31 Thoughts: Breaking down major NHL Awards races

There’s a compelling case to be made for both Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes, but who really has the inside edge to be the NHL’s top rookie?

• Four-player Hart race too close to call
• What happened in Buffalo?
• Will other NHL teams slim operations?

Prior obligations mean I won’t be doing a full 31 Thoughts this week. Instead of the usual format, we’ll talk awards debates, and then get to a few longer thoughts, including a breakdown of the situation in Buffalo.

Without further delay:

Wednesday night was supposed to be NHL Awards night. Instead, ballots were due this week.

The NHL asks that we don’t reveal all of our selections, thereby ruining the suspense. So I will reveal just one pick and give a general outline of the rest. (The professional hockey writers select the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Byng. Also, the Masterton, but on a separate ballot. GMs choose the Vezina, broadcasters the Adams.)

Remember: If I don’t pick your favourite player — yes, it’s because I hate them, your team and, most importantly, you.


Under consideration: Patrice Bergeron, Jack Eichel, Roman Josi, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak. Yeah, I’m not crazy about Pastrnak being off the ballot.

On the ballot: Connor Hellebuyck. Monster season that saved the Jets.

It came down to: Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, Artemi Panarin. What an absolutely brutal choice. For me, never a more difficult awards decision.

Can we talk about McDavid? I’d like to talk about McDavid.

Every year, it gnaws at me more and more — I don’t think he gets enough consideration for this award. Edmonton made the playoffs in one of McDavid’s first four seasons, 2017–18. He won the Hart Trophy. Since then, he’s finished fifth and third. Both times, he was named on slightly less than 50 per cent of the ballots.

I accept my share of the blame as I try to be consistent, and, historically, non-playoff performers do not sniff the Pine-Sol that cleans this award. But my feelings changed last year, because we are looking at a historically great player. When his career is over, are we going to look back at how he was treated in the voting and ask, “Were we collectively drunk?”

McDavid’s determined recovery from a gruesome knee injury suffered in Game 82 of 2018–19 set a tone for the Oilers. That, to me, is a consideration. A big one.

I heard some rationale that you can’t have two MVP candidates on the same team. Sorry, not buying that. It’s not unprecedented (most recent: Pittsburgh’s Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux, finalists in 2001). Draisaitl and McDavid, should it happen, deserve their spots for being cornerstones of a team on pace for a 17-point improvement and the league’s best power play since the NHL-WHA merger.

That said, I do think Draisaitl is going to sap votes from McDavid. He led all forwards in minutes per game, had a penalty-kill role and took 232 more defensive-zone draws. He had 12 points in six games when McDavid was hurt in February, and he was the first star in all three wins. Voters noticed.

Panarin was brilliant. The Rangers were a completely different team with him on the ice. On the whole, New York outscored opponents 150–143 five-on-five (51 per cent), but that tally was 75–38 when he was out there (66 per cent). As they surged, his candidacy grew. The Rangers weren’t supposed to be anywhere near the playoffs, and Panarin led them to the cusp. I’m a big believer in recency bias, even in this gong show of a season. No candidate benefits more than he does.

In a couple of broadcast appearances, I said that if the Rangers made the playoffs, Panarin might run away with the Hart. As we conducted the voting, a couple of people I talked to mentioned our history with non-playoff performers. Since we’re basing it on the regular season, the Rangers finished 11th in the East. Should he be penalized like McDavid was?

Meanwhile, the Avalanche were two points back of West-leading St. Louis with a game in hand, despite being ravaged by injuries. MacKinnon was their constant, a ridiculous 43 points ahead of Cale Makar, second on the team in scoring. He had points in 48 of his team’s first 59 games, with back-to-back scoreless games just once in that span.

Also dominant at five-on-five (Colorado outscored opponents 69–45 with him on the ice in those situations), MacKinnon had a huge effect on two other excellent players. Away from the star centre, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen’s five-on-five production dropped.

Four deserving candidates. Too close to call.


Under consideration: Ryan Ellis, Mark Giordano, Victor Hedman, Seth Jones, Jaccob Slavin, Jared Spurgeon. Prediction: Slavin wins one in the next few years.

On the ballot: Dougie Hamilton, Charlie McAvoy, Alex Pietrangelo.

It came down to: John Carlson and Roman Josi.

This was a two-horse race, although Pietrangelo was excellent. Carlson came out of the gate like Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. His 1.09 points per game was the best of any defenceman in the past 25 years. Yes, he gets a ton of power-play time, but he’s also a regular second-pair defender on the NHL’s sixth-best penalty kill.

Josi charged into the race by putting Nashville on his back after the Predators slept through the start of the season. At the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, he played 33:02 in Dallas. From that point until Feb. 10, a 16-game stretch, he played fewer than 25 minutes only twice, with a low of 24:22. John Hynes eased up on the reins afterwards, but there were times during that stretch it seemed like he singlehandedly saved their playoff chances.


Under consideration: MacKenzie Blackwood, Denis Gurianov, John Marino, Elvis Merzlikins, Ilya Samsonov, Nick Suzuki.

On the ballot: Adam Fox, Dominik Kubalik, Victor Olofsson.

It came down to: Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar.

It’s close, but I voted for Hughes. One of the recent criticisms of my voting — which I agree with and try to address — is that I have a confirmation bias for those who play on Canadian teams. It’s not that I favour these players, but I watch them much more so it can skew my perspective for better or worse.

On my ballot, Makar is not being punished for playing on a better team. As mentioned with MacKinnon, the Avalanche were walking wounded all season. He’s their second-leading scorer, he’s a terrific player, and he played a big role there.

But Hughes elevated the Canucks. Jacob Markstrom was their MVP, but Hughes drove the bus on the ice. Every Canucks game I watched next to Kelly Hrudey saw the ex-goalie hypnotized by two things: the arrival of late-night pizza and Hughes’ passing ability. The eight Canucks who played more than 200 five-on-five minutes with him saw their shot attempts drop when he wasn’t on the ice, while six of them had a higher goals-for percentage with Hughes than without him.

He had a huge impact on that team.


Under consideration: Blake Coleman, Phillip Danault, Tomas Hertl.

On the ballot: Gabriel Landeskog. Does not kill penalties, but, geez, is he a good defender.

It came down to: Patrice Bergeron, Anthony Cirelli, Sean Couturier and Ryan O’Reilly.

Big move by Cirelli to crack this top group. Of all the NHLers who played 900 five-on-five minutes, none were on ice for fewer goals against (23) than him. He wades into a class of long-time Selke stalwarts.

O’Reilly had a ridiculous even-strength year. Bergeron remains a major force on the NHL’s best team. Couturier was the NHL’s best faceoff man. One exec sent me some numbers (on the condition I not publish them) indicating how several Flyers who were struggling revived alongside Couturier. He thought it was interesting, because it made Philly a better team.


Under consideration: Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, Teuvo Teravainen, Zach Werenski, Mika Zibanejad.

On the ballot: Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O’Reilly, Miro Heiskanen.

It came down to: Alex Pietrangelo and Jaccob Slavin.

It’s time. One defenceman’s won this award in 64 years (Brian Campbell, 2012). In a league that’s made it harder to check, it’s time to recognize guys that play more minutes and are under siege. Pietrangelo’s 20 penalty minutes are a little high, as only 14 winners would have more. But, as Lou Reed once sang, let’s walk on the wild side.

Slavin had just 10 minutes, and is developing into a true number one.

Greatest excitement: Brian Burke voted on this award. Can only imagine how much it annoyed him to pick the most gentlemanly player.

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1. There’s a lot to unpack with the Buffalo situation.

Let’s start with what I didn’t like about this. During the post-firing media availability, Terry and Kim Pegula indicated that Jason Botterill’s three-week old vote of confidence expired when the draft was moved.

“Too many differences of opinion,” Kim Pegula said.

“We felt we weren’t being heard,” Terry added.

Ignore your bosses at your own peril. But, this mass beheading (22 people, for now) affected people without security. People who breathed easier with the vote of confidence, taking it as a sign that they would be safe during an incredibly difficult time to find employment. Botterill had two years remaining on his contract. I believe the same goes for assistant GMs Randy Sexton and Steve Greeley. But, according to multiple sources, verbally agreed-to extensions for at least player development coach Krys Barch and AHL Rochester coach Chris Taylor (two years) were approved by Botterill, delayed by ownership, and will not be honoured. All of sudden, they are not employed, and if you are let go from a team, you can lose your health coverage (a bigger problem in the United States than Canada). I think that’s cruel and wrong.

One bit of good news: Buffalo’s head of hockey department IT, Kyle Kiebzak, was re-hired after initially being fired. His termination apparently was a mistake.

Why did this happen? When The Athletic’s Tim Graham did an in-depth piece on the Pegulas in April, someone sent me one of Kim’s quotes: “We fully admit we put trust in some of the wrong people and made decisions based on information that was given to us by them,” she told Graham. “It’s our fault. We put too much faith in certain people.”

The person who sent me that quote said that was a bad omen for her hockey staff — that word around the league was the Pegulas were disillusioned by the advice the NHL had given them on hiring, thought they were poor choices, and would go insular. The fact they did no search before giving the job to Kevyn Adams should not be a surprise with that context. When he went on a road trip late in the season, people started to wonder where this was going. He’s worked with them for years — they know him and trust him. Head coach Ralph Krueger has a huge hockey pedigree, but mainly outside of the NHL.

As an owner, you’re entitled to do as you wish. But they have to accept a good chunk of blame for the reason the Sabres have gone sideways. You can’t constantly be changing direction. Much of the amateur staff that was fired was hired in July 2017. I don’t see how two drafts — especially the most recent ones — truly give you a fair picture. A third-rounder from 2019, Erik Portillo, was just named USHL Goalie of the Year. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see why you need to blow up that group.

Going back to their first GM, Darcy Regier, there’s been disagreement about influence over decision-making. Botterill, for example, is not crazy about term. Even before he took over there, he’d indicated that he thought term was more dangerous than salary. He wasn’t crazy about the Jack Eichel extension (which will turn out fine) or the Jeff Skinner one, but was overruled by ownership. In fact, I’ve heard from several sources that he pursued other free-agent forwards, offering high annual salaries but shorter terms. He lost those races, but felt they wouldn’t regret onerous ends to those contracts.

The other thing that happened in Buffalo was the Pegulas did a top-to-bottom review of their organization. It was, from what I understand, very in-depth. They went over everyone’s schedule. How many games did you see? Where did you go? There is word they considered some of those schedules “light.”

When the Pegulas/Adams talk about “efficiency,” this is one of the things they thought could be done a lot better. During their budget meetings, department heads were told to prepare multiple scenarios with different bottom lines. Botterill knew he was going to be asked to make painful decisions, and fought them.

Initially, I wondered if there was some roster/personnel issue that came up over the last three weeks, but now I don’t think so. I think it was this. I thought he’d get one more year, but stood in the way of these moves — and that was it.

Another exec said an agent told him he was having a conversation with Botterill about a Buffalo free agent minutes before the Sabres announced the firing.

From a hockey perspective, word is that Krueger’s been very positive about his group — backing the young core. The Sabres need a second-line centre and will continue their search to fill that hole. That can be easier said than done, but have cap flexibility pending free-agent decisions they need to make (Sam Reinhart would be the biggest). Other than that, word is they are looking for “experience with a positive mindset” to continue to push their young players in the proper direction.

That brings us to Eichel.

When the Pegulas say this is not a rebuild, I believe them, primarily because you can’t sell that to your captain at this time. Last summer, people were asking, “How long until Connor McDavid wants out of Edmonton?” Now that they’re winning, it’s not a concern, so it shows how things can change.

He and Krueger have an excellent relationship. But the Sabres have to be worried about that question: How long will Eichel’s patience last?

Over the next few weeks, I’d expect Adams to begin the process of rebuilding his department. It won’t be one for one, obviously, but they will need help. Two names that were immediately mentioned to me were Rick Dudley (Carolina) and Scott Luce (Vegas), both with lengthy Buffalo ties. No idea if they’d be interested, but the connections might appeal to everyone.

I wonder if Adam Mair, one of their development staff, will be asked about the Rochester job. He went behind the bench when Taylor went to Buffalo for a few weeks. I could also see Adams discussing development jobs with two ex-Sabres who’ve invested time locally — Matt Ellis and Brian Gionta.

Another source brought up 21-year-old forward Brett Murray. Drafted in 2016, Murray just played his first professional season at Rochester, notching 24 points in 55 games. The people who worked with him most are now gone. He’s a free agent, and you have to make a call. It sounds like a small thing, but these are the kinds of decisions where there’s got to be a proper process.

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2. The Pegulas are getting hammered because of their finances. Let’s be honest — no one’s getting out of this unscathed, but there’s something deeper at play here. I’ve heard from multiple people that other teams are considering “slimming down” their operations. There are legit worries about what could happen by June 30, because that’s the day of the year that NHL contracts “end.”

We’ll see if these worries are unfounded, but I’ve also heard that there could be change to contract language. (Not for players, but for team employees.) There is talk about shorter terms and greater “force majeure” language, which allows for the breaking of a contract due to an “Act of God,” or, say, a pandemic. There’s also been discussion in the U.S. of making more employees “at will” — meaning they can be terminated at any time without explanation, as long as it is not an illegal firing. (This also allows employees to quit more easily, too.)

“They’re the first, but won’t be the last,” one agent said this week.

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3. Broadcast compatriot Kevin Bieksa caused a stir when he went on Sportsnet 650 Vancouver and said, “A lot of friends that I have and a lot of people that I’ve talked to that are going to be playing, they still don’t have their equipment, they still haven’t skated, they’re still very skeptical.

“They haven’t been told anything by their team, so I’m skeptical. I obviously want hockey back. I’d love to cover some games and watch it on TV and get everything back to normal, but I wouldn’t jump the gun if I were the fans. I wouldn’t get your hopes up too much yet…. There’s so much to figure out.”

I think we’re going to learn a lot over the next two weeks. The NHL and NHLPA continue grinding away towards an agreement on safety protocol for Phase III (training camp) and Phase IV (games), in addition to the CBA. With camps scheduled for July 10, the players’ vote on this is targeted for the end of June. I don’t know if there will be two separate decisions (one for protocols and one for CBA) or one big, all-encompassing ballot, but it’s expected each player will get an individual vote. So we’re going to get the answers to Kevin’s questions.

According to sources, the NHLPA has named its 12 negotiation committee members: Justin Abdelkader (Detroit); Ian Cole (Colorado); JT Compher (Colorado); Andrew Copp (Winnipeg); Lars Eller (Washington); Justin Faulk (St. Louis); Nick Foligno (Columbus); Ron Hainsey (Ottawa); Zach Hyman (Toronto); Anders Lee (Islanders); Darnell Nurse (Edmonton) and Yannick Weber (Nashville). Any other player who wishes to participate in these conversations can do so.

This comes at a time when the University of Texas announced 13 football players tested positive for COVID-19, the University of Houston halted workouts after six of their did, and we are seeing spikes in places like Arizona and Florida — where many NHLers live.

The NHL and NHLPA are working on opt-out language for anyone who may feel uncomfortable about playing. But part of their pitch might be that the bubble will be safer than parts of North America. In some places, it looks like social distancing no longer exists.

The NBA released its return-to-play protocol this week, and it is pretty strict. NHLers shouldn’t expect much different. National Basketball Players’ Association Executive Director Michele Roberts told the Boston Globe it isn’t a matter of if a player will test positive in the bubble, but when.

“That’s the only realistic mindset you can have going into this,” she said. “It’s not any more of this ‘if’ — it’s ‘when’ and what can I do to mitigate against the ‘when.’ When it happens, if I’m not successful, what treatment is available to me, what are my chances of being really, really sick, and how are you detecting the presence of an infection? Honestly, I don’t think this is any different than what any American has to come to grips with.”

Nowhere in the NBA’s document was there an answer to the question: “How many tests shuts everything down?”

If you’re looking for more info about what to expect, listen to Zachary Binney on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast this week. Binney is an epidemiologist who I came across on Twitter because of his interest in sports injuries. He’s really good on the issue.

In addition, the NHL will now handle announcements of any positive COVID-19 tests. Previously, the teams handled that.


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