NHL Award Watch: New leader for the Hart

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Monday, March 5, 2018

As the fortunes of NHL players and teams continue to fluctuate, there have been some changes in the awards watch since last month's edition -- especially in the intensely competitive MVP race. But the more things change, the more they stay the same for some of the other awards ... unless injuries become a factor.

As we hit March, here are my picks for the NHL awards as a Professional Hockey Writers Association voter and through a dozen conversations with those around the game. Please keep in mind that all advanced stats are via Corsica. Also keep in mind the PHWA votes for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Lady Byng; broadcasters vote for the Jack Adams, and general managers handle the Vezina.

Put your agreements, disagreements and alternative candidates in the comments.

Art Ross Trophy (points leader)

Current leader: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning (85 points in 64 games)

Watch out for: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (79 points in 65 games)

Dark horse: Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers (78 points in 66 games)

Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leader: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (40 goals in 65 games)

Watch out for: Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets (35 goals in 65 games)

Dark horse: Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars (34 goals in 60 games)

And now, the nominees are ...

Hart Trophy (most valuable player)

Leader: Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils

Finalists: Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings; Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

We begin with the usual caveat that the Hart Trophy should only be given to a player who elevates his team to the playoffs. Full stop. If you choose to define "value" in another manner, by all means do so. You're wrong, but do so.

For example, there's been a surge in support for McDavid, who has 79 points to lead the Oilers' next-best scorer,Leon Draisaitl, by 21. McDavid has been chatted up for the Hart Trophy by supporters who fancy the MVP as a de facto player of the year award, willfully ignoring the concept of his value versus what should be valuable to the Oilers at this point. In other words, McDavid winning games for them just further hurts their lottery chances.

But this "in it to win it" delineation is vital here for another reason: Nathan MacKinnon.

As this edition of Awards Watch publishes, MacKinnon's Colorado Avalanche sit one point out of the final wild card spot in the Western Conference. He's having a remarkable season: 31 goals and 46 assists in 57 games. He's 13 points better than his linemate Mikko Rantanen, who has played seven more games. There is a passionate, aggressive campaign from Avalanche fans to let the world know that MacKinnon should win the Hart. If the Avalanche make the playoffs, he's going to have a very strong case -- MacKinnon was second in the PHWA midseason awards vote. If they miss by a slim margin, he's going to appear on many ballot as well.

But if they're not in the playoffs, and as of Monday they're not, then MacKinnon can't make my top three. There's no point in celebrating the value of a player on a valueless team.

However, if the Kings and Avalanche flip-flop for the last wild card, then MacKinnon's in my top three. But until then, that's Kopitar's spot.

Kopitar has 27 goals and 44 assists on the season, skating to a plus-17. But the most important number for Kopitar is 26. That's the number of points between himself and the Kings' second-leading scorer, Dustin Brown. Kopitar is also six goals better than Tyler Toffoli for the team lead. He has been their best player in a season that saw Jeff Carter miss the majority of the campaign with an injury, and has dragged them into a playoff seed.

Kucherov has been the best offensive player in the NHL since the start, and the Lightning have a shot at the Presidents' Trophy. He's the odds-on favorite to win the Hart, as the PHWA put him atop the midseason ballot and NHL.com recently named him its top pick for MVP with votes from 13 of 19 writers. The only thing that has given me pause regarding his MVP candidacy is goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, with a .933 even-strength save percentage on the season in 53 starts. There have been stretches when he has been every bit as valuable, even if that was overlooked thanks to the Lightning's offensive fireworks.

Which brings us to Hall.

The Devils are in the first wild-card spot because of Taylor Hall. He has 30 goals and 42 assists in 61 games. That's a 31-point (!!!) lead on the Devils' second-leading scorer Nico Hischier. Hall is in the midst of two streaks: 18 straight games with at least a point and 25 straight (nonconsecutive) appearances with a point, becoming just the eighth player in 30 years to achieve that feat. Since Feb. 18, Hall has been in on over 68 percent of the Devils' goals.

He has accomplished all of this without the linemates and supporting casts of the other candidates. He has accomplished this with Cory Schneider limited to 37 games this season due to injury.

If we were casting a vote today, the Hart Trophy would have to go to Taylor Hall. Which, again, we're sure will play well back in Edmonton. Dom Luszczyszyn at The Athletic has more on why Hall has to be the choice.

Shoutout to the rest of a crowded and talented Hart Trophy field: Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins; Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets; Giroux; Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins; Ovechkin; John Tavares, New York Islanders; and Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets.

Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Favorite: Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning

Finalists: Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings, John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

As basic as this sounds, here's the reality for Klingberg: He needs to lead all defensemen in scoring to win the Norris.

That's not me speaking as someone who is in awe of the season he's having and the positive changes he made to his game under Ken Hitchcock and generally believing he's worthy of the award. This is me thinking as a PHWA voter, knowing that to overcome the reputation-based support for the other two favorites, this is essential. He currently has a two-point lead over John Carlson of the Capitals.

That said: Klingberg still has the numbers. He has a 53.25 Corsi for percentage and a plus-2.62 percent Corsi relative to his teammates, along with that monster 12.48 expected goals plus/minus. (Expected goals being a formula that estimates a player's contribution to his team's expected goals per 60 minutes.) His 55 points in 65 games leads the league, and he's six points better (36) than everyone else at even strength.

Doughty just continues to have an all-around impressive season, from his possession numbers (plus-5.11 percent Corsi relative to that of his teammates) to his expected goals (plus-3.22) to his 44 points in 66 games to his 26:42 average time on ice. Doughty could win this, and would have earned it.

Hedman has just gotten better as the season has rolled on. His expected goals plus/minus has improved to 5.5, up from last month. His 51.85 Corsi for percentage remains strong. He's actually now starting fewer shifts in the offensive zone (52.4) than Klingberg (53.4), which is a change from last month. Hedman has 49 points in 61 games -- his points-per-game average of 0.80 is right there with Klingberg (0.85).

Hedman didn't make the cut last month, as P.K. Subban was our other finalist. In any other season, Subban probably waltzes away with it with numbers this good: 50 points in 62 games overall and 29 of them at even strength, despite just 43.2 percent of his starts beginning in the offensive zone. He's right there.

But Hedman led on the PHWA midseason ballot and takes the favorite spot here. Others have better cases, but there has always been an inevitability to Hedman's candidacy that's impossible to ignore now. What has happened, however, is that his play is catching up with his predetermined Norris nod from some in the media.

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Leader: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

Finalists: Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers; Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers

Speaking of inevitability ...

The only thing keeping Bergeron from the Selke is going to be sample size. He has played 55 games, but he's out indefinitely with a foot injury. If he misses a large chunk of time before the playoffs, can he still pull this out and win a record-setting fifth Selke? Because he's by far the favorite. The Bruins have a .944 save percentage when Bergeron is on the ice, and he's killing it in the faceoff circle again (56.9) and has a 57.71 Corsi for percentage. We have an unending desire to see him continue to win these, and Bergeron is making that easy.

If Bergeron is shelved for too long, it could be Couturier who slides into the lead. He has 52 even-strength points, with 43.3 percent of his starts in the offensive zone, and is 53.7 percent on faceoffs; and the Flyers have a .914 save percentage with him on the ice.

One candidate to watch is Barkov. The Panthers forward has a plus-4.55 percent Corsi relative to his teammates, he wins 54.3 percent of his faceoffs and leads the NHL with five short-handed points -- not to mention 46 even-strength points on the season, with just 41.4 percent of his starts originating in the offensive zone. One point of concern: Panthers goalies have an .890 save percentage with him on the ice, which would be the worst season for Barkov in that metric for his career. But if the Panthers rally for a playoff spot -- during the voting period -- Barkov could get some attention.

Just missing the cut is Kopitar, whose Selke candidacy is a part of his overall MVP case, with 53.3 percent on faceoff wins, a plus-2.8 percent Corsi relative to his teammates and 71 points despite starting only 47 percent of the time in the offensive zone. The Kings have a .910 save percentage with him on the ice.

Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

Leader: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

Finalists: John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks; Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

Vasilevskiy is still the gold standard this season, with a .933 even-strength save percentage and a .981 save percentage on low-danger chances at even strength in 54 appearances. His goals saved above average (GSAA), essentially how many goals he has saved compared to a league-average goalie facing the same number of shot attempts, is the best in the NHL, at 21.90. One look at the save percentages of the other netminders on the Lightning tells you how good Vasy has been.

Rinne is right there in the conversation for the Vezina. The Predators netminder has as a .939 even-strength save percentage in 48 appearances, with a 21.02 GSAA. He has a better quality starts rating (.667) than Vasilevskiy -- a stat cooked up by our own Rob Vollman that basically tracks if a goalie gave his team a chance to win. But Rinne's low-danger save percentage of .971 ranks 30th among goalies with at least 1,000 minutes.

Gibson has a heck of a case, and should get some notice with the Ducks in a playoff spot. He has a .926 even-strength save percentage in 48 starts, including a .989 save percentage on low-danger chances. His GSAA is 18.85, which is third in the league, and he matches Rinne in quality starts (.667). The question is: How will Vezina voters interpret the fact that Ryan Miller has similar numbers, albeit in a much smaller sample size?

Toronto's Frederik Andersen has faced more shots (1,871) than any other goalie through 55 games, and is third in high-danger shots faced (282). His GSAA is 14.15. But his low-danger save percentage is .970. Connor Hellebuyck of Winnipeg was in the top three last month, and has been an absolute savior for the Jets this season. But Gibson's just a shade ahead of him. Bobrovsky (.920) belongs in the conversation, but one could argue he has a better Hart case.

Carter Hutton of the Blues, Marc-Andre Fleury of the Golden Knights and Roberto Luongo of the Panthers have all been great, but might not have the work rate of the other candidates.

Lady Byng (most gentlemanly player)

This is the part where we mention that the voting on this award should be transferred over to the NHL Officials Association, as they have a much better understanding than do the writers on who deserves a sportsmanship award. But we should also report that Johnny Gaudreau, the leader for the award in the PHWA voting at the midterm, now has 24 penalty minutes, the most in his career in a single season.

This could open the door for "Wild Bill" William Karlsson of the Golden Knights, who has 35 goals and just eight penalty minutes. He also has irony on his side, because who isn't voting for the most gentlemanly player from a team in Las Vegas?

Jack Adams Award (best coach)

Leader: Gerard Gallant, Vegas Golden Knights

Finalists: Ken Hitchcock, Dallas Stars; John Hynes, New Jersey Devils

Gallant still has this in the bag because, again, he's coaching an expansion team to a division championship. Hynes deserves a ton of credit for what the Devils have done this season through some adversity. Hitchcock joins our top three because the Stars are in a wild-card spot and because the Jack Adams voters usually like easily digestible tangible results: like, for example, taking a team that averaged 3.17 goals against per game last season and dropping that figure down to 2.60, which is what Hitch has done.

Calder Trophy (top rookie)

Leader: Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders

Finalists: Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks; Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

I've been fighting a battle with bitter Islanders fans for the past month because I had Boeser first for the Calder with Barzal basically even with him. This was treated like I had just compared Boeser to Mike Bossy and Barzal to Brett Lindros.

Boeser is still having an incredible season, and has a shot at 40 goals, something only four rookies have accomplished in the last 25 years. I stand by everything I've written about him -- I still think the offensive pace he maintained while cycling through different linemates is in some ways more impressive than having Jordan Eberle as your constant. But some of his underlying metrics don't blow you away, and he's starting a whopping 62.6 of his shifts in the attacking zone.

In the past month, it has gone from a fairly even race with Boeser to a smidge ahead for Barzal leading the Calder race -- and creating some daylight. He has 67 points in 66 games. In the past 25 years, there have been only nine other rookies who have averaged a point per game, and we're talking about some legendary company: Selanne, Ovechkin, Crosby, Eric Lindros, Malkin, McDavid, Forsberg. Oh, and also Alexei Zhamnov and Joe Juneau.

Barzal has a plus-6.54 percent Corsi relative to his Islanders teammates, playing against tough competition. He has put up stellar offensive numbers while starting 52 percent of his shifts in the attacking zone.

But he has also hit more high spots than Boeser, becoming a human highlight reel with his passing ability and speed. Posting three five-point games as a rookie is a heck of a calling card, too.

McAvoy is a lock for the third spot on the Calder ballot as long as this recent injury issue doesn't dramatically affect his sample size. Even then, it's hard to imagine anyone having a stronger case than the Bruins defenseman, who is averaging 22:06 per game to lead all rookies.

But as we head into the stretch run, it's clearly Barzal with the Calder lead.