Identifying each NHL team’s regular-season MVP

Caroline Cameron looks back at the last day in March before the NHL lockdown, and looks ahead to the season of second chances, where the race to the 2020-21 Stanley Cup will soon re-start.

As we finally, amazingly, begin Phase 3 and open training camps, we’re now on the road back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And, of course, that means the regular season is over and done with.

There’s really no telling what a four-month layoff will do to teams and players who are now asked to jump right into the highest intensity games when they’d usually be out boating. We’ll assume momentum won’t count for anything, but will any individual performance be an indicator of what could come in August and September? Or are we all really starting fresh again?

Whatever happens, the best of those regular-season performances are still worthy of accolades and shouldn’t be forgotten. So before we dive headfirst into playoff games, let’s take one last look back at the regular season and identify an MVP for each team.

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Anaheim Ducks: John Gibson
How do you determine the MVP for a team that struggled through its most challenging season in the salary cap era and didn’t have one player who particularly shone? As reliable as Gibson is, he even had a down season compared to his career norm (.904 SV%, 3.00 GAA) but he’s still the team’s rock.

Arizona Coyotes: Clayton Keller
There are a few candidates here, with none of them standing out as obvious choices. Nick Schmaltz led them in scoring, Conor Garland in goals, Taylor Hall had a positive and productive impact, and the goalies were pretty good, too. But we’re going with Keller, who was second on the team in even-strength goals, points, and power-play points, in second-line minutes.

Boston Bruins: Tuukka Rask
Rask should be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy and it says a lot about his play this season that we’re choosing him as Boston’s MVP when there’s a Rocket Richard Trophy winner on the roster. But Rask finished second in the league in shutouts (5) and save percentage (.929), first in GAA (2.12) and seventh in wins (26) in 41 games played.

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Buffalo Sabres: Jack Eichel
You gotta feel for Eichel, who said he was “fed up with losing and I’m fed up and I’m frustrated,” after a fifth-straight non-playoff season to start his career. Most of his fellow first-round picks from 2015 have gotten that taste, but few have performed on the same level as the Sabres star. In a shortened season, he set a new career-best for goals anyway, and was well on his way to setting a new personal best for points as well. He had 28 more points than the next highest-scoring Sabre, Sam Reinhart.

Calgary Flames: Matthew Tkachuk
It seems inevitable that Tkachuk will be the captain of this team someday. He’s become much more than a pest (which he’s still very good at) and led the Flames in scoring this season. According to Natural Stat Trick, Tkachuk drew eight more penalties than he took at 5-on-5, so his antics don’t hurt his team overall. He’s more likely to get someone else to take a penalty.

Carolina Hurricanes: Sebastian Aho
Aho rose from 30 to 38 goals over the past year and was again right around a point-per-game player. He’s the most important forward to the team across situations and led them in scoring. He’s still getting better, too, and we’d wager more offence will come. There are a few good candidates for team MVP in Carolina and Dougie Hamilton deserves an honourable mention because he was terrific in 47 games. However, he was injured midway through and hadn’t played since Jan. 16. Had he stayed healthy, Hamilton may have been mentioned among the Norris Trophy candidates, and it appears he’ll be ready to return when the NHL does in a few weeks.

Chicago Blackhawks: Patrick Kane
One of the top scorers of his generation, Kane is 31 now but not slowing down at all. Once again, he led the Hawks in scoring, this time by 24 points, and he surpassed the 1,000-point mark in 2019-20.

Colorado Avalanche: Nathan MacKinnon
MacKinnon should be a finalist for the Hart Trophy, so he’s an easy pick for the Avs. The 24-year-old has put together back-to-back-to-back 90-plus point seasons and needed just seven more to reach 100 in a season for the first time. MacKinnon is a bull who skates like the wind — when you watch him you wonder how he’s ever stopped.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Seth Jones
Jones will win a Norris one day. Book it. The 25-year-old was having another solid season before injury interrupted it, but he was as important as ever to the Blue Jackets. On offence, Jones ranked behind Werenski on the team, but he averaged over 20 minutes a night at even strength (ranking fifth in the league), led Blue Jackets defencemen in short-handed time and was second in power-play minutes. He’s expected back for the play-in series against Toronto.

Dallas Stars: Ben Bishop
The Stars are always an interesting team because when you look at some of the names on the roster, you’d think they’d be an offensive powerhouse. Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski. But the Stars ranked 26th in the league in offence, and still scored more than they allowed. Some of that is due to their system, but they weren’t the best shutdown team either — the Stars ranked 18th in shots against per game and seventh in high-danger chances against per game. But Bishop has been the leader of their tandem in net, and a year after being a Vezina finalist, he posted strong numbers again: .920 SV%, 2.50 GAA and two shutouts.

Detroit Red Wings: Dylan Larkin
One of the fastest skaters in the game, Larkin led the Wings in assists, points, even-strength and power-play ice time for forwards, and was second in goals with 19. The assistant captain is signed through another three seasons and is a crucial leader for the young group.

Edmonton Oilers: Leon Draisaitl
This choice is between two players and whether you pick the Art Ross winner or the best player in the world right now, there will be angry reactions. Look, Draisaitl won the league scoring race by 13 points (over Connor McDavid). He also, normally, would not be thought of as an MVP on his own team for either playing behind McDavid, or joining his line on the wing. But in the six February games McDavid missed, Draisaitl carried the team with 12 points as Edmonton went 3-2-1, and he logs more short-handed minutes. McDavid will win these more often than not in Edmonton, but Draisaitl is a star in his own right who stepped up big this season and deserves that recognition.

Florida Panthers: Johnathan Huberdeau
Huberdeau followed up his breakout 92-point season with 78 in 69 games, which was enough to lead the Panthers in scoring by 14 points. The Huberdeau-Aleksander Barkov combination is a force, though the latter is the better two-way player, Huberdeau has taken his offensive game to such a level (and repeated it) that he’s worthy of this year’s MVP on the disappointing squad.

Los Angeles Kings: Anze Kopitar-t 29-35-6 and with the 30th-most goals in the league, the most exciting thing Kings fans experienced this season was the Phase 1 draft lottery in which the team won the second-overall draft pick. But as the former powerhouse continues to toil in a rebuild, captain Kopitar has continued to be remarkable. He led the team with 21 goals, 41 assists and 62 points and also was tops among all Kings forwards in average even-strength, power-play and short-handed ice time per game. He remains one of the best defensive centres in the game.

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Minnesota Wild: Kevin Fiala
There are a few good candidates here on a team that was just starting to pick up the pace when the pause hit. Ryan Suter remains a rock, and Jared Spurgeon is an underrated contributor. Eric Staal played a lot of minutes, Zach Parise led the team in goals and Alex Stalock steadied the situation in net while Devan Dubnyk struggled. But Fiala gets the nod here. The 11th-overall pick in the 2014 draft, Fiala spent five seasons in the Nashville organization, but a long-awaited breakout didn’t happen there. It did happen with Minnesota this season, as Fiala led them in scoring with 54 points, which set a new personal best despite the shorter season. Fiala scored 28 points in his last 22 regular-season games (Jan. 18 to the pause), and in that time Minnesota was the NHL’s sixth-best team by points percentage.

Montreal Canadiens: Tomas Tatar
Considering Tatar was viewed as the “extra” in the Max Pacioretty trade, it’s quite the development that he led the team in scoring this season. Tatar was tops on the team in even-strength points, power-play goals and power-play points without always playing top-line minutes. Nick Suzuki, the main piece in the Pacioretty deal, was fifth on the Habs with 41 points. At the very least, that trade worked out well for both teams.

Nashville Predators: Roman Josi
It’s a two-horse race for the Norris Trophy this season, between Washington’s John Carlson and Josi. Carlson had the faster start of course, and is overall 10 points ahead of Josi, but the Preds defenceman led all blueliners in points from Jan. 1 on. Josi was also third in the league in average ice time (Carlson came 10th) and was used heavily in all situations. He led the Predators in scoring, too, by 17 points.

New Jersey Devils: Mackenzie Blackwood
Better days will be ahead for the Devils, and Blackwood’s arrival at 23 may get them there quicker than previously thought possible. Continued injuries and struggles to Cory Schneider opened he door for Blackwood to take on more work this season, and in 47 games he posted a .915 save rate and a 22-14-8 record for the league’s 26th-place team. That’s similar to how he showed in 23 games as a rookie — if he maintains this level Blackwood will be one to watch in 2020-21.

New York Islanders: Mat Barzal
He’s the best and most exciting player on a relatively low-offence team, but Barzal shines nightly. He never went more than three games without a point this season, and had a “drought” that long only three times. He was on track to set a new career-high in goals this season, but he’s more of a setup man anyway. Barzal is the engine of New York’s offence.

New York Rangers: Artemi Panarin
Another player in the running for the Hart Trophy, Panarin previously may have lost some votes had the Rangers not made the playoffs, but this one-off, 24-team set-up could change that outlook. Panarin finished tied for third in the league in points (95) and second in assists (63), making New York look good for investing seven years and $81.5 million in him.

Ottawa Senators: Thomas Chabot
No player averaged more ice time this season than Chabot, who hit the pause at 26 minutes per night. Fifth on his team in points with 39, Chabot figures to be a central figure as Ottawa tries to shoot out of its rebuild in the next few seasons.

Philadelphia Flyers: Sean Couturier
Perhaps the favourite for the Selke Trophy this season, Couturier is the only top-five power play forward on the Flyers who also is leaned on for heavy PK duty. And if you thought his offensive breakout from two years ago was a blip, you’ve been proven wrong. Following back-to-back 76 point seasons, Couturier followed up with 59 in 69 games this campaign, good for second on the team.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Evgeni Malkin
He was his team’s highest-scoring player by 18 points and Bryan Rust bested his own previous career-high in points by 18 thanks to playing alongside Malkin. When Crosby was out of the lineup this season, Malkin continued the tradition where he goes on a tear if the captain is missing.

San Jose Sharks: Timo Meier
There was really not much to get excited for around the Sharks this season — and even our pick for team MVP fell off his offensive pace from a year ago. But Meier was the best the 29th-best team had to offer, leading them in even-strength scoring by a wide 12-point margin. His goal-scoring prowess shone through again this season and his shooting percentage has been steady through three seasons, suggesting he could be in line for a nice personal bounce back in 2020-21.

St. Louis Blues: Ryan O’Reilly
There are certainly a lot of contenders here, as the defending champs were looking like a buzzsaw capable of doing it again before the pause. O’Reilly has long been recognized as one of the best two-way centres in the game, but his offence has hit new highs with the Blues, too. After setting a career-high in points last season, he was on track for his second-best offensive season in 2019-20 and led all Blues with 61 points.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Andrei Vasilevskiy
Whether or not you think the $9.5-million AAV contract Vasilevskiy will be starting next season is too high for a goalie in today’s game, at least the Lightning know they have an elite player at the position who is still only 25 years old. We could pick Nikita Kucherov here after he put together another fantastic season, but Vasilevskiy was a steady hand who had the third-best 5-on-5 save percentage among all goaltenders with at least 40 games played.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Auston Matthews
Had we finished the full 82-game regular-season schedule, perhaps Matthews could have taken a run at the Rocket Richard Trophy. He may have even had a shot at Rick Vaive’s franchise goal record of 54. Regardless, Matthews continues to provide the kind of reliable goal-scoring that’s hard to come by and this was a career-year for him anyway.

Vancouver Canucks: Jacob Markstrom
Florida’s “goalie of the future” for years, Markstrom only started to hit anything close to his potential after landing in Vancouver, and this season was his best and most important yet. With young Thatcher Demko behind him, Markstrom was 23-16-4 with a .918 save percentage and was the rock this young Vancouver team needed. Now with an expiring contract on the horizon after these playoffs, Canucks fans want to know what it will take for him to stay — and if it’s possible to give it to him. We could easily have gone with Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller or even Quinn Hughes here since Markstrom sustained an injury in late-February. But the netminder was way too important to this team to just gloss over.

Vegas Golden Knights: Mark Stone
Continuing in his quest to be the first winger to win the Selke Trophy since Jere Lehtinen in 2003, Stone was also just one point shy of tying his personal-best in points for a season with 63 in 65 games. He’s as steady and reliable as they come.

Washington Capitals: John Carlson
How do you not pick a Rocket Richard winner as team MVP? Carlson certainly gives us reason to look beyond Alex Ovechkin this season. At one point, there was an outside chance Carlson could have hit 100 points this season — that’s how much hype his start to the season got when he began with 36 points in 24 games.

Winnipeg Jets: Connor Hellebuyck
No team allows more high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5 than Winnipeg, and yet Hellebuyck is the favourite to win the Vezina thanks to his glowing numbers (.922 SV%, 2.57, GAA, six shutouts) that kept the transitioning team afloat. There’s no doubt the Jets can score and they should be set up to contend for a while, but only if they can upgrade their defence. It’s hard to expect Hellebuyck to be at this level each and every year, but he’s the reason why Winnipeg will be a tough out. With average goaltending, this year’s team defence would have sunk the Jets.

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