We are witnessing the final games of the 2021 NHL Awards season. As usual, they’re a time for both popular reinforcement of foregone conclusions and last-minute attempts at seeding doubt about assumed favorites.
An example of the former: Connor McDavid is going to win the Hart Trophy in a landslide. We’ll discuss the other finalists in a moment, but there’s no getting around the fact that the Edmonton Oilers wunderkind will win his second MVP Award by chasm so enormously wide that Nik Wallenda is scheduled to walk across it on a tightrope.
An example of the latter: The “koronation” of the Minnesota Wild‘s Kirill Kaprizov has been challenged by the growing support — and growing point total — for Dallas Stars rookie forward Jason Robertson, which has willed a horse race for the Calder Trophy into existence.
As we mentioned last month, the voting standards for the Professional Hockey Writers Association have changed for this season due to the NHL’s temporary realignment and intradivision schedules. Instead of 155 members voting on awards, it will be 100 voters: 20 from each division’s media markets and then 20 at-large voters (including myself and Emily Kaplan of ESPN).
Here’s the NHL Awards Watch for May. This is informed speculation, taken from conversations around hockey and with voters, regarding the current contenders for each award. We asked a dozen of them to give us their current favorites for this month’s edition.
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 unofficial “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)
Through 49 games, McDavid had 87 points. His 1.78 points-per-game average would be the highest in a season (minimum 40 games) since Mario Lemieux hopped off the couch and returned to the ice in 2000-01 with a 1.77 points-per-game average. It would also be the sixth highest of the last 30 years.
McDavid leads the NHL in goals scored above average (22.2) and has added four wins to the Oilers this season, most any player has done for his team. Through 49 games, the Oilers have scored 158 goals; McDavid has had a point on 55% of them.
He’s also figuring out the defensive side of the game, improving in expected goals against per 60 (2.33) and faceoffs (49.3%) from last season. The moment McDavid actualizes as a two-way player is going to be like that moment in “Jurassic Park” when the velociraptors figure out how to use door handles.
We don’t really have to go on, do we? You’ve seen McDavid’s case by the numbers. You’ve seen McDavid’s incredible highlight reel, on which he appears to be playing at a different speed setting than the defensive players. Maybe you’re a North Division truther, claiming that McDavid is excelling against the weakest grouping of teams. As I noted last week in my column, at best it’s a “chicken or the egg” debate about poor defensive teams vs. having to see elite offensive players with regularity. Also, McDavid didn’t make the schedule this season. It’s pretty much the only thing he hasn’t done.
No need to “galaxy brain” this one: McDavid wins the Hart. He led for MVP on every ballot we canvassed. “It’s not close. It’s the easiest vote that I have ever cast. Honestly, ever,” one PWHA voter told me.
The other finalists are trickier.
Could it go to a goaltender? Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning would seem like a natural candidate. He’s been their best player (25.8 goals saved above average) and a steadying presence through the injury losses of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets doesn’t have his Vezina numbers from last season, but might be even more valuable than he was in finishing sixth for the Hart in 2019-20. And where would the Nashville Predators be right now had it not been for Juuse Saros (23.3 goals saved above average this season) turning it on in the last month?
One of our voters had Mitchell Marner in their top three. Through 51 games, Marner had 64 points for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s entirely possible he ends up leading Auston Matthews in total points, with Matthews bettering him in points per game (1.32 to 1.25 entering Monday night). What Marner will not have is Matthews’s gaudy goal total (38 through 47 games), and that’s really what makes Matthews an odds-on favorite as a finalist.
His goal-scoring season should be getting the same kind of praise that McDavid’s point-scoring season has gotten. Matthews has a goals-per-game average of 0.81 — coincidentally, matching the average for Lemieux in that aforementioned 2000-01 comeback season. It ranks as the ninth best goal-per-game average in 30 years.
Eight of the last 13 goal-scoring leaders have been Hart finalists — and that number might have been eve higher had it not been for “Ovechkin Fatigue.” This would be the first MVP nomination for Matthews.
Who gets the last spot?
Leon Draisaitl of the Oilers, last year’s winner, is second in points (71 in 49 games) but his average numbers are down from his MVP season. Inevitably, his case must be made against that of McDavid’s. They’ve played just over 281 minutes together this season at 5-on-5, with an expected goals percentage of 57.85%. In 553 minutes without Draisaitl, McDavid has an expected goals percentage of 55.44%; in 521 minutes without McDavid, Draisaitl has an expected goals percentage of 46.11%.
I never thought that both Oilers players would make the Hart Trophy cut. But the numbers don’t support Draisaitl as an MVP finalist this season, either.
I think the final Hart Trophy spot comes down to four skaters: Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, Boston Bruins winger Brad Marchand, Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, and Vegas Golden Knights winger Mark Stone.
Marchand (1.27 points per game) and Stone (1.17) are two incredible all-around players having tremendous seasons that might not be tremendous enough to separate them from how good their teams are in totality. The Hart is rarely a “best guy on a great team” award, unless you’re putting up league-leading numbers.
That leaves us with the Cole Harbour boys. If the Penguins finish first in the East Division, that’s a boon for Crosby’s candidacy, as he’s led them through (another) season of injuries impacting the lineup. But MacKinnon is going to end up with the better numbers, and was a Hart candidate last season. If he finishes with the highest point total for a player not on the Oilers, we imagine he gets enough support to be a finalist. Being fifth in goals scored above average (14.7) doesn’t hurt his case, either.
Norris Trophy (top defenseman)
Rangers second-year blueliner Adam Fox has overtaken Victor Hedman in the Norris race.
Fox was the top pick for the majority of the voters we canvassed; Hedman was the top choice on the rest of them. So it’s fairly clear that it’s a two-defenseman race at this point.
With 47 points in 51 games, Fox was the leading scorer among defensemen entering Monday night’s games. He has 22 even-strength points, 23 on the power play and two short-handed points. With almost six minutes of average ice time more than last season — and with less sheltered deployment — Fox has thrived in every situation in which he’s been placed by coach David Quinn.
There’s also an undeniable buzz about him, and not only in the East. All of these “behold, the next Brian Leetch!” stories (ahem!) eventually add up. If Fox leads the NHL in scoring among defensemen, the Norris is probably his.
The fact that Hedman still leads so many ballots is a testament to how much respect he’s garnered through the years. It’s why he’s seeking his fifth Norris nomination in a row. But the difficult truth is that he’s been below average for the last month, playing to under 50% in expected goals rate at 5-on-5 in 12 of his last 20 games. His offense was down, going scoreless in six of seven games recently.
You don’t often read “what’s wrong with Victor Hedman?” stories this late in the season; but then it’s not a typical season in any way, is it?
As we noted last month, that final spot for the Norris Trophy is going to be entirely contingent on each individual division’s voting bloc. Is there enough localized support in the North Division for someone like Darnell Nurse from the Edmonton Oilers or Jeff Petry of the Montreal Canadiens? What about in the West for Shea Theodore of the Vegas Golden Knights or Jakob Chychrun of the Arizona Coyotes? Are there going to be enough votes behind their respective divisions’ top defenseman for Dougie Hamilton of the Carolina Hurricanes or Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins to break through?
If not, then the voters are likely to go with a familiar name having an outstanding season. Last month, I wondered if that player would be John Carlson of the Washington Capitals. Entering Monday, he was third behind Fox and Hedman in scoring among defensemen (42 points in 49 games) and was a Norris finalist last season.
But he’s a minus-6. Plus/minus should not be the arbiter of anything when it comes to player assessment. Yet it would be naïve to think that a defenseman whose perceived defensive shortcomings may have cost him the award last season wouldn’t be impacted by that stat, superficial as it is.
Rather than Carlson, I think the “known commodity” defenseman who makes the finalist cut will be Cale Makar of the Avalanche.
Last season’s rookie of the year has played only 37 games this season, due to injury. Assuming he plays out the season, he’ll end up at 44 games. Is playing 79% of the season enough? I think so. I also think that when you combine his 1.03 points per game with his highlight reel, it’s enough to get the attention of those who might not have paid a lot of it to the West Division.
Calder Trophy (top rookie)
Kaprizov was recently asked about his Calder Trophy race with Dallas rookie forward Jason Robertson. He said the topic has been unavoidable, because he keeps seeing things on Instagram and getting messages about it.
“For the reporters, it’s probably quite a bit of clickbait to get the ratings up. But for me personally, I really don’t think about it much,” he told reporters.
Nor should he. Kaprizov still leads all rookies with 43 points in 50 games, although Robertson is right there with him in points and points per game, with 40 in 46 games. No one else is close. More importantly, Kaprizov has 23 goals on the season and will likely lead all rookies in that category. In the history of the Calder-winning forwards, the vast majority have led in either goals or points. There’s no question that Kaprizov has Robertson beaten as far as buzz, populating the highlight reel with some absolutely spectacular moves this season.
The biggest threat to Kaprizov winning the Calder isn’t on the stats page, but rather in his biography. He’s 24 years old. He spent six seasons playing in the KHL, Russia’s pro hockey league. Jason Robertson is 21 years old. He played junior hockey and then 60 games with the AHL’s Texas Stars last season before joining Dallas for three games down the stretch.
There’s a vocal minority of hockey fans and pundits that believe Kaprizov’s previous pro experience should bolster the Calder case for the less-experienced Robertson. It could impact the vote, even though it shouldn’t.
Kaprizov meets the age requirement for the Calder and this is his first season in the NHL. The “pro experience” element of the award is a relic of the NHL’s World Hockey Association rivalry. If applied to the Calder voting, it’s undeniably an anti-European proviso, given how many players from overseas play in their local pro leagues first. Players like previous Calder winners Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Artemi Panarin, Evgeni Nabokov, Elias Pettersson, Daniel Alfredsson and Peter Forsberg. Oh, and former Swiss Hockey League star Auston Matthews, too.
As for the other finalist spot, there isn’t another forward worthy of it. Defensemen K’Andre Miller (Rangers), Ty Smith (Devils) and Mikey Anderson (Kings) all have cases worth studying for the award, but don’t rise to the levels that Makar and Quinn Highes set last season.
Instead, the final finalist will come from a deep group of rookie goalies. While Vitek Vanecek of the Capitals, Kevin Lankinen of the Blackhawks and Kaapo Kahkonen of the Wild all have had strong seasons, the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin (.920 save percentage) has really separated from the pack for this award.
Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)
Note: The NHL’s general managers vote for this award
Vasilevskiy-for-Vezina might be even more of a sure thing than McDavid-for-Hart. He’s 30-8-1 for the Lightning this season, with a .929 save percentage, a 2.10 goals against average and 25.8 goals saved above average. Five of those wins were by shutout. He’s been consistently the best goalie in the league this season, albeit behind a defending Stanley Cup champion that defends well in front of him.
He’s also clearly a favorite of the general managers. This would be Vasilevskiy’s fourth straight Vezina nomination, with one win.
Fleury has never been a Vezina finalist, which is what gives us pause about his candidacy this season. But at 23-10-0 with a .926 save percentage and a .667 quality starts ratio, it’s going to be hard to deny him that. The Golden Knights are a tremendous team; they’re also 23rd in expected goals against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play.
I have Hellebuyck as the third finalist here because the general managers like goalies that work. As mentioned earlier, he doesn’t have the numbers that he had in winning the Vezina last season, save for two categories: games played and shots faced, in which he’s liable to lead the NHL again this season.
If it’s not Fleury and/or Hellebuyck, then Colorado Avalanche goalie Philipp Grubauer would be the logical choice. His numbers are stellar in what’s been by far his best season as a pro. You just wonder how much general managers outside of the West have seen him.
The New York Islanders‘ Semyon Varlamov and the Edmonton Oilers‘ Mike Smith could get a look. The X factor here is Juuse Saros, whose play elevated the Nashville Predators back into playoff contention in the last month. He’s second to Vasilevskiy in goals saved above average this season (23.3).
Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)
These three players were the only ones our PHWA voters placed first on their ballots, with Barkov getting the majority of them.
The Selke is an award that many still find nebulous. What makes for a top defensive forward? Excelling at shorthanded play? Shot suppression? Puck possession? Faceoff winning percentage? (Just joking on that last one, analytics community …)
That’s why academic breakdowns of the top defensive forwards are essential to the voting process. There are usually a few every season, and one or two can cement a player as the favorite for the award. I think that’s the case with The Athletic’s Shayna Goldman and her widely read recent piece.
All three candidates made out well in her analysis, but “Barkov is the clear favorite this season,” according to Goldman. She points to his two-way play and the important minutes for which the Panthers deploy him, as well as the traditional Selke metrics like expected goals against and shorthanded play.
It’s also “his turn” to win the award, if we’re being honest. The highest he’s placed is fourth in the voting. With the Panthers in the playoffs and Barkov rolling at over a point-per-game pace, this could easily be another Ryan O’Reilly-adjacent “the Selke is an MVP award for forwards who defend well.”
Both of those descriptions would apply to Stone as well. He was second for the Selke in 2018-19, and voters have been keen in trying to make Stone the first winger to win the award since Dallas’s Jere Lehtinen in 2002-03. He’s the leading scorer on the Knights and having another outstanding defensive season — his 3.30 takeaways per 60 minutes rate is the best in the league for any player with more than 40 games played.
Bergeron is both due and not due for a Selke. A finalist for the award for an NHL-record nine straight seasons, he hasn’t won it since 2016-17, which was the fourth Selke win of his career. But that career total is what makes his candidacy so tantalizing: One more Selke win, and Bergeron breaks his tie with Hockey Hall of Famer Bob Gainey for the most in NHL history. This will be a carrot to some voters.
Other Selke possibilities include the Montreal Canadiens‘ Phillip Danault and Minnesota Wild‘s Joel Eriksson Ek, who both don’t score enough to attract attention; Boston’s Brad Marchand, who is in Bergeron’s shadow; O’Reilly, who is always in the mix; and Marner, whose shorthanded prowess could earn him attention.
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.
Again, our plea to fellow voters: Don’t just give to the best player (Auston Matthews) with the fewest penalty minutes (10) as tradition would dictate. Instead, give it to a defensive defenseman (Jaccob Slavin) who does his job without taking many penalties (two penalty minutes in 48 games).
Jack Adams Award (best coach)
Note: The NHL Broadcasters’ Association votes on this award.
Quenneville coached the Panthers to a playoff spot for just the second time in 20 years for the franchise. It’s difficult to imagine he won’t be a finalist, and has to be the odds-on favorite to win the award for only the second time in his career. (He won three Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks, but never the Jack Adams, which is wild.)
The Hurricanes are leading their division and it’s high time Brind’Amour gets credit for it. The timing couldn’t be any better, what with his contract up after this season.
There are a lot of interesting candidates for this award, from Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan to Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice to Minnesota’s Dean Evason. But Sheldon Keefe has the Maple Leafs playing their best hockey on both ends of the ice in recent memory en route to winning that division with relative ease.