Hard as it might be to believe, one-quarter of the NHL campaign is in the books. And given that’s the case, there’s no time like the present to look at which players (and coaches) are putting together potentially award-winning campaigns through the opening portion of the 2019-20 season.
We’ll dispense with the long run-in and get right to the meat of the matter. Here’s a look at the top contenders for six of the NHL’s major awards with 25 percent of the season complete:
What’s important to take into consideration as far as the Vezina is concerned is that it’s the GMs, not the media, who vote for the award, and the NHL’s team-builders tend to be far more concerned with wins than they do underlying numbers. Thus, it stands to reason that the frontrunners at this point in the campaign are Braden Holtby (11 wins), Carey Price (10) and Marc-Andre Fleury (10), and then there’s a group of goaltenders – seven, to be exact – tied for fourth with nine wins.
If we look at the bigger picture, though, Holtby is crossed off of the list. He’s winning games, but his .906 save percentage and 2.91 goals against average rank 32nd and 35th, respectively, among the 61 goaltenders who have appeared in five games. He’s been average. A much better case can be made for Price and Fleury, who are top-20 netminders in both categories, with Fleury’s .920 SP and 2.52 GAA tops among the trio.
However, if we dig deeper, there are a multitude of statistics that can better highlight which goaltenders are playing best. To wit, of the 37 goaltenders with at least 400 minutes played at five-a-side, Thomas Greiss, Robin Lehner and Philipp Grubauer rank first through third in SP and goals saved above average. No goaltenders have done more for their team’s cause than that trio of masked men. Not far behind, however, are Darcy Kuemper and Connor Hellebuyck, who have been asked to stand on their respective heads while tending goal for teams that are in the bottom half of the league in goal production.
So, who’s the real frontrunner? The answer might be a matter of combining the two approaches, integrating base statistics with what the underlying numbers say about the netminders. And if that’s the case, Kuemper is the most difficult to overlook. His nine wins aren’t far off of the league lead, his .937 SP at all strengths is third in the NHL, his 1.85 GAA is tops among keepers with five games played and his 5-on-5 numbers – .938 SP and .59 GSAA per 60 minutes – are both top-seven marks among the aforementioned list of 37 goaltenders.
What augments Kuemper’s case is that his play has propelled the Coyotes into a divisional playoff spot early at the quarter mark of the campaign and has Arizona in line to snap a lengthy post-season drought. If context is considered as well as statistics, Kuemper’s case is rock solid.
1. Darcy Kuemper, ARI
2. Marc-Andre Fleury, VGK
3. Thomas Greiss, NYI
4. Connor Hellebuyck, WPG
5. Carey Price, MTL
This is Cale Makar’s award to lose right now, and there are only two ways in which he fails to stand on stage as the 2019-20 rookie of the year come season’s end. The first – written with some hesitation as we don’t wish to put this evil on him – is if Makar falls injured and misses a chunk of time. The second is by way of someone, anyone, hard-charging up the statistical leaderboard and surpassing Makar’s rookie-leading total by a significant margin. We’re talking 20-plus points. And if that seems absurd, consider Aaron Ekblad’s 39 points in his Calder-winning 2014-15 campaign were 25 fewer than rookie leaders Mark Stone and Johnny Gaudreau that same season.
As we outlined earlier this month, Makar’s scoring pace is such that he stands to reach a plateau that no defenseman has in more than 30 seasons. He’s scoring at such a rate that he has potential to become the first rookie defenseman to score more than 76 points in a single season. Take a second to think about that. But while offense is his calling card, his credentials go beyond goals and assists. If we consider ice time and on-ice impact, that, too, slants in Makar’s direction. He’s averaging 19:30 per contest through the first 20 games of his rookie season, which is the third-highest average ice time among all freshmen. Relative to his teammates, too, Makar is an on-ice positive for the Avalanche in every notable advanced statistical category. So, again, this is Makar’s award right now. It may very well stay that way through the rest of the season.
However, for the sake of argument, if there was any player who had a chance to catch the Colorado blueliner, who would it be?
Quinn Hughes is a reasonable suggestion, particularly if Makar has to spend any time on the sideline. Hughes is one of the two players averaging more ice time than Makar – 20:11 on the Vancouver blueline – and is producing at a rate similar to other freshmen skaters with two goals and 14 points in 20 games. If Hughes continues to keep pace, he’ll remain a top contender on through the season.
Another possibility, and one few saw coming, is Martin Necas. After a season spent in the AHL, the Hurricanes youngster is flourishing in his freshman NHL season. In 20 games, his four goals and 14 points are tied with Hughes (and Sabres winger Victor Olofsson) for second-most among all rookies. Necas is doing a lot with a little, too. His 13:52 ice time average doesn’t crack the top-30 among first-year players. For Necas to win the award, he will have to up his scoring rate and blow either of the defensemen out of the water. Frankly, that doesn’t just go for Necas, either. Any forward who wants a shot will need to do the same.
1. Cale Makar, COL
2. Quinn Hughes, VAN
3. Martin Necas, CAR
4. Victor Olofsson, BUF
5. Ethan Bear, EDM
Let’s get this out straight away: if John Carlson continues to score at this pace, don’t even bother with the voting. Carlson, who has eight goals and 32 points, is on pace to finish the season with 29 goals and 122 points. That would be the single-highest scoring season by a defenseman in the modern era and the most points by any rearguard since Paul Coffey notched 48 goals and 138 points with the Edmonton Oilers during the 1985-86 season. So, again, if Carlson keeps this up, cancel the Norris portion of the annual awards show, save everyone the trip and fill the air time with whatever mid-aughts rock act the NHL manages to book a decade too late.
Taking a more realistic approach, Carlson’s pace will slow. He’s not superhuman and this isn’t the 1980s. Whenever it does begin to taper off, though, it’s a matter of how many points Carlson can put on the board. As we indicated earlier this season, simple point production sometimes isn’t enough to win the Norris. Ask Erik Karlsson. The good news is that Carlson’s underlying numbers are actually quite good. At 5-on-5, the ice is often tilted in the Capitals’ direction when Carlson is on the ice. That will reinforce his Norris credentials.
But none of this is to say he’s without competition. Dougie Hamilton leads all defensemen with nine goals and his 22 points put him on a similar, though not nearly as impressive, 37-goal, 90-point pace. Where Hamilton might have an edge with voters is that his underlying numbers are remarkable. Among the 165 defensemen with 200 minutes played at five-a-side, Hamilton ranks in the top 10 in several important advanced statistical categories, including eighth with an excellent 58.3 expected goals percentage. The combination of offense and near league-best under-the-hood numbers could be the perfect storm for voters who want to push for a do-it-all defender.
Speaking of such a defenseman, though, Ryan Ellis is an early season dark horse candidate. His three goals and 17 points don’t put him too far off the league lead, and his underlying numbers are likewise among the league’s best. In fact, it could be said at this point that it’s Ellis, not Roman Josi or Mattias Ekholm, who is the best blueliner in Nashville. He’s played that well this season. Meanwhile, if the Stars’ minor resurgence continues, Miro Heiskanen is one to keep an eye on. He’s been the backbone of the Dallas blueline and the sophomore will have to be considered if he continues to put up impressive numbers.
1. John Carlson, WSH
2. Dougie Hamilton, CAR
3. Ryan Ellis, NSH
4. Miro Heiskanen, DAL
5. Roman Josi, NSH
There are certain players who are Selke fixtures, familiar faces who find themselves in the mix, if not in Vegas for the awards ceremony, with regularity. And, yes, this is another season in which Patrice Bergeron is likely to be among those players.
Not without reason, of course. Bergeron remains one of the league’s truly elite two-way forwards, and his numbers this season are no less stellar than usual. Not only has he scored 19 points in 19 games, but Bergeron boasts exceptional underlying numbers as he continues to operate as one-third of the best line in hockey. Though, there’s a case that could be made that linemate Brad Marchand, who skates on one wing with David Pastrnak on the other, is as worthy of recognition for his two-way play as Bergeron. Marchand’s numbers are equally as impressive. Possibly the only thing that separates the two is that Bergeron plays down the middle. Faceoff numbers tend to be taken into consideration.
Just because one winger may be ignored, though, doesn’t mean that’s the case for all wingers. Mark Stone continues to garner support. One of the most takeaway-adept forwards in the NHL, Stone leads the league with 28. His expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 is also better than either of Bergeron or Marchand. Add to it Stone’s offensive production – 19 points in 22 games – and yet another Selke mainstay is likely to remain in the conversation all season long.
As one would expect, there are also going to be cases made for the likes of Sean Couturier, Aleksander Barkov and last season’s winner, Ryan O’Reilly. Sidney Crosby would have had his name on the list, too, were it not for the injury that will cost him a significant portion of the season. But there are some under-the-radar candidates, and maybe none better than Phillip Danault.
In 20 games, Danault’s six goals and 15 points have made him a steady contributor, but it’s his underlying numbers that move the needle. His possession rates are commensurate with the likes of Bergeron and Stone, but Danault’s 65.7 goals percentage is among the 25 best at 5-on-5 among forwards with at least 200 minutes played. That’s noteworthy given Danault isn’t exactly one to get favorable zone starts. He has started fewer than one-third of his five-a-side shifts in the attacking zone and only 37 percent of his faceoffs have come in the offensive end. Those are among the lowest percentages in the league for a forward with as many minutes.
Similarly, Nick Bonino deserves praise for his play. Only 10 of the 200-minute forwards have started fewer shifts in the offensive zone and only 11 have a lower offensive zone faceoff percentage. Yet, Bonino has a 68.2 goals percentage and an expected goals percentage of 58.2, marks which rank 11th and 38th among the 261 200-minute forwards. Add in his 19 takeaways, 55.3 faceoff percentage and 13 points and Bonino has to be in the conversation.
1. Patrice Bergeron, BOS
2. Phillip Danault, MTL
3. Mark Stone, VGK
4. Brad Marchand, BOS
5. Nick Bonino, NSH
Asked ahead of the season for a list of Hart frontrunners, most shortlists would have included an Edmonton Oiler. Funny thing is, though, the Oiler who is leading the Hart charge through the early part of the season isn’t the one most would assume, as it’s Leon Draisaitl, not Connor McDavid, who has to be at the head of the pack at the quarter mark of the campaign.
While that could very well change, and while it could certainly be said it’s McDavid who drives the bus regardless of the numbers, it’s difficult to dispute Draisaitl’s claim to the quarter-season MVP throne. Statistically, he has the resume to back it up. Draisaitl has a league-best 43 points, second-best 16 goals, his 22:50 average ice time is the most among all forwards, his four game-winning goals are tied for second in the NHL and he has inarguably been the best even-strength scorer in the league. His 12 goals are tops at five-a-side, as are his 14 assists and 26 points. And while points alone may not be enough to win the award, that he’s helped propel the Oilers to the top of the Pacific Division with one-quarter of the season in the rearview bolsters his candidacy.
Of course, McDavid – 14 goals, 40 points, best player in the world – is right alongside Draisaitl, but a matter of vote-splitting likely keeps the Oilers captain out of a top-two spot for now. After all, no team’s dynamic duo has finished one-two in Hart voting since the Bruins’ Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito in 1970-71. It’s unlikely we see that change this season.
So, who breaks up the Oilers’ tandem?
There are a few options, one of whom is current Vezina frontrunner Kuemper. He’s not getting the job done singlehandedly in Arizona, as backup Antti Raanta has shouldered some of the load, but there’s no questioning Kuemper’s impact on the Coyotes’ success. Much of what Arizona has accomplished this season has been predicated on the play of their netminders, and with Kuemper the 1A – or clear-cut No. 1, depending who you ask – of the tandem, he has to be in the conversation. And, hey, Kuemper earning some Hart love wouldn’t be an altogether new idea. He received one fifth-place vote last season. You can rest assured it would have been much more had Arizona made the playoffs.
Kuemper isn’t alone with the Oilers duo in the conversation, however. Others who appear in the running for other awards on this list fill out the top five. Marchand’s two-way play and 32-point performance through 20 games puts him on the radar, and Carlson’s offensive output to start the season has him knocking on the door.
1. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
2. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes
3. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
4. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins
5. John Carlson, Washington Capitals
JACK ADAMS AWARD
There is no prerequisite for winning the Jack Adams – at least, not by definition. But by now, we know how this game is played. In order to win the award, a coach must lead his team to the post-season. That’s the minimum bar for entry. Two things put a coach over the top and into true contention for the coach of the year honor, however: overachievement and season-over-season improvement. This season, that opens the door for a few bench bosses, but the early focus should be on Oilers coach Dave Tippett.
Through his first 22 games in Edmonton, Tippett, who was hired in the summer as part of the franchise’s off-ice restructuring, has the Oilers playing tighter defensively than we’ve grown used to and his team has been buoyed by the sheer offensive brilliance of McDavid and Draisaitl. As such, Edmonton finds itself atop the Pacific and the Oilers’ 29 points in 22 games puts them on pace for a 108-point season. That would mark a 27-point improvement from last season, one of the best season-over-season increases since Colorado’s 47-point turnaround from 2016-17 to 2017-18.
We say one of, however, because Tippett’s Oilers are only on pace for the second-greatest margin of improvement this season. Top spot goes to Barry Trotz’s New York Islanders, who is at it again one year after winning the Jack Adams for guiding a seemingly moribund franchise to a post-season appearance. Again, Trotz’s Islanders are getting the job done with remarkable goaltending, but Mat Barzal’s contributions as a top-line center shouldn’t be overlooked. Despite a relatively low offensive pace as a team, Barzal is a near point per game player and leads all Islanders forwards with 19 minutes per game. New York’s 132-point pace puts them in line to tie the Montreal Canadiens’ league-record 132-point campaign in 1976-77. (Not going to happen.)
Jon Cooper’s spot among the finalists after coaching the Tampa Bay Lightning to 128 points last season was an indication voters will take gaudy team point totals into consideration. So, come on down, Washington bench boss Todd Reirden. The Capitals, who have long been expected to take a step back, are on pace for 128 points. That would tie the Lightning’s mark and be the fourth-best total in NHL history.
As the season wears on, though, it will likely be the coaches who help their groups to a perceived overachievement that build the best cases for the award. Tippett surely fits the bill. Trotz, too, as some expected New York to take a small step backwards. But keep an eye on the likes of Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet, Florida Panthers coach Joel Quenneville and Buffalo Sabres coach Ralph Krueger.
1. Dave Tippett, EDM
2. Barry Trotz, NYI
3. Todd Reirden, WSH
4. Jared Bednar, COL
5. Rick Tocchet, ARI
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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