Friday, November 23, 2018

NHL Award Winners at the 1/4 Pole

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If American Thanksgiving, which often signals the end of the first quarter of the campaign, is considered one of the most telling points of the season, it stands to reason that 20-plus games into the season is also a great time to gauge the field for the league’s top awards.
Of course, that there’s still so much season ahead of us means the award races can be ever-changing. Injuries, especially at this point in the season, can significantly alter the field for any of the below-listed awards. Likewise, players catching fire at certain points of the season can shift the standings in the run up to the handing out of the end-of-year hardware. But we can’t predict the future, thus we can only assess the contenders for the top trophies — the Hart, Vezina, Norris and Calder — based on what we’ve seen through the first quarter of the season.
Here are the top-five contenders for the major awards, as well as a few honorable mentions:
1. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
There’s a strong correlation between league scoring leaders and the Hart, which automatically vaults Mackinnon into the conversation. He’s tied for second in the NHL with 31 points and tied for fourth with 14 goals. What puts him over the top, though, is that he’s centering the best line in hockey right now and skating big minutes. His average ice time — 22:14 per game — is fourth-most among all forwards in the NHL. After finishing second in voting last season, MacKinnon is right back in the hunt, and he checks all the boxes as a top candidate.
2. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
At the risk of opening up the whole playoffs-and-the-Hart can of worms all over again, McDavid has to be at or near the top of consideration as league MVP at this point in the campaign. Yes, the Oilers aren’t quite in a wild-card spot and coach Todd McLellan was just let go and replaced by Ken Hitchcock. But nothing going on around Edmonton has slowed McDavid, who ranks third in ice time among forwards, second in points and is tied for eighth in goals. McDavid is going to flirt with a third Art Ross, and if the Oilers so much as sneak into the playoffs, he’ll vault to the top of the list.
3. Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs
As colleague Ken Campbell wrote during the pre-season, the Maple Leafs might have a Mitch Marner problem on their hands. The price tag for the skillful winger keeps going up, and his six-goal, 28-point performance — a rate of scoring that has him on pace for a 100-point season — stands to put Marner in the eight-digit salary range. He has been the biggest offensive driver in Toronto this season, and Marner, more than anyone, has helped make John Tavares’ transition to the Maple Leafs seamless.
4. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning
Nikita Kucherov has the points lead in Tampa Bay, but only a single point separates he and Point. What sets Point apart from Kucherov, and maybe from all others on this list, is his remarkable defensive acumen. Point is a complete player who can be a difference maker by shutting down the opposition’s top line or by filling the net. His 14 goals put him in the early conversation for the Rocket Richard, and he could hang around in the Art Ross discussion well into the season.
5. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche
A top-five look at the Hart wouldn’t be complete without the league scoring leader. How good has Rantanen been this season? Well, how’s this: he’s only four points shy of surpassing his rookie season point total, which was 38 points back in 2016-17, and with three quarters of the campaign remaining, Rantanen’s 34 points are creeping up on half of his 84-point total across 81 games last season. He’s been exceptional, the perfect playmaker to fit with MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. As long as he stays atop the Art Ross race, he’s going to be front-and-center in Hart discussions.
Honorable Mentions: Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres; David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins; Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets; Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames; Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes
1. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
Not since Martin Brodeur in 2006-07 and 2007-08 has a goalie won consecutive Vezinas. That could all change this season, though, as the Predators seem destined to finish at or near the top of the league standings with Rinne leading the way. Last season, Rinne won the award with 42 wins, a .927 save percentage and 2.31 goals-against average. This season, he’s on pace to win 34 games and he boasts a league-best .944 SP and 1.64 GAA through 13 appearances. His goals-saved above average — an advanced stat that measures how many pucks a goaltender has stopped that a merely league-average netminder wouldn’t have — is 13.4, the second-best in the NHL.
2. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs
Speaking of GSAA, it wouldn’t be right to leave the league leader off of this list. Andersen has been excellent for the Maple Leafs, whose greatest flaw has and continues to be their defending. He ranks second in the NHL with a .935 SP and fifth with a 2.13 GAA. And while it’s not a true tell of how well a goaltender is performing, Andersen is going to get an influx of Vezina support if he continues to win at his current rate. His 12 wins are tops in the league and put him on pace for a 45-win season. That alone might be enough to sway voters who value wins over everything.
3. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins
Just as we all expected heading into the season, Halak has come to the Bruins and made his case to steal the No. 1 job away from Tuukka Rask. What’s that? Oh, right, no one could have predicted this. Yet, here we are, with Halak among the league leaders in all the major goaltending categories. His .935 SP is second in the NHL, 2.07 GAA ranks third, he has won seven games and Halak has two shutouts (one more than he managed in 54 games with the Islanders last season) in 12 starts and 13 appearances. He’s the biggest surprise in the blue paint this season.
4. Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche
Despite having the best line in hockey, it could be argued that the Avalanche still possess far too many shortcomings to be a true contender. Whatever those issues are, though, be it poor possession or defensive breakdowns, Varlamov has been able to mask them and help Colorado into contention for a divisional playoff spot in the Western Conference. The veteran keeper has a .925 SP, 2.37 GAA and is most impressive in terms of GSAA. His mark of 7.4 ranks seventh among all netminders.
5. John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks keeper would be — and maybe should be — higher up the list. What has hamstrung his candidacy, though, is Anaheim’s poor play. The Ducks have been awful in front of their all-world keeper, who has willed Anaheim to victories with his .927 SP through 18 games. His .500 record is going to keep him in the race, but if he slips under the weight of his workload, Gibson stands to fall out of the race entirely.
Honorable Mention: Antti Raanta, Arizona Coyotes; Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning; Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild; David Rittich, Calgary Flames; Carter Hutton, Buffalo Sabres
1. Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames
Giordano feels as though he’s the most perennially underrated defenseman in the NHL. In each of the past five seasons, he’s earned at least some Norris recognition, a vote here or there, but he hasn’t finished in the top five in voting once. That could change this year. Giordano has been the same, consistent presence on the Calgary blueline as always, a go-to defender who drives play and can hang with any level of competition, but what he’s added this season that could vault him into the Norris conversation is offense. He hasn’t cracked 40 points in either of the past two seasons, but his 20 points in 22 games this campaign put him on pace to clear the 70-point plateau. More likely is he ends up in the 60-point range, but that should still be enough to get him the credit he deserves.
2. Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs
It’s not a debate anymore. Offense matters when it comes to Norris voting, and Rielly’s league-best 26 points by a defender is going to see him right in the thick of things for the best defenseman award if he keeps this up. To put Rielly’s scoring into context, too, he is on pace to finish the year with 97 points. If he manages to even hit the 90-point plateau, they may as well just hand him the award. No defenseman since Ray Bourque in 1993-94 has put up 90 points in a campaign.
3. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
Ahead of the year, it would have been no surprise to see both Burns and Erik Karlsson on this list, but the difference between the two defenders is that points are going on the board for the former while the latter hasn’t quite hit his scoring stride. With three goals and 23 points, Burns is primed to score his way into Norris contention once again, and his impressive underlying numbers certainly don’t hurt his candidacy. He ranks 13th among all defensemen in on-ice possession rate, though he does start nearly 70 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone.
4. P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators
Sure, Subban has been sidelined for a short while, but that shouldn’t count against him. Offensively, he’s been the same Subban that one would expect, scoring two goals and 12 points in 18 games. But it’s the defensive aspects of Subban’s game that really stand to put him above a great number of his blueline compatriots. He has been a monster when it comes to driving play, scoring chances and swinging the scoreboard in Nashville’s favor. And he doesn’t benefit from a heavy slant of offensive zone play. Subban’s about equal in offensive and defensive zone starts.
5. Tyson Barrie, Colorado Avalanche
If the best thing defenders can do is keep the puck out of their own net while putting points on the board, then Barrie fits the bill. Of all defensemen in the NHL, Barrie ranks second in 5-on-5 goals for percentage. He has been on ice for 21 goals for and a mere nine against. The only defenseman with a better rate is Nashville’s Yannick Weber, but he’s played 100 fewer minutes than Barrie. Helping Barrie’s case, too, is that he is tied for sixth among defensemen with 19 points.
Honorable Mention: Jeff Petry, Montreal Canadiens; Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning; Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild; Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators; John Carlson, Washington Capitals
1. Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
This doesn’t really need much explaining beyond a simple look at his totals. He’s five clear of the next-best rookie with 12 goals. Pettersson’s 19 points put him six ahead of the second-place freshman. And no rookie forward is even closer to Pettersson when it comes to average ice time. He’s been better than advertised and an absolute star thus far for the Canucks.
2. Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators
Missing significant time isn’t going to help Tkachuk’s case, but the fact that he’s been the only rookie with near the per-game offensive impact of Pettersson likely means these two are due to battle it out come the final tally. Pettersson has a significant edge, but Tkachuk has six goals and 10 points in 11 games. That puts him on pace for a 30-goal, 60-point rookie season.
3. Henri Jokiharju, Chicago Blackhawks
If we’re weighting several aspects of the game — offense, defense, scoring and time on ice — Jokiharju has to be the standout rookie blueliner. Has he benefitted from spending a lot of ice time alongside Duncan Keith? Absolutely, but that doesn’t make his 21:10 average any less impressive, nor should it cause us to overlook his 10 points, which are tied for the sixth-most among rookies. He was thrust into the role early in the season, but he’s acquitted himself well.
4. Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
What Heiskanen lacks in offensive numbers — he has two goals and eight points — he more than makes up for in reliability and it’s become abundantly clear that he’s among the best young defenders in the game. His skill appears near limitless. The difficulty for Heiskanen is going to be making up ground in the scoring race, and the offensive numbers will likely make or break his candidacy, as we saw last season with Charlie McAvoy.
5. Brett Howden, New York Rangers
Howden surprised by making the Rangers out of camp and he’s been earning his minutes in New York. Not only is he producing, scoring four goals and 12 points in 21 games, but he’s gaining the trust of the coaching staff thanks to his consistency in the faceoff circle and attention to detail. He’ll need a hot streak to get into contention, though, especially with Pettersson and Tkachuk looking as though they could continue to pull away from the pack.
Honorable Mention: Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes; Dennis Cholowski, Detroit Red Wings; Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres; Drake Batherson, Ottawa Senators; Oskar Lindblom, Philadelphia Flyers
(Jared Clinton/The Hockey News)

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