentage (.915).

However, Vasilevskiy has to be the front-runner for the award, which he won in 2018-19. A finalist three years running, the Lightning goalie has a .938 save percentage with a 12-3-1 record in 16 games. His 17 goals saved above average and three wins above replacement basically lap the goalie field at this point.

Fleury is second to Vasilevskiy in both analytic categories this season and actually has him beat in save percentage (.941) in his 12 starts (9-3-0). The GMs might be drawn to Fleury’s narrative: having the season he’s had after Vegas wanted to move him — and after it handed the crease to Robin Lehner. Then again, the GMs have been historically cold to Fleury, who has never been a finalist for the Vezina, including in either of his superb first two seasons in Vegas.

Other goalies to watch: Philipp Grubauer of the Colorado Avalanche, John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks, Semyon Varlamov of the New York Islanders, Darcy Kuemper of the Arizona Coyotes and last season’s winner Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets.

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Leader: Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Finalists: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins; Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

As usual, the early Selke ballots are all over the map, but one name was mentioned on the majority of them: Barkov, the Panthers’ top center.

Barkov also earned support around this time last season, which led to some cautionary analysis in Awards Watch that he was coasting on his reputation — which he was, if we’re being honest. There are no such concerns this season: Barkov has been one of the league’s top defensive forwards through 20 games. He’s sixth in shot-attempt percentage at 5-on-5 (60.33%), and the Panthers have an outstanding 1.64 expected goals against per 60 minutes and a .935 save percentage when he’s on the ice. He’s been bubbling under the surface of the Selke top three for his entire career. This could be his breakout moment.

Bergeron is seeking his 10th straight Selke nomination and is still trying to break his four-win tie with Bob Gainey to become the NHL’s defensive forward GOAT. It should come as no surprise that Bergeron has a solid case to extend that streak: Winning faceoffs at his usual clip (63.0%, compared to 52.1% for Barkov), owning possession (60.49% of the shot attempts, slightly better than Barkov) and with 1.79 expected goals against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. He also averages over two minutes per game in short-handed ice time.

The third spot is anyone’s guess. It’s a really wide, varied field of players having great seasons. Players such as Montreal Canadiens forward Phillip Danault (1.56 expected goals against per 60) whom the analytics community has trumpeted for years. Players such as Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone, who is still trying to become the first winger to win the award since Jere Lehtinen in 2002-03. Players such as Dallas Stars center Joe Pavelski and Toronto Maple Leafs winger Mitch Marner, whose offensive reputations might obscure how great they’ve been defensively so far this season. Finally, those former Selke winners such as Ryan O’Reilly and Anze Kopitar, both of whom are having strong seasons.

I think Kopitar has the edge here, especially if his offensive output (1.15 points per game) and the Kings’ sudden relevance continue. His line with Alex Iafallo and Dustin Brown is at 1.78 expected goals per 60 minutes, and the Kings have a .947 save percentage when Kopitar is on the ice at even strength. He has won the award twice but has been off the Selke radar for the past two seasons. Welcome back, Kopi.

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.

It’s high time a defenseman wins this award, as only one (Brian Campbell) has captured the Lady Byng since 1953-54. So far, Nick Leddy and Andy Greene of the New York Islanders have yet to commit a penalty through Sunday. Tyson Barrie (Edmonton), Nate Schmidt (Vancouver), T.J. Brodie (Toronto), Ryan Pulock (Islanders) and Cam Fowler (Anaheim) have committed only one each. Let’s start there.

Jack Adams Award (best coach)

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

Leader: Joel Quenneville, Florida Panthers
Finalists: Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs; Peter Laviolette, Washington Capitals;

The Panthers are currently second in the Central Division (.725 points percentage), and we’re going to imagine that Quenneville is going to get love for that if it continues. Florida is a better possession team this season and flipped its expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 from 48.1% to 53.6% this season. Quenneville is considered one of the greatest coaches in NHL history but has only one Jack Adams to show for it, winning in 1999-2000 with the St. Louis Blues.

The Capitals actually dipped a bit in possession and other key metrics at 5-on-5 this season, but that’s with a lineup that’s been impacted by absences, including the loss of Henrik Lundqvist to heart surgery before the season and starting goalie Ilya Samsonov to COVID-19, as he has played just three games for Washington. Laviolette, in his first season with the Capitals, still has them on track for a higher points percentage (.667) than they had last season (.652).

At 16-4-2 in the All-Canadian Division, where every game is played at a playoff pace against his team, Keefe should get the credit he deserves for the Leafs’ first-place status. Especially when there are tangible improvements defensively for a team that had become notorious for not playing much of it.

Other candidates include Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice, Carolina Hurricanes coach Ron Brind’Amour, Philadelphia Flyers coach Alain Vigneault, Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, Minnesota Wild coach Dean Evason and New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz. If the Chicago Blackhawks are for real, add Jeremy Colliton‘s name to the mix, too.

In this pressure-cooker of a season, keep in mind how quickly all of these races can change. For example: Last month’s leader for the Jack Adams? Montreal’s Claude Julien, who was fired on Feb. 24. Whoops.

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