Since our last NHL Awards Watch, a pesky little bug named the omicron variant has significantly impacted the 2021-22 season.
Players are entering the COVID-19 protocol on a nightly basis, forcing the postponement of over 100 games. The NHL pulled its players out of the Beijing Games and scuttled the Olympic break so it can reschedule some of these contests. The whole thing has thrown the season off balance: Consider that the Vegas Golden Knights have now played nine more games (37) than have the New York Islanders (28).
Keep all of this in mind as we present the NHL Awards Watch for January. We’ve polled a selection of Professional Hockey Writers Association voters anonymously to get a sense of where the wind is blowing for the current leaders.
Bear 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)
Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)
Hart Trophy (MVP)
Ovechkin has captured the Hart Trophy three times in his career, but his last MVP win was in 2013. The voters we surveyed are relishing the chance to add another trinket to the trophy case for the Capitals star, as Ovechkin was named first on 60% of our ballots.
His 24 goals ranked him second in the league heading into Thursday night’s action. But it’s the way he’s carried the Capitals to near the top of the Eastern Conference that’s exemplary: Ovechkin has 17 more points than the next leading scorer on Washington (Evgeny Kuznetsov, 33 points) and 13 more goals (Kuznetsov, again, with 11). Ovechkin has scored 21% of the Capitals’ goals on the season.
McDavid was second among voters for the Hart Trophy. He’s cooled off a bit, and now only has 53 points in 33 games for a league-best 1.61 points-per-game average. The reigning MVP is fourth in the league in goals scored above average (10.9). McDavid has the best odds to win the Hart on the betting market (+200) and has the highest percentage of tickets purchased (39.9%) with him winning MVP honors, per BetMGM.
Keep in mind that Leon Draisaitl has tied McDavid in points and leads the NHL with 26 goals. When Draisaitl won the Hart two years ago, McDavid wasn’t a finalist; when McDavid won last year, Draisaitl was eighth, despite finishing second in the league in points. If these stars manage to drag the broken Oilers into the postseason, whoever is having the better season will be nominated, not both. For now, it seems McDavid has the edge.
There were several players that were mentioned but fell short of the support for Ovechkin and McDavid. One that caught our eye: Hedman, the veteran star defenseman for the Lightning. He’s ninth in average ice time for defensemen (25:10) and is producing at a point-per-game pace (35 points in 35 games, through Thursday). His impact relative to that of his teammates is considerable, and he’s been a steadying presence in a season that’s seen Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov miss significant time. As good as Andrei Vasilevskiy has been in providing that same kind of comfort during rough sailing, Hedman’s been even better.
Other MVP candidates to note are forwards Nazem Kadri and Mikko Rantanen of the Colorado Avalanche; New York Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin; Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau; Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau; Anaheim Ducks forward Troy Terry; and Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, who has 20 goals in 29 games.
Norris Trophy (top defenseman)
In NHL Awards voting, timing is everything. When Taylor Hall won the Hart Trophy in 2018, the votes were being considered and cast during the most offensively dominant stretch of his entire career: 57 points in 40 games. It didn’t matter that he was sixth in the NHL in points, or that the Devils made the playoffs by a single point in the standings. No one left a stronger impression in the closing weeks.
With that in mind, please note that the voter survey for this Awards Watch occurred in the same week in which Cale Makar scored one of the most brilliant overtime goals in recent memory. He has 28 points in 25 games (1.12 points per game), with 17 of those coming at even strength. He’s never going to be considered among the best defensive stoppers, but who cares when he can control play offensively like he does? Makar was second for the Norris last season, and the voters may be ready to crown the 23-year-old.
Makar is the heavy betting favorite at +250, with a whopping 53.6% of the tickets purchased at BetMGM having him winning the Norris.
But there’s another potential finalist also looking for his first nomination, let alone Norris Trophy win. Ekblad is playing more minutes (25:18) and has his highest points per 60 minutes average (1.9) of his career through Wednesday night.
He’s an outstanding defender, too: According to Stathletes, Ekblad has the highest denial rate (55.5%) on all zone-entry types for defensemen that have appeared in at least 25 games. It’s the second straight season of outstanding hockey for Ekblad, and hopefully this time he remains healthy enough to reap the accolades for it.
As mentioned in the Hart Trophy section, Hedman is having an outstanding season, hanging right with Ekblad from an overall analytic perspective. He’s been a shade better on the penalty kill, although Ekblad logs more time shorthanded (2:42 to 1:41). Hedman’s also been better offensively, with 2.4 points per 60 minutes.
There isn’t a wrong answer from this trio, but they’re not the only defensemen in the conversation. Other Norris contenders include last year’s winner Adam Fox of the New York Rangers; Nashville Predators star Roman Josi, who won the award in 2020; Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks, Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins and Morgan Rielly of the Toronto Maple Leafs, all looking for their first wins; and Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson, who is third in points (32) but is quietly having his best defensive year in ages. Still not a great defensive year, but he hasn’t been a liability, either.
Calder Trophy (top rookie)
Ever since he set up Sonny Milano with a pass that went over the back of the net to the front of the crease, Zegras has been the center of an all-out fan and media lovefest. It also helps when he does press conferences with Baby Yoda strapped to his chest or becomes a meme after being frightened by Kevin Shattenkirk dressed as a giant teddy bear:
New candidate for Ducks GIF of the Year. pic.twitter.com/rfOKnmBuI8
— Adam Brady (@AdamJBrady) December 21, 2021
Of course, it also helps that he’s a dynamic hockey player, too. Zegras has 25 points in 30 games, including eight goals, while skating 17:08 per game. He’s basically living in the attacking end, with 83% offensive zone starts. But he’s getting results.
Raymond, who led the Calder Awards Watch race last month, still leads NHL rookies in goals (10, tied with Tanner Jeannot of Nashville), points (29) and points per game (0.85). As our survey of voters might indicate, his buzz has been dwarfed by that of Zegras. But rookie of the year honors are typically linked to offensive stat leaders for forwards.
If Raymond can continue his consistent play — he hasn’t gone more than two straight games without a point this season — he’ll likely end up leading in some offensive categories. The betting market still likes him, too, as his +140 odds make him the favorite for the award ahead of Zegras (+200).
Two other factors to note: Zegras had 24 games of experience in 2020-21 and is just over a year older than Raymond, who is 19. Not saying these should be factors, mind you.
Seider was actually named atop more ballots than Raymond in our poll of voters. He’s been by far the best rookie defenseman in the league, averaging 22:24 in ice time per game, generating 22 points in 34 appearances and getting the opposite of “protection” in his deployment, with over 50% defensive zone starts. He’s playing on the power play and the penalty kill for the Red Wings. Not as flashy as previous Calder defensive darlings like Makar and Hughes; just a solid rookie playing like an old pro.
Other rookies of note: Red Wings goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, who was a Calder finalist last season but is still eligible this season; Jeannot, the Predators forward who keeps hitting the scoresheet consistently; Devils forward Dawson Mercer, who is excelling in all situations; Maple Leafs forward Michael Bunting and Panthers forward Anton Lundell, who are having solid seasons but won’t likely catch up to the offensive leaders. One wild card: Ducks defenseman Jamie Drysdale, the only player in the conversation with Seider.
Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)
Note: The NHL’s general managers vote for this award
Shesterkin and Campbell ended up tied for the most first-place nominations among the voters we surveyed … who, it should be reiterated, do not vote for this award. The general managers do. As we’ve seen in the past, wins can have a major influence on the Vezina. Campbell has the advantage there and, given their respective teams and relative injury histories, should end up with more victories than Shesterkin.
Campbell currently has a stronger traditional stats case, with a .939 save percentage and a 1.87 goals-against average. But Shesterkin leads the NHL is goals saved above average (21.9), which leads us to the most critical point of this debate: perception. The Leafs have shown to be a very proficient defensive team over the last two seasons. The Rangers were a .536 points percentage team last season that entered Thursday night with a .706 points percentage. Some of that is coaching. Some of that is Shesterkin earning 15 of their 22 wins. The notion he’s done the heavier lifting might not be lost on the general managers.
Vasilevskiy was named on the next most ballots, and why not? Entering Thursday, he was 18-5-3 with a .924 save percentage. This would be his fifth straight Vezina nomination, and there’s little reason to believe the GMs won’t make that happen.
The field behind the top three is crowded. Calgary Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom received a few votes from the writers we surveyed. Frederik Andersen of the Carolina Hurricanes, Juuse Saros of the Nashville Predators, Tristan Jarry of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Thatcher Demko of the Vancouver Canucks also received support.
Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)
Bergeron’s attempt to break Bob Gainey’s record of four Selke Trophy wins has the support of the voters … for now.
The Bruins center was the top choice of 40% of the voters. Boston averages 1.48 expected goals per 60 minutes when Bergeron is on the ice. Once again, he’s winning a ton of faceoffs, with a 64.1% success rate in the dot. This would be his 11th straight Selke nomination. He’s the gold standard of defensive forwards, and might have a fifth Selke to prove it when the season’s over.
But it’s not over yet. Cirelli was the next-highest vote getter on the ballots, and rightfully so. Analytically, he’s been his team’s best defensive forward, as the Lightning average 1.93 expected goals against per 60 minutes when he’s on the ice. Can you win the Selke when you’re only winning 47.3% of your faceoffs? Cirelli was fourth two years ago when he won 47.5% of them.
Lindholm was named on two ballots, which is an interesting wrinkle, given that his teammate Matthew Tkachuk was a finalist in our December Awards Watch. The difference between the two comes down to faceoffs, as in Lindholm takes them (53.3%) and Tkachuk doesn’t; and shorthanded ice time, as Lindholm plays a lot of it (2:13 per game) and Tkachuk does not. Well, one more difference: Lindholm is treated as a center, which means he has a heck of a lot better chance of winning this award than Tkachuk does as a winger.
Other players in the Selke mix include previous winner Ryan O’Reilly of the St. Louis Blues, Joel Eriksson Ek of the Minnesota Wild, Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and, for you lovers of sleeper candidates, Evan Rodrigues of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
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.
Honestly, the way this season has gone, the Lady Byng should be awarded to the player who least infects his teammates. Barring that, we’ll be happy if they keep giving it to defensemen like they did Jaccob Slavin last season. Esa Lindell of the Dallas Stars plays 22:53 per game and had just two penalty minutes heading into Thursday night. He’s as good an option as any.
Jack Adams Award (best coach)
Note: The NHL Broadcasters’ Association votes on this award.
Sutter’s transformation of the Flames into a stout defensive team (2.35 goals-against average) with surprising offensive results (3.16 goals per game) put him atop the majority of our voters’ ballots. The Jack Adams is notorious for being an award where a coach’s tangible influence can be enough to earn him the award, and Sutter clearly has that. He’s never won the Jack.
Eakins might get his due for shocking the Pacific Division and the rest of the NHL with the Ducks’ transformation into a playoff contender. Hynes has also been behind the bench for a Predators team that’s defied expectations. The underlying numbers for both of these teams don’t exactly blow you away — Nashville is 11th in expected goals percentage (51.86) and Anaheim is 20th (48.36) — but hey, sometimes you just need a good narrative.
No disrespect to our voters, but Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour and Washington Capitals coach Peter Laviolette might be better served in these slots. Then you have Dean Evason of the Minnesota Wild, Sheldon Keefe of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Gerard Gallant of the New York Rangers and Craig Berube of the St. Louis Blues in the conversation.
But the absolute spoiler in this race is the jolly man who has resurrected the Vancouver Canucks: Bruce Boudreau.
He won the award in 2007-08 when he replaced Glen Hanlon after 21 games and got the Washington Capitals to the playoffs. This time, he replaced Travis Green after 25 games and has gone 8-0-1 to get the Canucks back into the playoff picture.
Remember, the broadcasters vote for the Jack Adams. Find one that doesn’t love Bruce Boudreau.