The NHL Awards are months ago, but luckily for us all, speculation is timeless.
I talked about this with Dawn on the pod this past week, but I’m not usually the one that goes with the popular or obvious choice when it comes to awards. Mostly because I feel like I have a different expectation from a lot of these awards and what it *should* take to win each one. This year, I’m feeling differently. In a year that’s thrown every unexpected trick in the book at the league and its players, I find myself making the expected picks.
So here are my, unfortunately boring, mid-season award picks.
Leader: Connor McDavid | In the running: Leon Draisaitl, Patrick Kane, Mitch Marner | Dark horse: Nick Backstrom
The question you have to ask yourself when debating any potential winner of this award is the following: Is this player more valuable than McDavid?
Last year, only two players qualified in the “Yes” column of that question, Artemi Panarin and Connor Hellebuyck. Neither ended up winning the award, but that’s the bar players need to qualify. This year, no player has been better/more valuable than McDavid. Even teammates Leon Draisaitl, the reigning MVP who has vastly improved his all-around game this season, can’t carry the Oilers like McDavid does.
If Chicago continues to win games (more of a product of the division they play in than their actual play), Kane might have a case. Backstrom has been Washington’s best player this season, and has been a popular dark horse choice for contrarians. In a weaker year, he might have a better chance. Alas, McDavid’s reign as perpetual MVP front-runner is just starting. May his reign long drag on.
Leader: Victor Hedman | In the running: Jeff Petry, Quinn Hughes| Dark horse: Adam Pelech/Ryan Pulock
Basically just take everything I wrote about McDavid and apply it to Hedman for the Norris. He’s been the best defender in the league this season, and not even Jeff Petry’s rise can contest that. In 27 games, Hedman has 26 points while averaging 25:30 minutes a night for the defending champs. I just struggle to find a reason to give the award to Petry over Hedman when the simple question of “Who do you want defending on your team” reveals the answer.
Quinn Hughes has been a monster offensively, but defensively he still struggles to find his footing. The Canucks aren’t helping him much, but a Norris-level defender is capable of single-handedly offsetting that damage. Hughes just isn’t there yet, but his elite scoring ability still puts him in the conversation.
On Twitter, the idea of a Best Defensive Pairing in the image of the Jennings was floated, and I like that idea a lot. Especially because the Pelech/Pulock pairing for the Islanders has been so effective this season. They have a 23-14 GF vs GA so far this season, and their combined defensive work has been pretty fun to watch all season. Neither put up that many points, but in terms of defensive play, few this year have matched their efficiency.
Leader: Semyon Varlamov | In the running: Marc-Andre Fleury, John Gibson, Andrei Vasilevskiy | Dark horse: Philipp Grubauer
The saying “behind every great team is a better goalie” is especially true for Varlamov and the Islanders. As of writing this, the team from Long Island is riding a 9-game win streak, largely thanks to their Russian goalie. He’s 13-3-4 in 20 games, with a 2.03 GAA and 0.929 SV%, fourth and third in the league respectively.
Do I think Varlamov is better than Gibson, Vasilevskiy or even Hellebuyck? No. But this season he’s been the most valuable goaltender to his team. I’ve heard that he’s a product of the Trotz system, but remember that the system relies on solid goaltending to succeed.
That being said, this is probably the pick I’m the least passionate about. I could be swayed to support Vasilevskiy or Gibson with relative ease, but so far in the season, Varlamov has been the goalie to watch.
Leader: Aleksander Barkov | In the running: Marcus Foligno, Auston Matthews| Dark horse: Joel Eriksson-Ek
I think the Selke is kinda dumb, but [again] ask yourself, is there a defensive-forward better than Aleksander Barkov in the league? The obvious answer is no. Barkov continues to be one of the best play-drivers in the league with a ridiculous 66% xGR due to his play on both ends of the ice.
As the most underrated player in the league for about four years running, it’s no surprise Barkov is the popular choice here. It’s a choice that’s well deserved since the Florida Panthers sit in first place in the league for the first time in maybe forever? A lot of that has to do with Barkov being able to produce offensively while winning faceoffs, penalty-killing and driving play.
Marcus Foligno is one of the most underrated pure defensive forwards in the league, and I think he’s deserved more recognition for a while now so call it an emotional pick. If I didn’t include Matthews, I think Leafs fans would draw and quarter me. It’s true that the current Rocket Richard leader has been a well-oiled machine defensively and rightfully deserves some buzz for that. Joel Eriksson-Ek is the new Phillip Danault pick and has been good, but isn’t on the same level as a Barkov, Bergeron or even vintage Danault.
Leader: Kirril Kaprizov | In the running: Ty Smith, Kevin Lankinen | Dark horse: Tim Stützle
Don’t check my Twitter if you’re looking for any Kaprizov slander, because you won’t find any. In a league of rigid systems, Kaprizov is a rare outlier. A player capable of dazzling every shift, who plays with a tangible passion and joy that’s infectious, even through the screen. His skating, shooting, vision and puck control is miles ahead of any other rookie, likely thanks to his time in the KHL. More impressive than the numbers and skill? Making the Minnesota Wild watchable. A rare accomplishment indeed.
Regardless, Kaprizov owns the Calder race until proven otherwise.
Other candidates include a brevy of goalies, but I’ll go with Kevin Lankinen even if the Wild’s Kaapo Kakhonen may pass him in a few weeks. Lankinen’s play is a large part of the reason the Blackhawks are even in a playoff spot, and will likely trick voters into thinking Jeremy Colliton is a genius coach when in reality he’ll good, but more beneficiary than vissionary.
As the season moves along, Stützle’s play has drastically picked up. He’s entering the same level of pure entertainment level as Kaprizov, without some of the same effectiveness. But still, the Senators are bad, but at least Stützle has been picking up steam. He’ll probably snag a nomination by year’s end.
Leader: Joel Quenneville | In the running: Sheldon Keefe, Rod Brind’Amour| Dark horse: Jeremy Colliton
The Florida Panthers are in first place. ‘Nuff said. Quenneville has been as advertised in his second season as the Panthers head coach, and should earn a Jack Adams nod.
It takes a good coach to make talent play well, and Keefe has done that extremely well. He’s also gotten the most out of depth pieces Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza and Justin Holl. The reason he won’t will is, well, because they have Auston freakin’ Matthews and Mitch Marner, and if you just have to worry about coaching the bottom-6 of your team you’ll probably do okay.
The Hurricanes have been a joy to watch for a few seasons now and that’s because of Brind’Amour. His style of play has fit into the Jerk-squad perfectly. Also, he’s ripped, and I’m scared what will happen if I don’t include him.
I told you Colliton would crack Jack Adams conversations.