With one-quarter of the 2017-18 NHL season in the books, which players have set themselves up to challenge for end-of-season hardware?
Tuesday night’s contest between the Montreal Canadiens and Dallas Stars is the 318th game of the 2017-18 campaign, and, in a season set to see 1,271 games played, that means we’ve reached the one-quarter mark of the NHL season. And already the league has dozens of incredible storylines.
On one end of the spectrum are the dominant Tampa Bay Lightning, an offensive juggernaut that has barely slowed thus far. On the other, end of course, are the lowly Arizona Coyotes, a team that had to wait until its 21st game of the season to finally win a contest in regulation. Offensively, we’ve seen brilliant performances from the expected, such as Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, to those less likely, like Josh Bailey, Sean Couturier and a handful of rookie scorers. We’ve also seen outstanding play on the blueline, in goal and watched as some creases have become carousels. (We’re looking at you, Montreal and Vegas.)
And speaking of the expansion Golden Knights, there was no better early season storyline than the franchise’s success out of the gate. No one expected much of Vegas, but the Golden Knights’ group that was thrown together ahead of the season has been able to stay afloat and hold down a playoff spot despite losing goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury, Malcolm Subban and Oscar Dansk to injury.
But, storylines aside, the quarter mark of the campaign allows us the perfect opportunity to take a look at who’s leading the charge in the league’s individual trophy races, and when it comes to the Hart, Vezina, Norris, Calder and Jack Adams, there are definitely some frontrunners:
The easiest way to do this would be to say that Stamkos, who’s on an absolute tear with 35 points in 20 games, is most worthy of being named the league’s most valuable player. He is, after all, on pace to set the post-lockout point record and win the Art Ross Trophy. But the better choice, however, may be Stamkos’ teammate Kucherov, who’s arguably the driving force behind the Lightning offense. The two have been a package deal this season, this much is true, but it’s hard not to give the nod to Kucherov when you take into account primary points.
When it comes to putting his name on the scoresheet, Kucherov has done so 26 times by way of either a goal — he’s leading the league with 17 — or first assist. Stamkos, on the other hand, is second in the league with 23 primary points on 10 goals and 13 first assists. The other 12 points of Stamkos’ have come by way of a secondary helper. And while it’s not to devalue the fact he’s had a hand in making the offense click, it would seem Kucherov is the bigger threat when the puck is on his stick thus far.
Not sold and need another metric to ponder? How about this: Kucherov has singlehandedly drawn 14 penalties. And when you consider the fact that one of the driving forces behind the Lightning’s success — they lead the NHL with 32 points — is their outstanding power play, it helps make an even better Hart case for Kucherov. Stamkos, while undoubtedly brilliant this season, has accounted for three drawn penalties.
We shouldn’t be surprised by Kucherov’s performance, of course. He powered a battered and bruised Lightning nearly by his lonesome last season, putting up 40 goals and 85 points en route to an eighth-place finish in Hart voting. So, he’s not unfamiliar with being one of the league’s best and brightest. Through one-quarter of this campaign, though, he’s stood above the rest.
Honorable mention: Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning; Brayden Schenn, St. Louis Blues; Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues; Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames; Sergei Bobrovksy, Columbus Blue Jackets.
The greatest indication of how quickly things can change in a day or two at this point in the campaign comes in the crease. Over the weekend, THN colleague Sam McCaig offered up a ranking of all 31 starting netminders and their Vezina hopes. In the top spot on that list was Jonathan Quick, and with good reason. At the time, Quick’s goals-against average and save percentage were among the league’s best, and the netminder was helping drive the Los Angeles Kings forward after some disappointing seasons.
However, in less than 12 minutes of work Sunday night, Quick allowed three goals on nine shots as the Kings fell to the Vegas Golden Knights, saw his GAA rise by nearly one-fifth of a goal and save percentage dip by five points to .926, a mark that drops him to fifth among netminders to play in 10 games. But if Quick has fallen out of top spot in the running for Vezina, if only temporarily, who leads the pack?
Well, at this point in the season, the nod probably has to go to defending Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky.
The base numbers more than support the case for Bobrovsky as a back-to-back Vezina winner at this point in the season. In 17 starts, Bobrovsky has turned in an 12-4-1 record and, among the same group of 10-game goalies, the Russian netminder reigns supreme. His .933 save percentage? Top of the class. His 2.02 GAA? Also the best of the 33 qualified netminders. And none of this is to mention that Bobrovsky’s two shutouts are good for second in the league.
Bobrovsky’s case only gets stronger when you dig into his numbers, too. According to Corsica, there are 33 goaltenders who have played at least 400 minutes at 5-on-5, and Bobrovsky has the best SP among those netminders. Even more remarkable, though, is that he also has the highest deviation from his expected save percentage. So, given the workload he’s facing, there’s not a goaltender in the league performing better.
Honorable Mention: Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings; Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks; Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets; Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning, Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings.
There’s no award that’s harder to select through the early part of this season. In 2016-17, Brent Burns went almost pole to pole with the Norris in his grasp, and even if Erik Karlsson had a tremendous case as well, it was the Sharks defender who ended up taking home the hardware. Hard to argue with a 29-goal campaign from a blueliner, though there are certainly those who would object.
But that was last season. This year, and especially at this point in the season, there is no blueliner with a clear-cut lead on the rest of the pack in any obvious measure. Instead, there’s a glut of rearguards with at least a dozen points — 28 of them, for those counting — most of whom are skating big minutes and facing top competition, and it’s more difficult to find a metric or two that’s all that telling about who is playing the best defense of all. If you absolutely had to hand out the Norris Trophy today, though, there’d be few upset with Alex Pietrangelo getting the nod.
In 21 games, Pietrangelo has been a monster for the Western Conference-leading St. Louis Blues. Beyond the fact he has 19 points, enough to tie him for the lead among rearguards, and is averaging upwards of 26 minutes per night, Pietrangelo ranks eighth with a goals for percentage of 64.0 percent at 5-on-5 among defenders to skate at least 300 minutes. He’s also facing a high quality of competition while being the driving force on the Blues’ back end.
Will Pietrangelo go wire-to-wire as the favorite for the Norris? That’s hard to say, especially considering how brilliant Karlsson continues to be for the Ottawa Senators. In 14 games, he has one goal and 17 points — that’s 1.2 points per game, a full quarter-point better than the next best defender — and is already back in the swing of things at the top of the blueline in Ottawa. He’s without a doubt one of the single most impactful players in every game he plays.
If the Blues continue to pace the West, though, Pietrangelo’s case could be rock solid by season’s end.
Honorable Mention: Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators; Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets; Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning; Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings; P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators.
The early season verdict — and we’re talking the first dozen games or so — was that, with the way Clayton Keller was playing, the Calder race might consist of the Arizona Coyotes rookie followed by everyone else. However, as the Coyotes’ struggles continued into mid-November, Keller’s scoring pace started to dip and he’s since been engaged in a dogfight at the top of the rookie scoring race with Mathew Barzal.
That’s because Barzal has been nothing short of brilliant since mid-October. He’s only failed to find the scoresheet three times in his past 15 games — one of which was a game against the Coyotes, go figure — and has been an offensive revelation for the Islanders. The highlight of this run for Barzal, of course, was his monster five-assist night against the Colorado Avalanche, and that alone has allowed him to exceed every other rookie scorer over the past five weeks.
That said, it’s hard to say Barzal has convincingly removed the Calder from Keller’s grasp quite yet. No one is denying that the Isles freshman has been the more productive of the two in recent weeks, nor is anyone denying that what Barzal has done in earning and succeeding in a larger role is incredibly impressive. But Keller’s 11 goals are four more than any other rookie, he’s averaging nearly two minutes more than any other rookie forward and he’s leading his team in scoring by six points. So, while Barzal has been impressive, Keller has been that and then some as the Coyotes’ greatest offensive threat through the first quarter of the campaign.
The Calder race is far from over, though. Barzal and Keller look set to battle it out shot for shot the rest of the way, especially if both continue to skate big minutes in top-six roles while getting opportunities to produce on the power play. It’s not just a two-horse race, either.
Honorable Mention: Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders; Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks; Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils; Will Butcher, New Jersey Devils; Alexander Kerfoot, Colorado Avalanche; Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins.
JACK ADAMS AWARD
It often happens that the Jack Adams doesn’t go to the coach who puts his team atop the standings but the one who helps his team produce the greatest season-to-season turnaround. For instance, there could’ve been an argument made last season that Barry Trotz’s ability to motivate the Washington Capitals to win another Presidents’ Trophy was an impressive feat or that Mike Sullivan’s Pittsburgh Penguins were the best-coached bunch in the NHL, finishing second in the league immediately after a Stanley Cup victory. But the Jack Adams went to John Tortorella, whose Columbus Blue Jackets saw a 32-point turnaround year-over-year. That’s not to say he wasn’t a worthy winner, though. He most certainly was.
However, the tendency to give it to a coach that has produced a brilliant revival is the reason why, despite the fact the Jon Cooper’s Tampa Bay Lightning are blowing everyone away and on pace for a 37-point uptick from their 2016-17 finish or that the St. Louis Blues have propelled themselves to the top of the Western Conference under Mike Yeo, it’s hard to fathom either of them taking home the Jack Adams. Instead, it seems most likely the hardware goes to one of three coaches at this point: Colorado’s Jared Bednar, New Jersey’s John Hynes or Vegas’ Gerard Gallant.
Given their current point totals, the Avalanche are projected to improve by 43 points, the Devils are set to see an increase of 38 points and, in their inaugural campaign, the Golden Knights are on pace to finish with 108 points. But, realistically, the chances are very good that each team falls short of those projections by season’s end. So, which coach wins the Jack Adams?
Obviously, Gallant makes for the best story as he’d be guiding an expansion bunch to a playoff berth after an infamously unceremonious exit from the Florida Panthers last season. That said, it’d be difficult to give him the nod if Hynes continues to get this much out of the Devils. Even though all signs point to New Jersey’s bubble bursting at some point, they currently leading the ridiculously tough Metropolitan Division and could realistically go about .500 the rest of the way and make the post-season. It’d be a far cry from finishing fourth-last in the league, as they did last season. Colorado, meanwhile, will likely need to be slightly better than .500 to make the post-season and few see that as a reality this season.
Honorable Mention: Jared Bednar, Colorado Avalanche; Gerard Gallant, Vegas Golden Knights; Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning; Mike Yeo, St. Louis Blues; Paul Maurice, Winnipeg Jets.