Early NHL awards race update

The first month of the 2018-19 season is in the books, which means it’s time for hasty reactions and prognostications about the NHL awards.

Here are my picks for the NHL awards as we hit November, as a Professional Hockey Writers Association voter and through a dozen conversations with those around the game. Please keep in mind that these picks aren’t simply which players are most deserving of the awards, but which ones have a chance to win based on previous voting trends. Also keep in mind that my only hard rule in awards voting — that a Hart Trophy winner needs to come from a playoff team — is not in effect this early in the season. All advanced stats are via Corsica.


Art Ross Trophy (points leader)

Current leader: Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche (21 points)

Watch out for: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (19 points)

Dark horse: Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames (17 points)

Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leaders: David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins; Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks; Gabriel Landeskog, Avalanche (11 goals)

Watch out for: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (10 goals)

Dark horse: Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks (7 goals)

Hart Trophy (most valuable player)

Leader: John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks

Finalists: McDavid, Oilers; Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

One of the time-honored tests in any MVP race is the old “where would this team be without Player X?” theory. It’s not a bad way to approach these things, necessarily, but in hockey it almost mandates that a goaltender be considered for the Hart every season.

Goalies don’t win this award nearly as much as that test would indicate they should, with the PHWA voters typically allowing for the Vezina (voted on by the NHL general managers) to act as the de facto “goalie MVP,” in the same way that the MLB voters stuff all their pitchers in the Cy Young pigeonhole.

(In fact, the MLB MVP has been friendlier to pitchers than the Hart Trophy has been to goalies. There have been 22 pitchers that won the AL or NL MVP since 1931, or 12.8 percent of all winners. In the NHL, there have been eight goalie winners since 1923, or 8.5 percent of all winners. That said, hockey’s had four goalies win the Hart since 1996, while baseball has only had two pitchers win MVP during that time frame. Then again, baseball didn’t have Dominik Hasek.)

While Gibson might not ultimately be the choice — as much because the Ducks aren’t going to be a playoff team as this whole “awards spurning of goalies” thing — he has to be considered the leader for the Hart at this juncture. We’ll get into why in the Vezina section (spoiler), but he’s almost single-handedly propping up an abjectly terrible hockey team, one beset with injuries, age and a coach that should be watching the hourglass on his tenure. And Gibson’s doing it in a rather spectacular manner.

The good news for McDavid fans is that after the Oilers’ early stumble — a pratfall that had Todd McLellan’s seat boiling hot for a bit — they’re on a 7-2-1 run and third in the Pacific, and so the “gotta be in it to win it” test is one that McDavid is passing right now. It’s either him or Gibson for the Hart at this point, and both have extraordinary cases. Connor’s is that the Oilers have scored 19 goals at 5-on-5 in 12 games this season, and he not-at-all-coincidentally has 19 even-strength points. Hence, MVP co-favorite.

The other current finalist spot could go to a variety of players, such as Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks, Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins and anyone from the Avalanche’s top line. But the choice here is Aho, because he’s starting to do the thing that Taylor Hall that Nathan MacKinnon and Anze Kopitar did last season — score a bunch of points in clear separation from the totals of his teammates. Through 12 games, he has 17 points. No other Hurricane has more than 11.

Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Favorite: Kris Letang, Penguins

Finalists: Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs; P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators

Letang might be in line for the Norris and “comeback player of the year,” if such an award existed. He has 12 points in 10 games, is skating 25:36 a night and his analytics are strong across the board. In one month, he’s been able to stifle those “whatever happened to Kris Letang?” concerns.

Rielly led all NHL defensemen in scoring through 13 games (16 points), and the Norris is nothing if not an award that celebrates offensive achievement, even if these numbers are partially a result of some friendly offensive zone starts. But his underlying numbers are really solid, and Rielly has been given the gift of “next big thing” that one lucky young Canadian-born defenseman seems to get from the media every season. Ask Alex Pietrangelo about it.

Subban is, well, Subban. He has 10 points in 13 games and continues to defend at an elite level. The Predators get 54.27 percent of the shots taken at 5-on-5 when Subban is on the ice. There are other worthy candidates, including Calgary’s Mark Giordano and last year’s Norris winner John Carlson of the Capitals, but Subban’s just on another level right now. Hopefully the voters notice that more this time, if his play holds.

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Leader: Bergeron, Bruins

Finalists: Mikael Backlund, Flames; Jordan Staal, Hurricanes

Few awards have the fluctuation over the course of the season as the Selke, but keep two constants in mind: Candidates usually end up being known quantities that have been on the Selke radar before, and the winners is going to have more than respectable offensive numbers. Hence, Bergeron is probably the leader right now, as he’s third in scoring (19 points) and his underlying defensive metrics are solid.

The other two candidates are known quantities but don’t have the offensive output that Bergeron does, but the rest of their cases are remarkable thus far. Backlund is the linchpin of Calgary’s shutdown line, which recently embarrassed the best line in hockey against the Avalanche. He only has eight points on the season, but he’s over 61 percent in Corsi For percentage and has a team-best 58.42 scoring chances for percentage. He could be a shade better on faceoffs (49 percent). He finished fourth for the Selke in 2016-17.

Staal has gotten Selke votes in 10 of 12 seasons, and he’s been great thus far. He has a faceoff winning percentage of 61.9, a 65.0 Corsi For percentage and a 65.75 high-danger shot attempts percentage. With some of last season’s Selke darlings like Kopitar, Sean Couturier and Aleksander Barkov off to middling starts, these players are leading the field.

Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

Leader: Gibson, Ducks

Finalists: Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild; Semyon Varlamov, Avalanche

Gibson has been, far and away, the most impressive goaltender in the NHL this season. His .945 EV save percentage is the best for any goalie with 10 or more appearances, and he’s doing it for a Ducks team that’s last in the NHL in possession (41.42 Corsi for percentage) and second to last in shots against per game (37.8).

Dubnyk has been stellar on a Wild team that has its own defensive deficiencies, posting a .932 EV save percentage in nine games. Until he gave up a four-spot to the Canucks, Dubnyk hadn’t given up more than two goals in six of his first eight appearances.

The final spot here came down to Freddie Andersen of the Leafs, Varlamov of the Avalanche and Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers. We have to give the nod here to Varly. Before a six-goal shellacking from the Calgary Flames to open November, he had given up more than three goals just once in seven games (.929 EV save percentage). The Avalanche can still be leaky defensively, and Varlamov has been up to the task of mopping up. Good timing, seeing as this is a contract year and all.

Calder Trophy (top rookie)

Leader: Pettersson, Canucks

Finalists: Henri Jokiharju, Blackhawks; Maxime Lajoie, Ottawa Senators

We’re only one month into the season, and it already feels like Pettersson is leading this thing by a country mile. He has seven goals and three assists in his first 10 NHL games, without the benefit of playing on Vancouver’s top line. He’s as good as advertised and then some. Rookies shouldn’t be able to make it look this easy:

The rest of the Calder field is rather uncelebrated, as the biggest names in entering the season — Andrei Svechnikov of Carolina, Jesperi Kotkaniemi of Montreal, No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin of Buffalo — are just starting to find their footing.

Jokiharju has been rock solid for the Blackhawks, playing beyond what you’d expect from a 19-year-old, with 21:17 ice time per game. Dennis Cholowski of the Red Wings is giving him a push for best rookie D-man thus far.

There’s a case to be made for a few rookie forwards in that last spot, including Max Comtois of the Anaheim Ducks, with seven points in 10 games. But we’re going defense again here. Lajoie of the Senators has four goals and three assists, skating 21:34 per night. Not bad for a former fifth-round pick.

Jack Adams Award (best coach)

Leader: Barry Trotz, New York Islanders

Finalists: Jared Bednar, Avalanche; Peter Laviolette, Predators

The word “redemption” comes to mind when witnessing the early season success of the New York Islanders (7-4-1). Not only the defiance of the players in trying to prove they’re more than a supporting cast that watched their star shoot over to Toronto; but in the redemption of their coach, Barry Trotz, who led the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup and then parted with the team. He’s got the Islanders playing well, and his system (plus the arrival of goalie whisperer Mitch Korn and a resurgent Robin Lehner) has dramatically improved the Islander’s anemic goaltending from last season.

Bednar might have won the Jack Adams last season had it not been for the Vegas fairy tale, and he has the Avalanche in a playoff spot again. Meanwhile, in a league of parity, the Predators have been the most outstanding team for the first month, and the fact that Laviolette doesn’t have one of these yet is weird and somewhat inexplicable.



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