NHL Award Watch: The great MVP debate continues

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The NHL awards voting season is upon us, with writers and broadcasters (for the Jack Adams) and general managers (for the Vezina) mulling over their ballots, all trying to defend themselves from the siren's song of recency bias.

For this final NHL Awards Watch of the season, it's less about my predilections -- although I'll share my choices here and there -- than it is about predictions for what the final three for each award are going to end up being. Again, the top three in each category is how I expect the voters will vote, not who I would have finish in those spots.

Please keep in mind that all advanced stats are via Corsica. Also keep in mind the Professional Hockey Writers Association votes for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Lady Byng.

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

Art Ross Trophy (points leader)

Current leader: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (103)

Watch out for: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning (97)

Evgeni Malkin, Dark horse: There are, like, three games left for everyone and honestly, Connor's got this.

Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leader: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (46)

Watch out for: Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets (43)

Dark horse: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (41)

And now, the nominees are ...

Hart Trophy (most valuable player)

Leader: Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils

Finalists: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche; Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

If you've read me in this space (or on Twitter or heard me on the ESPN On Ice podcast or watched me scream to no one as I walk through the subway station in ragged clothes), then you know that McDavid has absolutely no business as a Hart Trophy winner or finalist on a team 19 points out of a playoff spot, for reasons detailed here. And because, generally, it's absurd.

However, I can't assume my PHWA peers are (a) going to share my dogma about players on teams far removed from any definition of "value" this season and (b) going to be able to keep McDavid off their now-public ballots, giving him the necessary support to squeeze through an extraordinarily crowded field to be a finalist. I think there are more writers who will put Connor over for being Connor than there are who care about the legacy and logic of the Hart Trophy. But I hope I'm wrong. McDavid will win the Ted Lindsay as the most outstanding player -- as voted by the players -- in a walk, though.

As for the other two candidates, a mea culpa: I've come off the "in it to win it" wall. In researching the history of the award, I've come to realize that a player missing the postseason by a handful of points after dragging his team there can be deserving of the Hart Trophy. However, if that effort does result in a playoff berth, you have to give that extra weight. So as MacKinnon's Avalanche have a tenuous grip on a wild-card spot in the West, Hall's Devils are closing in on clinching. The former has nine points in his past 10 games (3-6-9), but only two assists in his past six games, while the latter has 15 points in his past 10 games (7-8-15), including an eight-game point streak. Recency bias? Sure. But in a razor-thin race, it's potentially the difference. (As is the fact that Hall is 38 points better than any of his teammates.)

My ballot obviously isn't going to have McDavid. It will have Hall. It will have MacKinnon. With due respect to Claude Giroux, Evgeni Malkin, Artemi Panarin, Alex Ovechkin, Nikita Kucherov, Brad Marchand, Eric Staal, Blake Wheeler, William Nylander and the 100 other Hart Trophy candidates we have this season, my other finalist is going to be Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings, who at last count is third in even-strength points (62, tied with MacKinnon) and 32 points better than the next-highest scorer on his team. He has been remarkable.

Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Favorite: Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning

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

It has been Hedman's "turn" for the Norris all season, and the good news is that his underlying numbers (plus-7.29 in expected goals differential at even strength) are finally catching up with his glamour stats (60 points, 74 games in 25:47 per game). Doughty, who averages a league-best 26:49 per game, is a possession monster who could still finish with more points (he's at 59) than Hedman. He also has been a Norris finalist in two of the past three seasons. Klingberg has been passed in the scoring race by John Carlson, and might be topped by Brent Burns too before it's over. I still think voters will remember his breakout season, for lack of a clearer alternative, although the Dallas Stars' demise as a contender came at the wrong time.

Like I said: These are the finalists I expect from the PHWA. My ballot is going to look a little different. Hedman and Doughty would still be on there. I want to make the case that Seth Jones belongs there, too, but I feel he's just a cut under the top three. The final spot would go to P.K. Subban, who is having a remarkable season -- dragging around Alexei Emelin for most of it, starting 57.2 percent of his shifts in the defensive end, and still putting up incredible numbers (58 points, 33 of them at even strength) and playing stoutly on the defensive end. I'd still give the edge to Hedman, but I'd have to meditate on it.

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Leader: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

Finalists: Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers, Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

An award where sample size could determine it. Bergeron, when all is said and done, will have played about 63 games this season. Is that enough to earn support for a record-breaking fifth Selke? Probably, when one considers there is a record to be broken and journalists who'd like to write about it.

But if Bergeron doesn't win it, I kind of love Couturier here. He has the best possession numbers on the Flyers, a solid faceoff win percentage (53.2) and he leads the Flyers in shorthanded ice time for forwards. He was elevated to play with Claude Giroux, and there's no question his two-way game played into Giroux's MVP-level success this season.

Kopitar is just phenomenal, and his point total plus his defense probably will earn him another Selke finalist nod. Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers and Mikko Koivu of the Minnesota Wild, a very worthy contender, are right there with him. But, as usual, Bergeron is just on another planet.

Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

Leader: Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

Finalists: John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks; Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

Rinne has this in the bag, not only for a stellar season -- .938 even-strength save percentage on 1,340 shots and a .667 quality start percentage -- but because the general managers will want to honor what the Predators have accomplished and Rinne's postseason heroics last season as well. Gibson has been a rock for the Ducks with a quality start percentage of .650 and 14.09 goals saved above replacement at even strength.

I think Vasilevskiy still gets a nomination despite completely falling apart in the last month, if only to honor his play from earlier this season. Frankly, though, you can slot either Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets or Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets ahead of him and be happy with it.

Huge potential spoiler: Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights, who will have Eastern Conference support if they can look past his work-rate in comparison to other finalists.

Lady Byng (most gentlemanly player)

Leader: William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights

Finalists: Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers; Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings.

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.

That said, the typical formula for PHWA voters is to give the Lady Byng to the best player with the fewest penalty minutes. Which means Kopitar (90 points, 18 PIMs) and Barkov (75 points, 14 PIMs) will undoubtedly get consideration. But the pick here is Karlsson, not only because he's a very good and sweet boy at 12 PIMs but because I think the voters will be keen on honoring his incredible, random 42-goal season on the off chance he doesn't rally to win the Art Ross. Besides, Karlsson can drive from his house to the NHL Awards show. Nice.

Jack Adams Award (best coach)

Leader: Gerard Gallant, Vegas Golden Knights

Finalists: Bruce Cassidy, Boston Bruins; John Hynes, New Jersey Devils

There has been a late push to get Cassidy recognized for the Bruins' surge to the top of the Eastern Conference, through injuries and with a sizable collection of young players. It's admirable, as is the love one assumes Hynes, Jared Bednar of the Colorado Avalanche and Nashville Predators coach Peter Laviolette will also receive. But Gallant won the award by November, and the Knights now have a division title for the cherry on the sundae.

Calder Trophy (top rookie)

Leader: Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders

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

Barzal has this thing in the bag with 79 points in 79 games and several highlight reels worth of offensive amazement, so the only lingering drama is among the runners-up. And an interesting scenario presents itself here: Since Barzal is going to win the Calder, I'm wagering the voters feel comfortable enough to honor two players that legitimately are the other two best rookies this season but have had their campaigns cut short by injury.

Boeser played 62 games before having his season end and scored 29 goals during them -- entering Monday night's games, that was still good enough for the rookie lead. McAvoy played 59 games before going out, and hadn't played since March 3 before his scheduled return Tuesday night against the Lightning. But, again: I'll bet you dollars to (Dunkin') Donuts that he gets a nomination, as the hype train roars through the Northeast and New England lines up to vote for him as if he's a Kennedy wearing a Gronk jersey.

But if enough voters aren't keen on these sample sizes, I'm going with recency bias and the general awesomeness of the Devils' Nico Hischier as a potential finalist over Boeser, ahead of the Coyotes' Clayton Keller, who was the frontrunner for the Calder for a minute earlier this season. Yanni Gourde (Lightning), Kyle Connor (Jets) and Pierre-Luc Dubois (Jackets) are too anonymous despite having the numbers. Alex DeBrincat is an interesting spoiler, with 27 goals.