It’s hard to believe we’re already at the midway point of the NHL season. Past all the early hot starts or cold streaks, we’re getting an idea of which teams and players are truly excelling, disappointing or putting together something special.
That’s where our attention turns today. Four staff writers Ryan Dixon, Sonny Sachdeva, Mike Johnston and Emily Sadler have picked out who they think are the front-runners for five major awards so far. There’s still lots of hockey to be played, of course, but these players have already started to separate from the rest of the pack.
Ryan Dixon: Connor McDavid
McDavid stands a decent chance to become just the sixth player in league history to record 150 points in a season and the first since Mario Lemieux had 161 nearly 30 years ago. McDavid also stands a reasonable shot at becoming the 13th player in league history to notch at least 65 goals and first since Alex Ovechkin in 2007-08. McDavid is your MVP at the half and it is not close.
Sonny Sachdeva: Connor McDavid
If we’re talking about the player whose team would flounder without them, maybe it’s Jason Robertson or Kirill Kaprizov who should be first in line for the Hart. But it just seems impossible to look past what McDavid is doing right now. In just half a season, the game’s perennial scoring leader is already only a handful away from his best goal-scoring campaigns, and just 10 tallies away from his personal best total. After putting up a career-high 44 goals and 123 points last year, No. 97’s leading all NHLers with 35 goals and 79 points through just 43 games, putting him on pace for an absurd 66 goals and 150 points by the end of 2022-23.
The last time anyone topped 150 points, or even got close to it? Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, way back in ’96. Wild scoring paces are no stranger of early-season assessments, but this isn’t a hot streak in October or November. This is half the season in the bag, and if there’s anyone in the league who could put up numbers of another era, it’s McDavid. He’s already the best in the game, and somehow, he’s pushing his ceiling even higher. Sounds valuable.
Mike Johnston: Connor McDavid
It’s McDavid regardless of where the Oilers sit in the standings. Even if Edmonton were to miss the playoffs, McDavid is so far ahead of the competition it’s gotta be him. The numbers he’s posting and the skill he displays on a nightly basis is pretty incredible – and he’s doing it all while wearing the socks of a cartoon vagabond.
Emily Sadler: Connor McDavid
It might be boring to take the obvious answer here for MVP of the first half of the season, but then again there’s nothing boring about McDavid’s game this year. The NHL’s leader in goals (35), assists (44) and points (79) through 43 games is averaging 1.84 points per game – his best since tallying 1.88 through the COVID-shortened 56-game campaign in 2020-21. He won the Hart that year – his second, after winning MVP in 2017, too – and it would surprise no one if he took home another this spring.
McDavid, who’s been held off the scoresheet just five times all year, is the biggest reason the Oilers are currently sitting in a wild card spot. There’s no better player in the league now, period.
Ryan Dixon: Linus Ullmark
If Linus Ullmark was playing more, the all-time single-season wins record of 48 would be in serious jeopardy. Martin Brodeur and Braden Holtby share the mark; Holtby started 66 the year he won 48 and Brodeur — wait for it — started 78. Ullmark has 22 wins in 25 starts this season, meaning he’s on pace for about 44 victories in 50 starts. Give him 10 more taps and the record would almost certainly be his. Whether you’re looking at traditional or advanced stats, he’s been the best goalie in the league thus far — just not the busiest.
Sonny Sachdeva: Linus Ullmark
We need only look back to last season to understand why Linus Ullmark’s leading the pack for the 2023 Vezina. Rewind to last June, and it was Igor Shesterkin getting the near-unanimous vote as the top netminder of the season, due in no small part to his absurdly high .935 save percentage. The mark made Shesterkin just the third goaltender in NHL history to reach that .935 benchmark, alongside Tim Thomas and Dominik Hasek. There’s still plenty of games to be played, but halfway through 2022-23, Ullmark’s angling to join that elite class, the 29-year-old sitting with a .938 so far, while leading the pack in wins (22) and goals-against average (1.87), too. It’ll come down to more than just these surface-level stats, and there’s no doubt Ullmark’s getting help in the form of a dominant team in front of him, but if he continues on the path he’s charted so far, it’s tough to see anyone else claiming this throne.
Mike Johnston: Linus Ullmark
This one should be unanimous. He’s 22-1-1 with the best GAA and save percentage in the NHL. My only question is how wild was Ullmark’s Halloween? The 29-year-old has allowed three goals or less in all but one of his appearances. On Nov. 1 he allowed five in a 6-5 overtime win in Pittsburgh. I want to know how much candy Linus ate the night before that anomalous outing.
Emily Sadler: Linus Ullmark
Filed under “did not see this coming” is Linus Ullmark’s remarkable start to the 2022-23 season. With his 22-1-1 record this year and league-leading 1.87 goals against average, Ullmark is setting an incredibly high standard among his Vezina-worthy peers through the first half of the season and has the Bruins atop the league. Maybe he should be in the MVP conversation, too, considering how vital he’s been to the Bruins’ success. Ullmark, now in his second season with Boston after a tough six-year assignment in Buffalo, leads all goalies in wins, GAA and save percentage (.938) and has only once let in more than three goals (a five-goal outing – and still, a win! – against Pittsburgh on Nov. 1). He suffered his first regulation loss on Nov. 5 and hasn’t put up another since.
It’s worth noting, of course, that Ullmark and the Bruins are dealing with a special situation in net considering backup Jeremy Swayman has proven himself to be worthy of a heavy workload, too. And should they start giving out awards for Goalie Hugs, they’ve got this one wrapped up.
Ryan Dixon: Erik Karlsson
It’s not just the numbers; narrative matters! The ship had sailed on Erik Karlsson being one of the most dynamic offensive forces from the back end in the league. Or so we thought. Finally healthy, Karlsson projects to be the first defenceman to hit the 100-point mark since Brian Leetch in 1991-92. If he does so, he’ll become just the sixth rearguard in league history to hit the century mark in a season — and almost certainly become the ninth defenceman ever to win three Norris Trophies.
Sonny Sachdeva: Erik Karlsson
Nine months ago, when the majority of the hockey world still thought he was washed up and too injury-prone to be what he once was, Erik Karlsson told us he still believed he had greatness in him. Fast-forward to the here and now, and No. 65’s made good on that bet, rediscovering his vintage form. Through 43 games, the two-time Norris Trophy winner has already amassed 56 points, more than he’s totalled in any of his previous seasons in San Jose. In fact, as dominant a scorer as he was in his prime, he’s never put up points at the pace he is right now, a pace that would have him top 100 points if he can stay healthy for the full campaign.
But it’s less about how Karlsson’s production compares to himself and more about where he’s at in comparison to the rest of the league. The 32-year-old’s not only leading all NHL blue-liners in scoring, by a hefty margin, he’s also the seventh-highest scorer in the league, bar none, with just a couple fewer points than David Pastrnak, Jason Robertson and Tage Thompson. Most impressive, though? Strip away the noise and boil it down to even-strength production, and Karlsson’s the league’s best right now, his 41 points sitting just above Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid at 38. It would be an impressive campaign for any NHL defender, but it’s even greater for the future Hall of Famer, who’d been all but written off over the past couple years.
Mike Johnston: Rasmus Dahlin
I’m all in on Dahlin. No, the Sabres star doesn’t quite have the numbers Erik Karlsson has posted, but he is chipping in at better than a point-per-game pace and leads all blueliners in special teams production quarterbacking the league’s second-best power play unit. A telling stat which helps illustrate the improvement both Dahlin and the Sabres have made is the fact he was a combined negative-58 the past two seasons and ranks top-20 so far this season at plus-17. His possession metrics have been quality although his relative dearth of defensive zone starts could hurt his case when it comes to voting.
Emily Sadler: Josh Morrissey
Erik Karlsson looks like Erik Karlsson again, and Rasmus Dahlin is looking pretty Karlsson-like, too, as he enjoys a breakout season in Buffalo. Both Swedes are more than fit to lead the conversation for best defenceman, and yet it’s tough not to notice that Josh Morrissey is having a very Norrissey season over in Winnipeg. The 27-year-old, fresh off his first All-Star nod, has thrived under new head coach Rick Bowness. Offensively, he’s seizing every opportunity to drive the play from the blue line and has already blown away last season’s career-bests in assists and points in just half as many games. His 46 points have him tied with Dahlin for second most among defenders league-wide and third among his Jets teammates.
While it’d take some convincing to give him the trophy today, the path is there for Morrissey to not just be in the Norris conversation by year’s end but to be leading it.
JACK ADAMS AWARD
Ryan Dixon: Jim Montgomery
We said it with respect to Karlsson and we say it more sincerely here: narrative matters. Jim Montgomery took back control of his life after alcoholism cost him his job more than three years ago with the Dallas Stars. He’s an example of fighting to get back on your feet and, of course, excellent coaching, pushing all the right buttons on a team that played an extended stretch to start the year without linchpins Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy.
Sonny Sachdeva: Jim Montgomery
The Jack Adams race is always an odd one. But while the coach-of-the-year nod tends to go to the bench boss who took a basement-dwelling squad and turned them into something legitimate, this season’s could have a different feel. In Jim Montgomery, we have a coach leading a Boston Bruins squad that hasn’t been anywhere near the basement in ages, one that’s already proven to be elite. Still, there were obstacles that required navigating. Tops among those was Montgomery having to come in as a somewhat surprising replacement for Bruce Cassidy, a respected coach in his own right, to lead a club that’s been among the best in the East for a half-decade, with the aim of somehow pushing them to an even higher level. Add in early-season injuries to two of the team’s most important leaders, Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy, and there was plenty of opportunity for 2022-23 to go sideways early.
And yet, Montgomery has the team head and shoulders above the rest of the league. Halfway through the year, Boston’s sitting in first with a 32-4-4 record. They’ve got a league-best plus-68 goal differential. They’ve yet to lose two games in a row, all year. All signs point to a Presidents’ Trophy finish, and given all the tinkering Montgomery’s done, and continues to do, to keep his team firing on all cylinders, a Jack Adams seems to be in his future, too.
Mike Johnston: Jim Montgomery
Plenty of eyebrows were raised when the team parted ways with Bruce Cassidy after Cassidy coached the team to a 51-win season, but a quick look at the standings this year and there’s no way you can say Boston made a mistake. Montgomery’s Bruins have the league’s best record by a wide margin.
Emily Sadler: Sheldon Keefe
There is no shortage of worthy candidates for coach of the (half) year this season – you need only look at the latest spin of the coaching carousel to see it: Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery has Boston back atop the league in his first season with the club while former Bruin Bruce Cassidy has found instant success in his new digs in Vegas. Last year’s Golden Knights bench boss, meanwhile, has this year’s Dallas Stars pacing all Western Conference clubs while the man he replaced, Rick Bowness, has a revitalized Winnipeg Jets team hot on their tails.
All are worthy of a Jack Adams nod, but let’s look at a coach who’s navigated not the carousel, per se, but the rollercoaster that has been the 2022-23 campaign so far – and still has his team pacing most others. Sheldon Keefe, now in his fourth season at the helm of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has his team sitting second in the Atlantic Division and the league overall despite losing the second-most man-games due to injuries and health protocols. He’s already done a full season’s worth of lineup-juggling (particularly on the blue line) amid injuries to big names and unlike many of his coaching peers near the top of the standings has also had to navigate a rotating cast in the crease on a near-nightly basis.
Ryan Dixon: Matty Beniers
If we conducted the poll at Christmas, I’d likely say it’s Logan Thompson for all he’s done in the Vegas crease. But Matty Beniers struck back, closing the first half strong with five goals and nine points in his most recent five outings. Any freshman on a 30-goal pace at mid-season is doing something special and to top it off, Beniers is the go-to offensive centre on a club poised to challenge for a playoff spot. Congrats, Seattle; you found a good one.
Sonny Sachdeva: Matty Beniers
This one doesn’t seem to be all that close. Last year, the 2022 Calder race seemed wide open, with elder rookie scoring leader Michael Bunting, creative king Trevor Zegras, and Red Wings studs Mo Seider and Lucas Raymond all firmly in the mix. This year, the award seems to be Matty Beniers’ to lose. It’s not just that the 2021 No. 2 pick is pacing all rookies in scoring this year — with 16 goals and 34 points through 40 games so far — it’s the impact he’s had on the Seattle Kraken as a whole. After finishing the 2021-22 campaign down and out as the third-worst club in the league, the Kraken have started 2022-23 as a team reinvented.
With the year halfway through, they’re sitting third in their division, and among the league’s top 10 overall. Off-season additions and some better injury luck have contributed to that rise, surely, but there’s no question Beniers and his immediate breakout have been at the centre of the ascent. He’ll still have some competition, most notably from netminder Logan Thompson — who’s stepped seamlessly into the Vegas Golden Knights No. 1 job — but if he keeps producing, and Seattle holds steady in the standings, 2023 seems like Beniers’ year.
Mike Johnston: Logan Thompson
He’s not the frontrunner for this award and has cooled off from a red-hot 11-3-0 start to the season but it’s tough not to be impressed with what Logan Thompson has done with the Golden Knights. The biggest off-season concern for Vegas was the question mark between the pipes and Thompson, along with Adin Hill, has helped lead his team to first place in the Pacific more than halfway through the regular season and was named to the All-Star Game. If the win percentage stays the same and he can bump his save percentage (.914) up above .920 and see his GAA (2.66) dip below 2.50 he should be a finalist.
Emily Sadler: Matty Beniers
Is he maybe a 33-year-old man disguised as a 20-year-old rookie NHLer? The jury’s still out. But what we can say with total certainty is that the Seattle Kraken’s first-ever draft pick has been a slam-dunk success since starting his first NHL season this past fall. Matty Beniers, selected second overall in 2021, has fit in seamlessly since making the jump to the NHL this season, leading all rookies league-wide in goals (16) and points (34).
He’s a major part of why the Kraken are off to such a strong start, too, his speed and size making him the ideal top-line centreman on a team that’s currently putting on a masterclass in depth. We knew the Kraken would need to make a jump in development after last year’s uninspiring debut, but to see how well they’ve gelled in Year Two – and how strong a leader their top rookie is in the process – is one of the best stories going this season.