NHL awards race: John Gibson’s case for the Vezina and the Hart

The NHL has reached the midpoint of the season, which means we are at that delightful juncture where awards-race narratives start being cemented and we all pray that the front-runners stay healthy. Or at least that’s the case for Elias Pettersson.

Here are my picks for the NHL awards as 2019 begins. Again, this is how I expect the voters would consider the current candidates, as well as a look at their merits. Keep in mind that the Professional Hockey Writers Association votes for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Lady Byng; broadcasters vote for the Jack Adams; and general managers handle the Vezina. All advanced stats are via Corsica and Natural Stat Trick.

Art Ross Trophy (points leader)

Current leader: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning (69 points)
Watch out for: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (61 points)
Dark-horse candidate: Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames (62 points)

Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leader: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (30 goals)
Watch out for: John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (27 goals)
Dark-horse candidate: David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins (25 goals)

Hart Trophy (most valuable player)

Leader: John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks
Finalists: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins; Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

Now that we’ve passed Jan. 1, the “Gotta be in it to win it” rule is triggered for the Hart Trophy field, which of course is bad news for Connor McDavid … again. Through 40 games, McDavid has factored into 53.5 percent of the goals the Oilers have scored this season, which is just a preposterous amount of heavy lifting for one player. But the Oilers aren’t in a playoff spot and are in the midst of a frustrating swoon under GM Peter Chiarelli’s employment-status Hail Mary of hiring coach Ken Hitchcock. And if Edmonton doesn’t make the playoffs, McDavid doesn’t have my MVP vote; and he didn’t have the vote from much of the rest of the PHWA last season, finishing fifth.

(A refresher on “Gotta be in it to win it” dogma: The Hart is one of two individual awards that reference “team” in their criteria. Though the Hart isn’t totally beholden to wins and losses, it does include consideration of the candidate’s team and what value his performance holds within the context of that team. How one defines value is the real catch here: To me, value is making the playoffs, or at least coming within a point or two of doing so. If McDavid and the Oilers fall just short at the wire, I’d reconsider his candidacy. But for now, the focus is on players who have led a charge into a playoff spot.)

Now that we’ve dispensed with who isn’t in the top three, let’s focus on the leader. Carey Price in 2015 was the last goalie to win the Hart, and before him, the last goalie to win it was Jose Theodore in 2002. So it doesn’t happen often, and it takes some spectacular circumstances for a goalie to break through. Like, for example, the circumstances of a goalie with a .923 save percentage, a 2.64 goals-against, a goals saved above average of 16.13 and a “quality start” in .629 of his 35 starts.

Gibson is the reason the Ducks are in a wild-card spot through 43 games. Their offense is pathetic: 101 goals, second worst in the NHL. They’re the fourth-worst possession team in the league (46.5 Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5). According to Hockey Reference’s goalie point shares, Gibson has contributed 8.1 points to his team’s total thanks to his play in goal, and no other goalie has contributed more than seven. I know there’s an allergy toward giving this award to goalies, but no player has done more for a playoff team this season.

MacKinnon (63 points) is now within two points of Mikko Rantanen (65) and is the heart of that line. Crosby had been great all season for the Penguins, but he has shifted into another gear during their resurgence: 17 points during their recent 9-1-0 streak. And, of course, one stick gifted to a heckler.

Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Leader: Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames
Finalists: Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins; Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

Our leader for the last couple of cycles was Ryan McDonagh of the Tampa Bay Lightning. McDonagh has had a fine season, but he’s had a discernible downtick at 5-on-5, where he’s now on the negative side of shot attempts (minus-8 through 42 games).

Our new leader is Giordano, chasing his first Norris Trophy after injuries undermined previous campaigns in which he might have captured one. He’s third in the NHL in points for defensemen (39 in 41 games) and has been generally outstanding for the Flames against tough competition, including a plus-13 goal differential. He has played in every situation and is averaging 24:45 per game. He’s just a rock back there, and he’s deserving of some accolades for his performance.

Letang had a few valleys earlier this season, but his peaks have been towering: 36 points in 39 games, an 8.56 percent Corsi relative to his teammates, a 65.22 goals-for percentage at 5-on-5 and 1.04 primary points per 60 minutes. The Penguins have a .935 save percentage at 5-on-5 when he’s on the ice. And he passes the eye test, too.

Some of Rielly’s underlying defensive numbers could be better, but his offensive numbers are exceptional enough to warrant a spot here: for example, 2.12 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 to lead all NHL defensemen with at least 700 minutes played. His 45 points are second to Brent Burns for the NHL lead among defensemen.

One name to watch: Erik Karlsson, who has been Erik Karlsson again for the last two months after a slow adjustment to San Jose. The question is whether that first impression was emphatic enough for voters to lack appreciation for how good he’s been.

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Leader: Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators
Finalists: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins; Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues

As we mentioned in the last Awards Watch, the last time a non-center won the Selke was in 2003, when Jere Lehtinen captured it for the third time. But Stone, a right wing who finished sixth for the Selke in 2017, has the lead for the award through three months. He has an astounding 14.14 percent Corsi relative to his Senators teammates and a plus-12 goal differential at 5-on-5. His team gets 57.14 percent of the high-danger shot attempts when he’s on the ice. He leads the NHL with 70 takeaways as well. He’s just a terrific defensive player and far past due for this honor.

Speaking of past due for an honor, Crosby’s been in the conversation for “player you most want on the ice in a key defensive situation” for years. This season, he’s winning 56 percent of his faceoffs, he has an 8.62 Corsi relative to his teammates and he owns 56.1 percent of the high-danger shot attempts at 5-on-5. No, he doesn’t kill penalties; neither did Pavel Datsyuk during a few of his Selke years, either.

The third player up for the Selke right now is O’Reilly, who has excelled in what has otherwise been a stomach punch of a season for the Blues. He’s winning faceoffs at a 59 percent clip, he has a 4.94 percent Corsi relative to his teammates, he has a plus-10 goal differential and he plays against tough competition. Great all-around campaign for O’Reilly in a lost season for the Blues.

Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

Leader: John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks
Finalists: Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs; Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars

As mentioned earlier, Gibson’s having a remarkable season on an unremarkable team, and he has been the best goalie in the NHL through 37 appearances. Andersen’s right there with him through 30 appearances, with a .923 save percentage, a 2.50 goals-against average, an outstanding .700 quality starts percentage and a 14.29 goals saved above average.

It’s a bit of a scramble for that last spot. Andrei Vasilevskiy would be in the mix, but he has played only 22 games. Pekka Rinne has a .919 save percentage and Marc-Andre Fleury has six shutouts, but we’re giving the nod to Bishop here. He has a .923 save percentage, a .600 quality starts percentage and a 11.45 goals save above replacement in 26 games.

Calder Trophy (top rookie)

Leader: Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
Finalists: Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres; Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars

Barring a major injury — and Pettersson gave us a scare this week — this race is over. The Canucks star has 42 points in 38 games, and that’s 17 points clear of the next-highest scorer (Colin White of Ottawa). Pettersson has 22 goals, and most of them have been of the highlight-reel variety. Props to rookie defensemen Dahlin and Heiskanen, who have put up points and played vital roles for their teams this season. This is like having a pair of excellent artists happen to drop their first albums in the same year that Adele was eligible for best new artist.

Jack Adams Award (best coach)

Leader: Barry Trotz, New York Islanders
Finalists: Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning; Bill Peters, Calgary Flames

No change at the top from last month here, as Trotz continues to orchestrate the most unlikely playoff push in the NHL this season, which is saying something when Buffalo is sitting in a wild-card spot (for the moment). ESPN’s Dimitri Filipovic recently encapsulated how much Trotz and his staff have turned the Islanders around after last season with Doug Weight at the helm:

When you combine tangible results with the undeniable narrative of Trotz leaving Washington after a Stanley Cup win to take over an Islanders team that had been rejected by its franchise player via free agency, he’s a heck of a candidate.

The Sabres’ recent swoon and tenuous grasp on a wild-card spot knock Phil Housley off this list in favor of Cooper, who has coached the Lightning to 10 points better than any other team in the league. Ironically, he might suffer the same issue the coach of the team chasing him, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mike Babcock, suffered as Detroit Red Wings coach: When you have the deepest team in the league, anchored by several star players, it’s hard to earn coach-of-the-year accolades.

Peters has a much clearer case, elevating a good-but-not-great Flames team to the division lead and third in the NHL through 43 games. But as long as the Islanders make the playoffs, it’s Trotz in a walk.

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