NHL Awards Watch: Draisaitl over McDavid, plus a historic leader for Norris

Sports

Here’s a bold prediction for the 2021-22 NHL Awards: an Edmonton Oilers player will be nominated for the Hart Trophy.

Beyond that, the ultimate finalists for these awards are anyone’s guess.

Here’s the NHL Awards Watch for December. 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, from across the conferences, 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.

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: Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (41 points)
Watch out for: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (40 points)
Sleeper: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (37 points)


Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leader: Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (20 goals)
Watch out for: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (19 goals)
Sleeper: Andrew Mangiapane, Calgary Flames (15 goals)


Hart Trophy (MVP)

Leader: Leon Draisaitl, C, Edmonton Oilers
Finalists: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers; Alex Ovechkin, LW, Washington Capitals

The Oilers stars are probably going to play a season-long game of hot potato with MVP front-runner status. McDavid was on top in our first NHL Awards Watch back in November, and now it’s Draisaitl getting named the Hart Trophy favorite on 40% of the ballots we surveyed.

There’s no wrong answer between Draisaitl and McDavid, although perhaps there’s one that’s slightly more correct than the other. Draisaitl has the edge in goals — McDavid has 15 — and points, as well as wins above replacement per 60 minutes. He has six game-winners, for whatever those are worth, and the Oilers have been a better defensive team when he’s on the ice vs. when McDavid is.

There have been nights when Draisaitl has been the man — see his four-point game against the Seattle Kraken — and nights when McDavid has carried the Oilers, like his four-point night against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday.

There have also been a lot of nights when both of them are driving the steamroller, clicking as a duo on the Oilers’ ridiculous power play that succeeds 35.9% of the time. That makes their candidacies hard to untangle from each other. Keep in mind we haven’t had two teammates as finalists for the Hart since 2000-01, when Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr split the Penguins’ vote and allowed Colorado Avalanche star Joe Sakic to win MVP.

The “Sakic” in this case is Alex Ovechkin, who was second to Draisaitl in our ballot surveys, at 30%. Entering Thursday night, Ovechkin is on pace for 68 goals this season. Ovi scores, Capitals usually win: He has 14 goals in their 14 victories and one in their four regulation losses. (In their OT or shootout losses, he has five goals.) But while his goal scoring has gotten the attention, it’s his playmaking that really makes him a compelling candidate: Ovechkin’s 2.2 assists per 60 minutes of play would be his highest rate since the 2009-10 season.

Other names mentioned on our voters’ ballots for league MVP included Calgary Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom and Minnesota Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov, whose 14 points in seven games to close out the first quarter of the season helped push the Wild to the top of a competitive Central Division.

Said our Kaprizov voter: “I’m a big believer in the ‘most valuable to his team’ part of the award. I look at the Wild, who are a good team, and there’s a big drop off after Kaprizov, in my opinion,” the individual said. “If you asked me to nominate someone for the Lindsay Award, which as you know is ‘most outstanding player,’ it wouldn’t be Kaprizov.”

Other names to consider: New York Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin, Avalanche center Nazem Kadri, Anaheim Ducks winger Troy Terry and Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau.


Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Leader: Adam Fox, New York Rangers
Finalists: Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers; Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

The NHL hasn’t had a back-to-back Norris Trophy winner since Detroit Red Wings legend Nicklas Lidstrom in 2006 and 2007. It hasn’t had a player with the Norris twice in his first three seasons in the league since Hockey Hall of Famer (and popular crossword puzzle clue) Bobby Orr did so from 1967 to 1969, the start of an NHL record eight straight wins as the league’s top defenseman.

In other words, Fox is the favorite to make some impressive hockey history here. The Rangers defenseman and reigning Norris winner was the first-place choice on the majority (50%) of the ballots we surveyed. He entered Thursday night tied with Capitals’ John Carlson (22 points) for scoring among defensemen. Last season, Fox scored one more point on the power play than he did at even strength; this season, he has 13 even-strength points to eight on the power play. His duo with Ryan Lindgren is allowing just 1.64 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 — which is a good reminder that behind every great NHL offensive defenseman, there’s usually an unsung defensive partner to help hold down the fort.

That’s the case for Ekblad, who was the leading vote-getter in last month’s NHL Awards Watch. He and MacKenzie Weegar have formed a formidable tandem (55.86 expected goals percentage), which has allowed Ekblad to post some of the best offensive numbers of his career (2.2 points per 60 minutes). He’s skating 25:20 per game on average, which is more than the other two defensemen listed here, and plays heavy minutes at 5-on-5 and on special teams. As long as the Panthers keep cooking, he’ll be in the Norris conversation. (And many would argue his partner, Weegar, should be right there with him.)

While Ekblad has solid support, it was actually Makar who was second to Fox in our survey of ballots. He has 20 points in 17 games, having played with three defensive partners to start the season while Devon Toews was out. A significant change for Makar statistically this season: He has nine goals to lead all defensemen, which is already more than he had in 44 games last season.

Among the other defensemen who received support were Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators, two previous winners of the award.


Calder Trophy (top rookie)

Leader: Lucas Raymond, LW, Detroit Red Wings
Finalists: Moritz Seider, D, Detroit Red Wings; Trevor Zegras, C, Anaheim Ducks

The Calder Trophy race has been a wild one already. Preseason favorite Cole Caufield of the Montreal Canadiens was demoted to the AHL and has a goal and an assist in six games since returning. Bowen Byram, who was in the top three here last month, saw his season interrupted after an upper-body injury. He returned to the team on Nov. 27.

Leading the pack is Raymond, the 19-year-old standout for the Wings who has 22 points in his first 24 NHL games. He was the rookie of the year choice for 60% of the voters we surveyed, playing a top-line role with top-line minutes (17:11 per game) for Detroit.

His teammate Seider is the clear second choice, getting the nod on 30% of the ballots. He has 16 points in 24 games and is playing the most minutes on average (22:20) of any rookie skater — and the Red Wings aren’t protecting him in the least, like other rookie blueliners were in their breakout seasons. A very viable candidate for the Calder, especially if Raymond’s top line with Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi cools down.

Zegras was the only other player to appear on the ballots. He was tied with Michael Bunting of the Leafs with 17 points, second overall behind Raymond. But two things that Bunting doesn’t have: He’s six years younger and has started hitting the highlight reel with McDavid-like frequency thanks to his innovative playmaking. And in some years, that can be all you need in the Calder race.

Two other rookies who were mentioned but not put at the top of voters’ ballots: Forward Dawson Mercer of the New Jersey Devils and Red Wings goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, the latter of whom is trying to become a Calder finalist for the second straight season, which would be quite a quirky thing indeed.


Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

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

Leader: Jacob Markstrom, Calgary Flames
Finalists: Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs; Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers

Markstrom’s numbers are outstanding: 9-4-4, .938 save percentage and a 1.75 goals-against average heading into Thursday night. Obviously, Darryl Sutter’s system has greatly benefited him, as his numbers are far better than the ones he had in Vancouver to earn his free-agent payday with Calgary. That “product of a system” thing can work against goalies sometimes: Jonathan Quick never won the Vezina with Sutter’s Los Angeles Kings, for example. But those are the exceptions to a rule that’s seen Martin Brodeur and Sergei Bobrovsky win multiple Vezinas in back of great defensive systems.

Campbell was the second-highest voter getter among the folks we surveyed. He’s 13-4-1 for the Leafs with stellar numbers: .943 save percentage and a 1.72 goals-against average. He’s fifth among goalies in goals saved above average per 60 minutes (minimum 10 starts), which is better than Markstrom (eighth).

But they’re both behind Shesterkin in that category, the dominating Rangers goalie who is 12-3-2 with a .935 save percentage and a 2.15 GAA. Keep this in mind: While the other goalies for the Flames and Leafs have posted similar numbers to the starters, Shesterkin is basically playing in a different league than backup Alexandar Georgiev (.858 save percentage) this season.

The only other goalie that received support from our voters was Pittsburgh Penguins starter Tristan Jarry. “His numbers have been comparable to Campbell, but the degree of difficulty feels higher,” said that voter.

Among the other goalies to keep an eye on for this award areBobrovsky of the Florida Panthers, Frederik Andersen of the Carolina Hurricanes, Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets.


Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Leader: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
Finalists: Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings; Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames

Bergeron is winning 63.0% of his faceoffs, which is up from last month when he was second to Aleksander Barkov in the running for the Selke. We’re not sure where the support for Barkov went, but last season’s Selke winner didn’t make the top of anyone’s ballot for this NHL Awards Watch edition.

The Bruins are averaging 1.34 goals against per 60 minutes with Bergeron on the ice. The center is seeking his fifth Selke Trophy win, which would be an NHL record. He already has the NHL record for most consecutive nominations for the award, with 10.

As one Bergeron voter put it: “It’s cliché, but that line’s numbers are mind-boggling this year.”

Kopitar ended up atop the second most ballots, with a 55.2% faceoff winning percentage and 23 points in 21 games. He’s a minus-6, and his underlying numbers aren’t exactly going to move him ahead of Bergeron in the race. But he’s having a good season and has won the award twice.

There were several players that received scattered support. One of them is Tkachuk, who would become the first winger to win the award in 18 seasons. The Flames have an expected goals against per 60 minutes of 1.75 when Tkachuk is on the ice at even strength.

Do we think his linemate Elias Lindholm might make a better Selke candidate? Yes. He steals more pucks and blocks more shots than does Tkachuk. He’s also a key penalty killer for the Flames while Tkachuk averages two seconds on the PK per game. We never try to hold usage against a player, but Tkachuk has never seen time on the PK under a few different coaches in Calgary.

But it’s Tkachuk who has the attention of some of the voters, rather than Lindholm.

“He has a strong Corsi-against per 60 and the top Corsi-for per 60 among forwards,” said one Tkachuk voter.

One of the most interesting names mentioned on a ballot was Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs. One of our voters made the “Mike Green for Norris” argument, basically.

“He’s running at 65% expected goals at 5-on-5 and Evolving Hockey rates out his defensive metrics really well. It’s a defensive award, but at least for me part of defense is keeping the puck away from the opposition and far from your own net, which he does insanely well,” the voter said. “I know the joke is sort by faceoff percentage, but he’s also doing that really well. Obviously he doesn’t kill penalties, and I wouldn’t necessarily go to war for this pick, but I think he’s an interesting candidate early on.”

Other players that made our voters’ ballots: Sean Kuraly of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks. Among the other candidates that should wind up in the mix for the Selke: center Ryan O’Reilly of the St. Louis Blues, left wing Brad Marchand of the Bruins, Jean-Gabriel Pageau of the New York Islanders, Jason Robertson of the Dallas Stars and, we assume, Aleksander Barkov.


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. Jaccob Slavin finally won the award for a defenseman last season, marking only the second time since 1954 that a blueliner won the Byng.

Let’s keep that train rolling with the delightful Nate Schmidt of the Winnipeg Jets, who had zero penalty minutes through 22 games while playing 21:36 on average.


Jack Adams Award (best coach)

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

Leader: Darryl Sutter, Calgary Flames
Finalists: Dean Evason, Minnesota Wild; Peter Laviolette, Washington Capitals

Moving out of the top three from last month was Don Granato, whose Buffalo Sabres did what the Buffalo Sabres always do, which is slide down the standings after a fast start.

Sutter was named the coach of the year so far on 60% of the ballots we surveyed. He’s had a transformative effect on the Flames, making them the league’s best defensive team while also being a top 10 goal-scoring club. Calgary has been fighting it out with Edmonton for the top of the division, and Sutter’s impact has been widely credited as the reason why.

Evason and Laviolette had an equal amount of support. The Wild are fourth in offense and would be a bit higher than their 18th in team defense if their goaltending was a bit more consistent. Laviolette has the Capitals fifth in goals per game and fourth in goals against per game, proving that rumors of their demise as a Stanley Cup contender were greatly exaggerated.

Other coaches receiving first-place votes were Dallas Eakins of the surprising Anaheim Ducks and Andrew Brunette, who kept the Florida Panthers on course after coach Joel Quenneville resigned in the aftermath of the Chicago Blackhawks sexual assault investigation.

Coaches that weren’t on the ballots but will certainly get support for the Jack Adams: Rod Brind’Amour of the Carolina Hurricanes, Sheldon Keefe of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dave Tippett of the Edmonton Oilers and Gerard Gallant of the New York Rangers.

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