NHL Awards Watch – Nathan MacKinnon has Hart, new Jack Adams leader

The calendar has flipped to 2020, which means we have even more clarity about the NHL Awards picture. Or at least a little more than we had last month.

Here’s the NHL Awards Watch for January. 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.

All stats from Hockey Reference, 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 (64 points)
Watch out for: Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins (59 points)
Dark horse: Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers (55 points)

Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leader: David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins (29 goals)
Watch out for: Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (27 goals)
Dark horse: Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes (23 goals)

Hart Trophy (MVP)

If Nathan MacKinnon’s play were to drop off somehow, there’s a Hart case to be made for David Pastrnak or Brad Marchand. Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire

Leader: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
Finalists: Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins; Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

Let’s start with the usual caveat when it comes to the Hart Trophy and the postseason race: “You gotta be in it to win it.” As of this writing, the Buffalo Sabres are outside the playoff picture. Should they creep back into a playoff spot, or bump up close enough to the playoff bubble, then Jack Eichel (26 goals, 28 assists in 41 games) would absolutely be one of the top three players, supplanting Marchand. He’s having a career-redefining season, with 19 more points than the next highest scorer on the Sabres.

But you gotta be in it to win it. As of this writing, the Avalanche, Bruins and Oilers are all in a playoff position. The Sabres, unfortunately, are not.

MacKinnon is everything one wants in an MVP candidate. His 58 points through 40 games is 31 (!) more than the next leading scorer on the Avs. He carried the team when Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar were injured at various times. He was second for the Hart in 2019, so he’s clearly on the radar for the award. Unlike the other two candidates, there isn’t another player on his team who could lay claim to it.

McDavid was our leader last month, and could easily win his second MVP award if the Oilers make the playoff cut. His 1.49 points per game leads the NHL, Edmonton looks like a completely different team when he’s off the ice, and McDavid has filled several highlight reels in the first three months of the season. Plus, voters who have in the past applied the “in it to win it” standard to the Hart Trophy — raises hand — would gladly cast a lot to honor Connor. The only wrinkle: Parsing out McDavid’s impact on the Oilers and that of teammate Leon Draisaitl, who could swipe the Art Ross from McDavid by season’s end.

Marchand has the same issue with teammate and linemate David Pastrnak, who leads him in goals (30 to 20) and points (60 to 59) and hence points per game as well (1.43 to 1.41). But Marchand leads the NHL in goals (15.9) and wins (2.8) above average.

One name to watch: Artemi Panarin of the New York Rangers, who are surprisingly close to the playoff bubble. He’s averaging 1.41 points per game, has 18 more points than the next highest scoring Ranger and is second to Marchand in goals (14.3) and wins (4.9) above average.

Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Is it Roman Josi’s “turn” to win the Norris? John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

Leader: John Carlson, Washington Capitals
Finalists: Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes; Roman Josi, Nashville Predators

With 50 points in 41 games — that’s 1.22 points per game as a defenseman, for those of you scoring along at home — it’s still Carlson’s trophy to lose. It’s not just a power-play feast for him, either: Carlson leads all defensemen with 35 even-strength points. There is an analytic case to be made against him. Opponents have a slight shot advantage when he’s on the ice, and the Capitals get barely more scoring chances (50.87%). He’s 47th among defensemen in goals above average (4.9) and doesn’t break the top 30 in wins above replacement (0.9). But he doesn’t embarrass himself defensively, which is pretty much all you need when you’re scoring at a rate higher than any other defenseman in the past 25 seasons.

While attending the Winter Classic and asking around, it’s clear that Josi is getting his “turn” as a Norris contender after previously finishing no higher than fifth in the voting. He had 41 points in 39 games, second to Carlson, with a plus-17 on a Nashville team that’s 25th in goals-against average. He’s also second to Carlson with 26 even-strength points, and third among defensemen in average ice time (25:36). He’s second to teammate Ryan Ellis in goals above average (14.0) and wins above replacement (2.4). In a right and just world, that would mean Ellis would get the awards love. But only one of them is an All-Star this season. Guess which one?

(That Ellis stays healthy would seem paramount to Josi’s campaign, given they’ve played 607 minutes together at 5-on-5 this season. Ellis is “the guy behind the guy.”)

Hamilton is going to have to ward off Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues, who is really making a case with 31 points in 41 games and ranks third in both goals and wins above average; Shea Weber of the Montreal Canadiens, who has some stellar underlying numbers in possession and scoring chances to go with his 31 points in 40 games; and Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who is better than a point per game offensively (1.03), right there with Hamilton in goals and wins above average, and is also Victor Hedman, a.k.a. a Norris finalist three years running and last season’s winner.

But we’re casting our vote for Hamilton here, for his 37 points in 40 games and plus-31, coupled with being fifth in goals and wins above average. The Hurricanes get nearly 60% of the scoring chances when he’s on the ice. Like Josi with Ellis, a right and just world would have Hamilton’s partner Jaccob Slavin in the Norris mix, but 20 points aren’t going to get him there. So the nod goes to Hamilton. Now, if we could only figure out what his Winter Classic pig race name would be …

Calder Trophy (top rookie)

Leader: Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
Finalists: Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks; Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres

December shook up this race a little bit.

Makar was injured for all but six games of it, and his scoring pace cooled a bit. Olofsson, meanwhile, went bonkers with six goals and 14 points to win the league’s rookie of the month award and claim the lead in goals (16) and points (34) among all rookies. But Makar built up so much of a lead in the first two months of the season that he’s still the default pick, at least for the voters we pestered recently. With 29 points in 31 games (0.91 points per game) and fourth in goals and wins above average for all defensemen, he’s certainly built a formidable case already. But he’s also been protected: 16:39 even-strength time on ice per game, which is sixth among rookies, and 64.8% of his shifts starting in the offensive zone. Hughes starts 56.7% of his shifts there and plays 17:14 at even strength on average. His 28 points in 39 games rank him third among all rookies.

Keep an eye on center Martin Necas of the Hurricanes (22 points in 36 games), center Nick Suzuki of Montreal (23 points in 40 games) and defenseman John Marino of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who deserves way more attention than he’s getting as a glue guy for a broken team.

Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

Darcy Kuemper has been a big part of the Coyotes’ success this season. Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

Leader: Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes
Finalists: Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues; Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

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

No changes here from last month’s Watch. Kuemper leads the pack in both traditional (.934 even-strength save percentage) and fancy stats (0.538 goals saved above average per 60 minutes, by far the best in the NHL). He’s working back from an injury that’s kept him out since Dec. 19.

Hellebuyck hasn’t been great lately, but his .933 even-strength save percentage and 0.475 goals saved above average per 60 entering Thursday night’s games were second to Kuemper. Binnington is fifth in goals saved above average (0.418) but 10th in even-strength save percentage. Keep in mind that it’s the general managers voting on this award, and Binnngton’s record (19-6-4 entering Thursday night) and accomplishments last postseason might influence these easily swayed ballots.

Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins, Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars and Frederik Andersen of the Toronto Maple Leafs are all in the mix. All eyes are on Tristan Jarry of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who has appeared in just 18 games but has a .949 even-strength save percentage. If he plays his way into a “season savior” role given their injuries, he could get a nod.

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Have the stars aligned for Sean Couturier to finally win the Selke? AP Photo/Matt Slocum

Leader: Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers
Finalists: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins; Mark Stone, Vegas Golden Knights

Couturier’s Selke moment is upon us. He’s having the best defensive season for any forward, and in particular in comparison to the other contenders. Bergeron is by far the closest competition, as shown by this head-to-head comparison from Natural Stat Trick. Couturier runs just ahead of him in most possession metrics, along with goals against per 60 and on-ice save percentage. Bergeron takes him in other metrics, like in takeaways. Others are a wash. It’s close, but Couturier overall has had the better season.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, center Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers is just a tick behind Stone, the best defensive winger in the NHL. The Natural Stat Trick comparison between the two reveals significant advantages for Stone in possession and goals-against categories. Then there’s that incredible 3.71 takeaways per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. Barkov is one of those candidates where the voters could just believe it’s his turn, but the numbers have him running behind these three. Keep in mind both Stone and Barkov were a plus-4 entering play Thursday night; as superficial and insufficient as that stat is, a minus-rating could be a vote repellent.

Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play)

Connor McDavid for Lady Byng? Sure, why not. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As usual, this award for “sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct” has no business being in the soiled grasp of professional hockey writers, and should instead be voted on by the players themselves or the NHL’s on-ice officials.

As currently constituted, the Lady Byng typically goes to the player with the most points who has the least penalty minutes. Nathan MacKinnon has 58 points and just eight penalty minutes. Teuvo Teravainen has 40 points and eight penalty minutes. Auston Matthews has 48 points, just six penalty minutes and virtually no chance of winning an award dedicated to gentlemanly conduct.

Honestly, they should just give it to Connor McDavid for not going on expletive-laden tirades every other night. The stress that guy’s under? Give him something for the effort.

Jack Adams Award (best coach)

It is incredible to ponder what Craig Berube has accomplished since being named interim coach of the Blues last season. AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Leader: Craig Berube, St. Louis Blues
Finalists: Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs; Barry Trotz, New York Islanders

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

Berube moves to the lead here as the clear-cut candidate from the Western Conference. The Blues haven’t shown one iota of Stanley Cup championship hangover in pushing for the conference title and the President’s Trophy. That speaks directly to the mindset and confidence Berube has preached since taking over on an interim basis midway through last season. That they’ve been this good without Vladimir Tarasenko is also astonishing. One could easily see the broadcasters honoring Berube not just for this season, but for everything he’s brought to the franchise since taking over the bench.

The Islanders continue to punch above their weight, and hence Trotz will continue to get the lion’s share of the credit for their system. The Isles are fifth in goals-against average, score enough to win and have a .697 points percentage. The biggest hurdle for Trotz is having won it last season: In the history of the Jack Adams Award, only one coach — Jacques Demers in 1986-87 and 1987-88) — has won the award in consecutive seasons.

At least one of the coaches who took over during the season was going to get some Jack Adams love, and Keefe is that guy. The Leafs are winning, and there’s a discernible difference in the way they play under Keefe vs. how they looked under Mike Babcock. It also doesn’t hurt to be a Jack Adams candidate with the fully armed and operational Toronto hockey media behind you. Or at least the ones that aren’t Babcock loyalists.

Mike Sullivan of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who has led this team through a plague of injuries, is in the conversation. So are Bruce Cassidy of the Boston Bruins and Rick Tocchet of the Arizona Coyotes.

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