Today is the first day of the playoffs, with series kicking off in Tampa, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. That means it’s also the last day for PHWA members to submit their award ballots. So if you noticed your favorite sportswriter rushing around like a flustered kid who left his homework to the last minute, that’s why.
The league prefers that we don’t reveal our ballots before the winners are announced, since if too many of us do that it will kill the suspense. That’s fair. So today, I won’t tell you who got my vote. Instead, I’ll tell you who didn’t.
As background, we get to include five names for each award, listed in order from first through fifth. Sometimes, that ends up being a pretty easy list to fill out – you might move guys up and down as you go, but the five names you’re going to include are a lock. Other times, you might have to scramble to fill out a top-heavy field. And more often than not, you wind up with what feels like the toughest scenario: Too many names and not enough spots, and some deserving candidate has to go.
That happened a few times this year. So here are five names that I went in fully expecting to cast a vote for, but who ended up missing the cut. For what it’s worth, ballots aren’t due until the puck drops on the first playoff games, so if you’re convinced that I’m indefensibly wrong on any of these, make your best arguments in the comments.
Dylan Larkin, Red Wings, Calder
Larkin was easily one of the best rookie stories of the year. He was looking like the Calder favorite early in the year, and was still solidly in the conversation by midseason. He was named to the all-star team, then wowed everyone by winning the fastest skater competition. He relinquished his favorite status as the season wore on, giving way to the great Connor McDavid vs. Artemi Panarin debate on 2016. But surely he had to be on the ballot, right?
Apparently not. In a tough Calder race that featured seven or eight candidates who had a strong top-five case, I was surprised to be unable to find room for Larkin. That’s partly due to a slow finish – after back-to-back two point games in early February, Larkin managed just one multi-point game in his last 29, recording only six points total in March and April. It’s a long season, and you’d expect a young player to have a cold stretch or two. But Larkin’s slow stretch was just enough to drop him behind some of his fellow rookies.
Your thoughts on Larkin’s Calder case probably has a lot to do with how you interpret the award. Some voters factor in a degree of difficulty, especially when it comes to age. Maybe a season like Larkin’s at the age of 19 is more impressive than what Panarin did at 24. I think there’s a great argument to be made that Larkin is a better long-term prospect than Panarin, who may have already peaked.
But the Calder isn’t the Best Prospect award. It’s for the “most proficient” rookie, as defined by the NHL, and you don’t get bonus points for being younger than the competition. Sorry, Dylan.
Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks, Selke
You have to have Jonathan Toews on your Selke ballot. It’s practically a league bylaw at this point. You start with Toews, Patrice Bergeron and Anze Kopitar, you spend a few hours shuffling them around, and then you find two other guys to round out your fourth and fifth spot.
But this year, I had three more guys I really wanted to find a spot for. And as I worked on trying to figure out who to exclude, it became apparent that one of the Big Three might have to go. That ended up being Toews, a phenomenal player who still gets all the tough minutes in Chicago. But he had a down season this year, which is to say he was merely excellent instead of ridiculous. And that was enough to drop him off my list.
Cory Schneider, Devils, All-Star Team
The PHWA doesn’t vote on the Vezina – direct your “Braden Holtby is over-rated” rage at the league’s GMs instead. But we do get three votes at each position for the all-star teams, including goaltenders. And I wound up with four must-have names on my list.
The odd man out ended up being Schneider. And it’s not because of his won-lost record; I don’t disregard those numbers completely, the way many in the stats community do, but I don’t put much stock in them either, so I didn’t penalize Schneider just because the Devils weren’t very good. I just had three guys on my list who were slightly better. That was a bit frustrating, because I think Schneider doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the league’s very best goaltenders – according to hockey-reference.com, he’s never received a single Vezina vote.
That seems impossible, and it’s tempting to nudge him up a spot or two as a sort of make-good. But that’s not my job, and this year I had him fourth best with only had three spots on my ballot.
Dustin Byfuglien, Jets, Norris
Every year I try to find a spot for Byfuglien. Every year, I fail. This year was no different, as I tried to work him into the fifth spot on my Norris ballot and just couldn’t justify it.
Weirdly, the Norris may be both the toughest and easiest award to vote on this year. We all know about the heated battle for top spot, as it seems like the entire hockey world has divided into camps for Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty. The emergence of solid cases for Kris Letang and Brent Burns doesn’t help matters. But on the other hand, I suspect that that group will occupy the top four spots on the majority of ballots, in some order or another. So once you figure that out, you’re left with just one spot to fill.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to get Byfuglien on there. Please don’t go all Mark Stone me, Jets fans.
Oh hey, speaking of defenseman…
Erik Karlsson, Senators, Hart
I really wanted to find a spot for Karlsson on my Hart ballot. I think defenseman are criminally under-represented in Hart voting – Chris Pronger is the only one to win the award since Bobby Orr – and I would have loved to have had one on my ballot.
And make no mistake, Karlsson would have been the guy. He’s in a neck-and-neck battle with Drew Doughty in the Norris race, one that’s been argued to death over recent weeks. It was a close call, and I flipped Karlsson and Doughty a few times for top spot on my ballot. I won’t tell you which way I ended up going, but it’s fair to say that there’s not much to choose from between the two players.
But when it comes to the Hart, I think Karlsson makes a better candidate. Even if you think that Doughty is the better player, he’s surrounded by far more talent in Los Angeles than Karlsson has around him in Ottawa. Sure, the Senators missed the playoffs. But take Karlsson out of the lineup, and they’re probably giving the Maple Leafs at run for dead last. Take Doughty out of Los Angeles, and the Kings are still scary good.
So I wanted to include Karlsson on my Hart ballot, if only to show some love to those forgotten blueliners. But I just couldn’t find room. Maybe next year.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.