Patrik Laine or Auston Matthews?
Mitch Marner or Zach Werenski?
What about Matthew Tkachuk?
Or will the fictitious “Eastern bias” decide the day when it comes Calder Trophy voting? (Spoiler alert: It will not.)
From what we’re seeing on Twitter, folks in Winnipeg are already girding themselves for the news that Matthews or Marner has been named the NHL’s best rookie — not because one of the two young Maple Leafs will have had the best debut season, but because voting is skewed towards those who play for Toronto.
So, we reached out to Professional Hockey Writers’ Association president Scott Burnside for some numbers, and went back 10 years in the National Hockey League Official Guide & Record Book. You should know that the PHWA has made a concerted effort to even the voting geographically over the past five seasons, and also that I am a vice-president of the PHWA and have closely monitored the charges of Eastern bias in recent seasons.
The PHWA votes on five major awards (as well as the Conn Smythe and the Bill Masterton Memorial which have been excluded two from this examination). They are the Calder, Hart, Norris, Lady Byng and Frank Selke. In an ultra-rare twist last season, PHWA voters awarded all five awards to Western Conference players. Counting runners up, the split was nine Western finalists to six from the East.
So, let’s go back through the past decade, and see how the Conferences fared in the voting for each award:
Hart Trophy: Winners – 7-3 for the East (with Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin accounting for five of those). Finalists – 14-6 for the East (with Crosby and Ovechkin accounting for nine).
Calder Trophy: Winners – 6-4 for the East. Finalists – 11-9 for the East.
Norris Trophy: Winners – 6-4 for the West (with Nicklas Lidstrom taking three while Detroit was still in the Western Conference). Finalists – 12-8 for the West.
Frank J. Selke: Winners – 6-4 for the West. Finalists – 12-8 for the West.
Lady Byng: Winners – 6-4 for the West. Finalists – 10-10.
Totals: Winners – 25-25. Finalists – 51-49 for the East.
We can fairly say, then, that the results over the past decade exhibit no geographical bias; the awards were split exactly and the finalists could hardly be more even.
But what about the voting process? Here’s where the PHWA has issues they have to work to overcome.
Just as there are more people on the Eastern side of North America than the Western, so too are there more hockey writers. The PHWA’s largest chapters stretch down the Eastern seaboard, while the smallest are in Arizona, Dallas, Anaheim, Nashville and just one Eastern chapter, New Jersey.
Last year, Burnside reports, 179 award ballots were mailed out to PHWA members. (There were 318 PHWA members for the 2015-16 season, so not all of them got a vote.) The split went like this: 69 to Eastern Conference voters; 57 to Western Conference voters; 43 to at-large voters with a national or international mandate; and 10 to national broadcasters.
So, the PHWA makes a concerted effort to compensate for a greater population of Eastern-based writers. The numbers don’t lie. There is no Eastern bias — period.
Fanning the Flames
Mea culpa time: After covering a game in Calgary on Jan. 21 in which Edmonton walked into the Saddledome and hammered the Flames 7-3, I wrote this: “The Oilers moved nine points ahead of the Flames in the standings and will not be caught by their rivals this season.”
Yeah, so anyways…
In my defence, it was a trip through the Flames dressing room that made me so sure that evening. “It’s embarrassing,” said head coach Glen Gulutzan. “It’s embarrassing. Our resolve to stick to it wasn’t there.”
The Flames were dispirited and lacking in confidence, which makes Calgary’s turnaround all the more impressive.
Eight straight wins? At this time of year? The only fly in the ointment is you know Calgary has a few losses coming at some point. The key will be to avoid stringing two or three defeats together.
Lessons from Crosby
Sidney Crosby was in Edmonton this week and, of course, reporters always want to dig into his experiences in the hope they’ll shed light on Connor McDavid. With McDavid’s first taste of NHL playoff hockey a month away, Crosby was asked about his first playoff series, a quarter-final against the Stanley Cup-bound Ottawa Senators back in 2007.
I was lucky enough to cover that series for the National Post and recall how easily the Senators walked through Pittsburgh in five games. It was the Penguins first playoff appearance since 2001, and their first step on a journey that would lead to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and 2009 — a path Edmonton hopes to emulate.
“It was a totally different level,” Crosby said of his initial playoff experience. “Looking back, I can’t believe all those guys were on the same [Senators] team. Think about [Zdeno] Chara, [Anton] Volchenkov, [Chris] Phillips, [Wade] Redden, [Dany] Heatley, [Jason] Spezza, [Daniel] Alfredsson … It was just a different level of desperation, physicality … Everything was just totally different.
“I don’t think — until you go through it — that you can be prepared for that. There’s a learning curve there. It’s a big jump playing against guys like that in the playoffs.”
The one hole in McDavid’s game mirrors Crosby’s struggles early in his career. Crosby was a 48 per cent faceoff man in his first two seasons in the NHL. McDavid is somewhat below that at 42.6 per cent.
Crosby went away one summer and came back a better faceoff man. He predicts McDavid will improve in the same manner.
“You get used to who you’re taking faceoffs against,” said Crosby, whose career success rate stands at 51.4 per cent. “You get older, stronger, more experience. You probably realize a bit more how important puck possession is. There are so many things you have to learn — faceoffs aren’t at the top of the list. With time, he’s just going to get better and better.”