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Barkov, Monahan and O’Reilly up for Lady Byng – who wins and who was overlooked?

After finishing respective second and third place finishes last season, Ryan O'Reilly and Aleksander Barkov are up for the Lady Byng once again. Sean Monahan joins the top three, too. Unlike other awards, the winner here should be clear.

Awards season continues to roll on, and ahead of Thursday’s post-season action, the NHL announced that the Florida Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov, Calgary Flames’ Sean Monahan and St. Louis Blues’ Ryan O’Reilly – who was announced as a top-three vote-getter for the Selke Trophy Wednesday – have finished atop Lady Byng Trophy balloting.

The three finalists for the award, which is given out annually to the player “adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability,” are familiar faces when it comes to the Lady Byng, and this marks the second consecutive season that Barkov and O’Reilly are in contention for the hardware. And unlike other individual awards, it’s somewhat easier to gauge which player has the edge. More on that in a second.

Here’s a look at the case for each of the three finalists:

By virtue of the time on ice he logs – 22:21 per game and an eye-popping 1,833 total minutes, more than every forward in the NHL save the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl – and the difficult matchups Barkov draws night in and night out, the expectation would be that the two-way pivot would pick up dozens of minor penalties over the course of a campaign, be they hooks or holds or trips. But do you know how many infractions Barkov actually committed this season? Four. That’s it. Four.

Barkov went the first 33 games of the season without a penalty, and the only time he really gooned it up was when he was whistled for one hooking penalty and one tripping penalty across a span of three games in mid-March. Absolute thuggery, right?

What solidifies Barkov’s case for the award, though, is how thoroughly he checks the “high standard of playing ability” box. His two-way play is debatably second to none in the NHL – though Selke voters felt differently this season – and he was the best offensive player of the top-three in voting. Barkov’s 35 goals were one more than Monahan scored this season and the Panthers captain’s 96 points were not only the most of his career, but 14 more than Monahan managed and 19 more than O’Reilly’s total.

The Lady Byng recognition is par for the course for Barkov, too. In 413 big-league games, he’s only accrued 66 penalty minutes and has earned consideration for the award in each of the past three seasons, finishing second in 2015-16, 13th in 2016-17 and third in 2017-18. So, could this finally be the year he wins the darn thing?

Early in his career, Monahan put himself in the running for the Lady Byng. In fact, through his first three seasons in the NHL, over which he played 237 regular season games, Monahan picked up 38 penalty minutes. But after a brief run out of the consciousness of Lady Byng voters, the result of consecutive years with at least 20 penalty minutes, the Flames sharpshooter finds himself right back in consideration thanks to an excellent offensive season paired with a mere six minor infractions and 12 penalty minutes.

With so many players up for consideration – not that there’s a cutoff, but 54 players who skated in at least 75 games took fewer than 20 penalty minutes this season – there are two things that vaulted Monahan ahead of similar competition. The first is that he often played against top competition yet didn’t find himself drawing the ire of the officials. The second is that he also thrived against that same competition offensively, which ticks the second and all-important level-of-play box. Monahan’s 34-goal, 82-point campaign was the best of his career, and it came in a season during which he was arguably given more responsibility than ever before.

Though there was no Barkov-esque stretches without an infraction, which is to say Monahan didn’t have a 30-plus game span without a minor penalty, he only took six minors all season. That’s tied for the 15th-fewest among all skaters in the NHL this season.

Barkov and O’Reilly are in the same boat when it comes to defensive responsibility. Both draw the toughest matchups on a nightly basis, both are expected to shut down the opposition’s top line and both log monster minutes. This season, O’Reilly was up above 20 minutes per night – and 14 seconds shy of averaging 21 per game – for the fourth consecutive season. And O’Reilly, who is the only of the three finalists to win the award previously, was incredibly disciplined given the level of talent against which he was asked to play all season.

Statistically speaking, O’Reilly’s campaign was the least impressive of the top-three in voting, however. While it was a personal best, with O’Reilly matching his previous career high by scoring 28 goals and smashing his old career-high 64-point season with a 77-point output in his first season with the Blues, it fell short of the marks set by Barkov and Monahan. Worth noting, though, is that his goal output as a percentage of his team’s goals is in line with Monahan. Both scored roughly 11.5 percent of their team’s goals, with the Flames sniper slightly ahead. So, when measured that way, O’Reilly’s production on a less-offensive minded group was similarly stellar.

Also, O’Reilly can go step for step with Barkov when it comes to long-term discipline. In fact, O’Reilly – who finished last season with two penalty minutes, marking the second time he had played a full season and recorded one minor infraction – took three minor penalties in the first three games of the season before going on a run of 40 games without a trip to the box. In the final 79 games of the season, O’Reilly took three penalties.

Let’s be honest: no one is going to throw their arms up in the air or argue until they’re blue in the face about the Lady Byng. Some believe it’s the least important of all the end-of-year hardware. Regardless, it speaks to in-game discipline, which is a valuable skill. And given his discipline this season, it’s incredible that Colorado Avalanche defenseman Samuel Girard didn’t finish top-three in voting.

This season, Girard averaged nearly 20 minutes per game, played in every single outing for the Avalanche, scored four goals and 27 points from the blueline and only took three penalties. Do you know how exceedingly rare that is for a defenseman? In the post-lockout era, only Brian Campbell, who won the Lady Byng with 53 points and six penalty minutes in 2011-12, and Oscar Klefbom, who took six penalty minutes and scored 38 points in 2016-17, have managed similar numbers. In the post-expansion NHL, too, there are only eight defenders who have played 60-plus games, scored 25-plus points and taken six or fewer penalty minutes.

Last thing on Girard, too: while his total minutes played this season, 1,631, are fewer than Barkov (1,833) and O’Reilly (1,702), his penalty minutes rate per 60 minutes of play is actually lower than either. He sat for .22 minutes per hour of play. Barkov sat for .26, O’Reilly for .42 and ‘Knuckles’ Monahan, who played 1,486 minutes this season, was in the sin bin for .48 minutes per 60 minutes of play.

The point is that more defensemen should get consideration for the award. And Girard was especially deserving of a long look this season.

It has to be Barkov. Measured against his competition in the top-three, Barkov played the most minutes, scored the most goals, registered the most points, had the fewest penalty minutes and did so while being recognized league-wide as one of the best two-way pivots in the game. If he does win the award – and well he should – Barkov will have first-, second- and third-place finishes to his name across the past four seasons.

(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)

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