Breaking down the major NHL awards candidates at mid-season

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Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) celebrates with defencemen Victor Hedman (77) and Ryan McDonagh (27) after the team defeated the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

We made it! We’ve arrived at the halfway mark of the 2020-21 NHL season without complete disaster, as long as you’re willing to look past that burning dumpster over there with the Sabres logo on it.

I’m a voting member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, so it only makes sense around this time to start considering some front-runners for awards around the NHL. Below are those leaders, with some explanation for each below. (I’ve left out the Rocket Richard Trophy and the Art Ross, as the players vote for those with each puck they put in the back of the net.)

HART TROPHY

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton
2. Auston Matthews, Toronto
3. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay
4. Patrick Kane, Chicago
5. Aleksander Barkov, Florida/Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado

Breaking news: The best player in the world in his prime is playing like the best player in the world. We’ll keep the conversation about the top spot short, as McDavid’s leading the league in points by a sizeable margin, which pairs nicely with the eye test of him turning defenders into ghosts any time he’s able to take three unencumbered strides through the neutral zone without getting tackled. He leads the league in my own made up “offensive rush” stat: defenders-not-even-able-to-touch-his-jersey-per-60.

Beyond that I think Matthews has been an absolute driving force for the division-leading Leafs, a constant threat that makes everyone around him better to a nearly immeasurable degree. Vasilevskiy is the best goalie in the world, full stop, and is a huge reason Tampa Bay is Tampa Bay yet again. And the Blackhawks are overachieving based on good goaltending and Kane continuing to produce like few on earth can.

Barkov and MacKinnon mostly suffer from lack of exposure. I watch a lot of Colorado and it’s just constantly apparent how heavily that team’s success is hitched to MacKinnon (who’ve I’ve twice voted as league MVP, seeing him lose to Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl). Barkov is going to come up again in a second here, so maybe let’s get to that.

SELKE TROPHY

1. Aleksander Barkov, Florida
2. A bunch of other players, including: Mark Stone, Brad Marchand, Joel Eriksson-Ek, Phillip Danault, Joe Pavelski, Anthony Cirelli, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan O’Reilly, Zach Hyman.

More than any other award, I believe Selke suffers from small sample size. Defensive contribution is so tough to measure, as many hockey analysts will tell you it’s about doing the “little things” right. And since it takes the consistent application of those “little things” to reveal themselves as valuable over a whole season, declaring someone the “best defensive forward in the NHL” after 30 or less games is near impossible. That list, then, is comprised of those off to a good start combined with those who we know already exhibit those attributes.

But, this is Barkov’s year to win it for me if he keeps playing like this. He drives all “advanced” stats in the right direction. The Panthers control roughly two-thirds of the expected goals when Barkov is on the rink, which is pretty absurd. He’s one of the best forwards in defensive impact on the PK. He plays the toughest minutes for the Panthers. As I said, I have him at No. 1, and then like in cycling, a chase group behind.

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VEZINA TROPHY

This one is heavily influenced by numbers each year, and the PHWA doesn’t vote on it (the GMs, knowers of all things goaltending — wink, wink — vote on this one).

1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay (in a landslide)
2. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas
3. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg
4. Semyon Varlamov, NY Islanders
5. Thatcher Demko, Vancouver (surprisingly, his “goals saved above expected” is third-best in the league).

Fleury’s re-emergence as a Vezina candidate for Vegas is a lot of fun, and the return of Bubble Demko has given the Canucks and their fans hope, rightly or wrongly. All worthy candidates above. One clear leader.

CALDER TROPHY

We don’t have what I would term a “runaway” for this award at this point, but there are a handful of worthy nominees. I’ve got it like this so far:

1. Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota
2. Kevin Lankinen, Chicago
3. Kaapo Kahkonen, Minnesota
4. Tim Stützle, Ottawa
5. Igor Shesterkin, NY Rangers

Kaprizov isn’t the youngest rookie — he turns 24 this season — but he has been the most impactful on a team that badly needed his impact. Kaprizov has breathed a little bit of pop and excitement into a team that’s lacked it for, well, basically ever. Combine Kaprizov with the guy I’ve got third on this list (goaltender Kahkonen), and the two have elevated the Wild to unexpected heights.

The biggest surprise on this list isn’t so much a name on it (Kevin Lankinen, for example), it’s who isn’t on it. No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere has had a surprisingly quiet campaign to date, which more than anything goes to show just how impressive it is to excel in your first season in the NHL (particularly at a young age). Lafreniere is stuck on seven points, having gone pointless in his last six outings.

I have listed three goalies (I bet Shesterkin tops that group by season’s end), and two players I consider must-see TV right now. Stützle is absolute fire so far for the Senators.

NORRIS TROPHY

1. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay
2. Cale Makar, Colorado
3. Charlie McAvoy, Boston
4. Jeff Petry, Montreal
5. Adam Pelech, NY Islanders

This is a bit like the Selke for me — so hard to know after just 30 games. What I do know is I believe Victor Hedman to be the best defenceman in the world, and he’s playing like it yet again. Cale Makar and Charlie McAvoy’s selections are at least partly analytically based, partly based on how important they are to their respective teams, and partly the ol’ eye test — how dynamic and in control of the game they seem every time I see them play.

In spots four and five, I almost consider those placeholders for a dozen names right now, but if they’d played just as well for the next 30 games they’d lock in those spots. At worst those votes today are honourable mentions for players having excellent years who deserve more love.

Petry has piled up numbers and seems to be tracking to play as much TOI as the guy who usually gets the nod in these conversations, Shea Weber. And Adam Pelech is in the top-five in the NHL (among D) in expected goals percentage, with his subtle impact constantly tipping the run of play back down towards the opposing goal. He’s a huge reason the Isles are legitimately as defensively stout as their reputation.

JACK ADAMS AWARD

And finally, there’s the Jack Adams Award, another one the writers don’t vote on. A week back I tweeted this:

In retrospect, I probably oversold Colliton (good goaltending can take a team a long way), and undersold Brind’Amour (the Canes have had a weird, COVID-tinged season and persevered through it all), but the sentiment mostly remains the same. There’s at least a half-dozen guys in the mix, with no one all that clearly in the driver’s seat.

For my own purposes, I’ll note that when it comes down to actual voting time, I’ll be cracking into more video from around the league. There’s no doubt the Canadian Division has sucked up the bulk of digital ink around these parts, and so I’ll be making an effort to ensure I’ve seen every player enough times to be confident in my decision-making.

Let us know in the comments below who you think deserves more love for these awards, and enjoy the season’s second half!

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