NHL Awards: Ranking the top three quarter-mark candidates

NHL insider Mark Spector joins Gene Principe to break down Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl combining for 11 points against the Avalanche, looking like the Wayne Gretzky led Oilers from the 1980's.

In last week’s Sportsnet NHL newsletter, we ranked the top three candidates for the Hart Trophy at the quarter mark of the season. Obviously, these awards are not settled in the first 20 games and odds are plenty of other players will make cases of their own over the next four-plus months.

But the idea we had was to look at this season in four segments, and rank three “finalists” for the major awards after each. So a couple months from now, we’ll look at the awards picture again, but take only the second quarter into consideration. We’ll give points to a player each time they rank first, second or third in an award ranking, and see what kind of picture that gives us after 82 games.

We’re curious: will this way of tabulating awards “points” at checkpoints through the season change the way we view the awards picture compared to just looking back on the entire 82 games in April?

With the quarter mark upon us, here is our look at some of the major awards with the top three candidates in each.

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1. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
22 GP | 16 G | 27 A | 43 PTS
Sure, he plays with Connor McDavid and, honestly, that would probably lead to split votes. But Draisaitl has been terrific in his own right. According to the NHL, Draisaitl’s 43 points is the most by the league’s leading scorer at this point in the season since Mario Lemieux had 53 points in 1995-96.

2. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
20 GP | 13 G | 16 A | 29 PTS

When the Avs were fully healthy and MacKinnon was flanked by his usual linemates Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, he went on a tear. The other Cole Harbour great scored a point in every October game and started the season on a 13-game point scoring streak. But MacKinnon has played nine games without either of them and has 14 points. He’s gone more than one game in a row without a point just once since his regular wingers left the lineup.

3. John Carlson, Washington Capitals
23 GP | 8 G | 26 A | 34 PTS

We can’t do an MVP ranking without giving a nod to the incredible start Carlson has had in Washington. He became one of just five NHL defencemen ever to hit 30 points in his first 20 games of a season and is right now the league’s third-highest scorer. And in fact, if you only count his even-strength points, Carlson sits one ahead of McDavid.

Honourable mentions: Elias Pettersson, Connor McDavid, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand


1. John Carlson, Washington Capitals
23 GP | 8 G | 26 A | 34 PTS

A top three for the Hart, obviously Carlson would have to rank atop the award given to best defenceman. He’s 12 points ahead of the next highest-scoring blue-liners (Cale Makar, Dougie Hamilton) and would still lead his position in offence if you discounted all his special teams points. At this point, something would have to go horribly wrong for Carlson to not end up as a Norris finalist after 82 games. If he posts just 36 more points in his next 59 games (0.61 points per game), he’d still be one of 17 defencemen to hit 70 points in the salary cap era. Carlson had a 0.85 points per game rate over the previous two seasons.

2. Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes
20 GP | 9 G | 13 A | 22 PTS
Tied with Colorado’s “Calder” Makar for second among defencemen with 22 points, Hamilton was entrusted with a bigger role in Carolina this season after Justin Faulk was traded and, as expected, he’s been up to the task. Last season, Hamilton’s average ice time at even strength and on the power play fell below where it was in Calgary, when he posted back-to-back career-best seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18. But this season he’s back up and is getting more power-play exposure than ever. This is going to be a career year for Hamilton.

3. Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
21 GP | 5 G | 9 A | 14 PTS
Ranking 16th in points among blue-liners right now, Heiskanen can bring the offence but the reason he’s here is about much more than that. He does everything for the Stars. We know Heiskanen was the third-overall pick in 2017 because of his offensive upside, smooth skating and smarts, but he’s also been on Dallas’s top PK unit this season. And, according to Natural Stat Trick, Heiskanen starts just 46.15 per cent of his 5-on-5 shifts in the offensive zone – the lowest of these three finalists. In John Klingberg’s absence, Heiskanen has taken on even more of a load, playing at least 25 minutes in every game but one.

Honourable mentions: Roman Josi, Mark Giordano, Victor Hedman, Ryan Ellis, Cale Makar


GMs vote for this award at the end of the season.

1. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes
9-5-0 | 1.85 GAA | .937 SV%

Picking up where he left off last season, Kuemper has been outstanding for the Coyotes. And while he may benefit from playing behind a team that is among the best in keeping high danger shots to a minimum, it’s worth noting his .875 high danger save percentage at 5-on-5 is seventh-best in the league. Also, if you’re inclined to use the Coyotes’ defensive chops as a knock against Kuemper’s candidacy, you have to also acknowledge that Arizona is one of the lower-scoring teams in the league, so the margin for error is lower. Kuemper has the best save percentage and GAA among all goalies who’ve played in more than 10 games.

2. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
9-6-1 | 2.44 GAA | .927 SV%

Historically, Hellebuyck did not have a very strong high danger save percentage, so the thinking went that a depleted Winnipeg blue line would give up more quality chances and leave their goalie in a no-win situation. But credit is due here to Hellebuyck, who seemingly is bouncing back from a mediocre season in a very big way. It is true that the Jets are giving up far more high danger chances — in fact only Chicago has given up more. But Hellebuyck’s .874 save rate on those chances is top 10 and comparable to Kuemper. The offence and defence has been struggling in Winnipeg, but Hellebuyck has kept his team in the thick of the Central.

3. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
8-2-2 | 2.14 GAA | .927 SV%

Two of the three Vezina finalists last season played less than 47 games, so that Rask won’t have a heavy workload sharing the crease with Jaroslav Halak shouldn’t hurt his candidacy as long as his numbers are there. And they certainly are. He’s played 12 of Boston’s 20 games and rivals Kuemper in all the major stat categories. The one place he surpasses Kuemper is in those high danger saves: of all goalies who’ve played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, Rask’s .887 HDSV% ranks third behind Pekka Rinne and Mikko Koskinen (!).

Honourable mentions: Thomas Greiss, Ben Bishop, Robin Lehner


1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
20 GP | 5 G | 17 A | 22 PTS
The NHL record for points in a season by a rookie defenceman is 76 by Larry Murphy in 1980-81 and if Makar maintains his current pace, he’ll blow that number away. We wouldn’t expect that to happen, but the Avs’ young blue-liner has had a standout first quarter that has him tied for second in scoring among all defencemen.

2. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks
20 GP | 2 G | 12 A | 14 PTS
A one-man breakout and the most dynamic defenceman the Canucks have had in their 50-year history, Hughes is not disappointing anyone in Year 1. Between Hughes and Makar, the Calder is a two-horse race right now and while Hughes’ points don’t quite stack up, he does average nearly a minute more of even strength ice time per game.

3. Ethan Bear, Edmonton Oilers
22 GP | 3 G | 4 A | 7 PTS
Calder is a two-person race right now with a bunch of good candidates coming in at No. 3. Bear’s offensive totals won’t jump out at you, but his presence on Edmonton’s second pair has given them a bit more depth on that blue line than previously expected. Bear’s 21:09 per game is the highest average ice time for all rookies and he’s even gotten some PK time. A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Berkshire made the deeper case for Bear’s Calder candidacy due to his underlying numbers.

Honourable mentions: Thatcher Demko, Martin Necas, Jack Hughes, Victor Olofsson, Kirby Dach


1. Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina Hurricanes
In hindsight, Brind’Amour should have been given a finalist nod for this award last season, so the fact his Canes have hit the ground running in 2019-20 means we have to put him in here at the quarter mark. Carolina has the third-lowest shots against per game, eight-most shots for per game and have generated the fourth-most high danger chances at 5-on-5. Their power play ranks eighth and penalty kill 11th. What more do you want from a coach?

2. Jim Montgomery, Dallas Stars
Dallas’s coach deserves some credit here. They weathered an early storm of one win in their first nine games, losing in regulation just once in their next 12 games. The Stars continue to have a smothering team defence and have the fifth-best high danger chances for percentage at 5-on-5 and the second-best expected goals for percentage. Not all of Montgomery’s offensive weapons have got going yet, but that can’t be held against the coach. He’s clearly put a strong structure in place to overcome offensive droughts.

3. Barry Trotz, NY Islanders
Knowing full well that Trotz is highly unlikely to win this award two years in a row, he nevertheless deserves continued kudos for the incredible job he’s doing for the Islanders. Last year, the story was about what he accomplished after losing John Tavares, this time it’s how the goals against are staying down after losing Vezina finalist Robin Lehner. As discussed in 31 Thoughts: The Podcast, the Islanders do spend more time in the defensive zone than you’d think, but do an excellent job keeping everything to the outside. That’s what they want to do.

Honourable mentions: Dave Tippett, Travis Green, Todd Reirden, Bruce Cassidy, Rick Tocchet


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