NHL Awards Watch: Kucherov takes the lead for the Hart

NHL

The race for NHL most valuable player is remarkably contentious this season, as a half-dozen players have a legitimate claim to the Hart Trophy.

“I can’t lie, I’m struggling with this one. But I’m happy to be struggling because the Hart race is giving us more top-line entertainment than we’ve seen in years,” one voter said. “I also believe voters have a responsibility to struggle with these decisions and weigh every aspect.”

The struggle is real in the NHL Awards Watch for March, our monthly look at the awards races through the ballots of actual voters. Because some of these races are really, really close.

We’ve polled a wide selection of Professional Hockey Writers Association voters anonymously to get a sense of where the wind is blowing for the current leaders. We’ve made sure it’s a cross section of the league, trying to gain as many perspectives as possible.

Bear in mind that the PHWA votes for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Lady Byng finalists; broadcasters vote for the Jack Adams; and general managers handle the Vezina.

All stats are from Hockey-Reference.com, Natural Stat Trick and Evolving Hockey.

Jump ahead:
Ross | Richard | Hart
Norris | Selke | Vezina
Calder | Byng | Adams

Art Ross Trophy (points leader)

Current leader: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
Watch out for: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
In the mix: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers


Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leader: Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
Watch out for: Sam Reinhart, Florida Panthers
In the mix: Zach Hyman, Edmonton Oilers


Hart Trophy (MVP)

Leader: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
Finalists: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche; Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs

We’ve had close MVP votes in the past. This one is different. Most Hart races are two-player affairs. The debates around this one have involved no fewer than six players: Kucherov, MacKinnon, Matthews, Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid, Boston Bruins winger David Pastrnak and — if the voters fancy giving the most important position on the ice some love — Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck.

Four of those players received first-place votes from our panel of over two dozen PHWA members. Kucherov, MacKinnon and Matthews got the most support.

“It’s whoever you pull out of a hat between Nikita Kucherov, Auston Matthews and Nathan MacKinnon. There’s no real clear cut winner because they all make strong cases,” one voter concluded.

But it’s Kucherov who leads the Hart Trophy field as we enter the final weeks of the season, and that might be a bit of a surprise.

MacKinnon has earned the most attention around the league this season for MVP, both for his scoring streaks and the fact that he’s “due” for the award. He has never won the Hart Trophy, finishing second in the voting twice (2018, 2020) and third once (2021). Kucherov, Matthews and McDavid have all won the award previously.

As ESPN’s Doug Greenberg noted in his recent story on MVP betting, Matthews has been the leader in the sports wagering markets. ESPN Bet reported that in the past two weeks, 53% of all Hart Trophy wagers have been on Matthews.

And yet here is Kucherov, who won the 2018-19 Hart Trophy, barely edging MacKinnon to lead the pack: Kucherov received one more vote for MVP than did the Avalanche star, making the current margin as close as you can get.

The case for Kucherov has some time-honored Hart Trophy criteria:

  • He scored 105 points through 62 games, which led the NHL.

  • He’s 40 points clear of the next highest scorer on the Lightning, Brayden Point (65), which is a massive gap. For example, MacKinnon was 23 points ahead of Mikko Rantanen through 62 games.

  • He has a strong narrative argument. The Lightning missed Andrei Vasilevskiy from opening night through Nov. 23, and the goaltender wasn’t himself when he returned from surgery. It’s a top-heavy team that is holding on to a wild-card spot, and many of our voters believe they’re there only because of Kucherov. The same can’t be said about the MacKinnon Avalanche or the Matthews Leafs.

“I’m not certain the Lightning get in without him,” one voter said of Kucherov.

“The Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t holding down a playoff spot [however precariously] without Nikita Kucherov,” another said. “Not even close. Plus he’s on pace for 140 points, showing no signs of letting up.”

“Kucherov has factored on a ridiculous 50% of the Lightning’s goals this season. If not for him, Tampa Bay would have no shot of making the playoffs,” another voter said. “Of course, the Bolts have to make it in order for him to be considered.”

Added another voter: “Kucherov has been Tampa Bay’s constant in a season that’s been marked by inconsistency. We’re in March asking if they’re going to make the playoffs and if giving up as much as they score the new reality for the Lightning? It’s what makes his Hart case compelling.”

But again, that compelling case gave him only one more vote than MacKinnon, who led the Hart Trophy voting in NHL Awards Watch for two straight months — earning 80% of the first-place votes in February’s poll.

MacKinnon has 101 points in 62 games. His 29-game point streak at home was the longest for any player this season. He also had a 19-game point streak, didn’t score in a game, and immediately embarked on a 14-game point streak after that. Few players have been more tenacious and effective than Nate Dogg this season.

“It’s still Nathan MacKinnon for me. Leafs fans cry that Matthews has comparable metrics to MacKinnon and it’s not just about the goals, but they act like we can’t go to Natural Stat Trick and click ‘5-on-5,'” one voter quipped. “Matthews leads everyone with 5-on-5 goals, but MacKinnon is right after him before a considerable drop off. MacKinnon leads all skaters with even-strength points. He also leads the league in even-strength rush attempts, which is random in a vacuum, but is exactly what I love about his unique game and his impact.”

And remember: MacKinnon is “due” to win MVP this season.

“There’s an argument to be made for Nikita Kucherov and, perennially, for Connor McDavid, but the way MacKinnon drives the Avalanche is reminiscent of when he was a man possessed on their Stanley Cup run,” a voter explained. “He was so close in 2018 when Taylor Hall won it, and MacKinnon deserves it this time.”

The case for Matthews is a simple one: If the Maple Leafs star becomes the first NHL player to break the 70-goal mark since Teemu Selanne and Alex Mogilny both did it in 1992-93, who could deny him the Hart Trophy?

(Fun fact: Selanne didn’t receive a first-place vote, and Mogilny didn’t receive a single vote for the Hart that season, thanks to Mario Lemieux’s 160-point campaign.)

“MacKinnon has been my leading candidate since December, but Matthews has been carrying the Leafs on his back all season and they are now winning consistently. If he gets 70, he may get my first-place vote,” one voter said.

“Any time the Leafs reach a critical stage in a game, it feels like Matthews is either at the center or has played some sort of influential role,” another voter noted. “That’s too hard to ignore.”

The other player to receive a first-place vote for MVP from our panel wasn’t McDavid or Pastrnak. It was Hellebuyck.

The Hart Trophy hasn’t been kind to goalies. Since 2000, only two goaltenders have captured the Hart: Jose Theodore (2002) and Carey Price (2015), both also winning the Vezina. It’s like the Cy Young vs. the MVP in baseball: The “pitchers have their own award” argument has been made for decades. Obviously, hockey needs its own Shohei Ohtani to really complicate matters.

Hellebuyck has great numbers, both in traditional stats and in advanced analytics, where he’s the top netminder in goals saved above expected (19.8), according to Stathletes. When Price won the Hart, he led the league in wins, save percentage and goals-against average. Hellebuyck is in range to do the same this season. He also gets the majority of the credit for the Jets’ brilliant defensive season and surprising playoff push.

While McDavid was mentioned by several voters down the ballots, the 2022-23 Hart winter didn’t receive a first-place vote.

“Connor McDavid is creeping back up into the race,” one voter said.

Pastrnak also didn’t receive a first-place vote but remains one to watch. He’s 12 goals and 35 points clear of the second-highest scorer on the Bruins, Brad Marchand. There’s still a chance Boston could finish with the league’s best record, which would be quite a feat after what it lost from last season’s team — and could put Pastrnak back in the conversation.


Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Leader: Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks
Finalists: Noah Dobson, New York Islanders; Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

The Norris Trophy race is starting to creep into the realm of inevitability for Hughes. This is the fifth Awards Watch of the season and the fourth time Hughes has topped the ranking. He was at 70% of the first-place votes last month and jumps back up to 78% in this Awards Watch.

“He leads all D-men in points and even-strength points, while skating nearly 25 minutes a night,” one voter said of Hughes, who had 71 points in 63 games.

There’s a strong analytics case for Hughes, too, in terms of his passing, puck-carrying and puck-recovery stats. Overall, it has been an outstanding campaign for a defenseman who has fueled one of the NHL’s top teams from the back end.

That said, the Makar voters aren’t conceding anything to Hughes. The Avalanche defenseman collected all the other first-place Norris votes on our writers’ ballots.

“It could go down to the wire between them,” one voter predicted.

“What gives Makar the edge here is he plays in every situation. That’s not taking anything away from Hughes. He’s been beyond amazing and earlier this year, was the favorite. What makes Makar too hard to ignore in a head-to-head is the fact he’s too valuable to the Avalanche in so many areas,” another voter explained. “Both he and Hughes play top-pairing minutes and are at the control of the power play. The difference is Makar is second on his team in short-handed ice time, whereas Hughes is nowhere close to that.”

The third Norris finalist is a bit of a mystery. Many of our voters expect it will be Dobson, who has been in the top three in scoring among defensemen almost all season. But keep an eye on Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators, two previous Norris winners whose performances in their respective teams’ wild-card runs could boost their cases.


Calder Trophy (top rookie)

Leader: Brock Faber, Minnesota Wild
Finalists: Connor Bedard, Chicago Blackhawks; Marco Rossi, Minnesota Wild

Last month, the Calder race changed dramatically after Bedard missed just over a month because of a broken jaw. It allowed Faber to catch up in points and grab the attention of voters who might not have been familiar with his impact on the Wild this season. Bedard and Faber were in a dead heat last month. Now, Faber is one vote ahead of Bedard in the Calder voting.

Through 62 games, Faber led all rookie defensemen in scoring (34) and all rookies in average ice time (25:07 per game). He has played a vital role for Minnesota’s defense and has been a steadying presence despite his inexperience.

“He’s been the Wild’s most important player because he has been asked to be a No. 1 defense as a rookie every day of the season,” a voter said. “Faber has been there when Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon got hurt. He’s been really consistent during a Wild season that has been anything but.”

The Faber voters acknowledge how good Bedard has been this season and the career ahead of them. They just don’t think he’s the NHL’s top rookie.

“Connor Bedard is the more talented player, and people would look back in hindsight and do the ‘Why didn’t Bedard get his Calder?’ thing. But Faber is having a better season by several measurable ways,” another voter noted.

“Bedard checks every box: He’s a top-line center, playing top-line minutes who also leads his team in several offensive categories,” another said. “He could win and could win overwhelmingly, which would be deserved. But ignoring what Faber has done and the contributions he’s made wouldn’t just be neglect. It would be flat out ignorance.”

Faber has had strong support for consecutive months. Bedard’s injury cost him a chance at some flashy totals. He’s also a minus-31 in 47 games and scoring less than a point per game (0.87). But he has some supporters who believe he’s the season’s top rookie, full stop.

“He breaks his jaw and he’s still leading all rookies in scoring. Give Brock Faber credit, but Bedard’s Bedard,” one voter concluded.

“Faber has been remarkable with the minutes he’s playing, but Bedard still leads in goals and points and is now back,” another said. “Barring another injury, he will deservedly run away with the Calder.”

“This might have been more of a conversation if Faber hadn’t hit the scoring skids in the last three weeks. But now Bedard is a handful of points clear of the entire rookie collective, despite having missed six weeks with a broken jaw,” another voter explained.

The Wild could end up with two players in the top three for rookie of the year, as center Marco Rossi had the most support behind Faber and Bedard. He has matched the goal total of Bedard (17) but needed 62 games to do so, while Bedard did it in 47 games.

Other rookies to keep in mind for the next month: Philadelphia Flyers goalie Samuel Ersson, who leads all rookie netminders in games played; New Jersey Devils defenseman Luke Hughes, who is fourth among rookie scorers with 31 points in 61 games; Carolina Hurricanes goalie Pyotr Kochetkov, who has been on a heater for them; Columbus Blue Jackets winger Dmitri Voronkov, who had 16 goals in 54 games; and Calgary Flames center Connor Zary, who has energized them with 29 points in 50 games.

“Dmitry Voronkov, who would be second or third on my ballot right now, is a super smart, massive dude and already one of my favorite players to watch in the entire NHL,” one voter said.


Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

Note: The NHL’s general managers vote for this award

Leader: Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
Finalists: Thatcher Demko, Vancouver Canucks; Jacob Markstrom, Calgary Flames

Were it up to the writers, Hellebuyck would be well on his way to his second Vezina win, having captured the award in the 2019-20 season. He earned 91% of the first place votes in this edition of the Awards Watch.

As we mentioned in the Hart Trophy section, no other goalie has the combined traditional and advanced stats case that Hellebuyck can make this season. Factor in the perception that he’s the foundation for all the Jets have built this season — 70% of his starts are considered “quality starts” by Hockey Reference’s measurement — and he’s the clear frontrunner for the Vezina.

“No offense to anyone else but he’s been among the leaders in several categories and has a save percentage that’s north of .920 in a season that has seen scoring continue to increase,” one voter said. “There’s more to the Jets’ success this year than Hellebuyck, but they would not be fighting for a top seed and the Presidents’ Trophy without him.”

Demko received 9% of the first-place votes. He basically has the same case that Hellebuyck has, from the stats to the impact on this team, but Hellebuyck’s numbers are slightly better. That is except for wins, and that’s a stat that can’t be ignored when it comes to this award: Of the past 10 Vezina winners, four have also led the league in victories.

Markstrom was next in the voting. While his traditional stats are solid (.914 save percentage, 2.57 goals-against average), he has been one of the most impressive goalies in the NHL in advanced metrics. What sets him apart are his numbers on high-danger chances: For example, he has the best save percentage in the league on shots from the inner slot, according to Stathletes.

Other goaltenders on the radar for our voters: Sergei Bobrovsky of the Florida Panthers and Jeremy Swayman of the Boston Bruins.


Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Leader: Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Finalists: Sam Reinhart, Florida Panthers; Jordan Staal, Carolina Hurricanes

This marks the fourth straight month that Barkov has topped the polling, inheriting the mantle of Selke inevitability from the retired six-time winner Patrice Bergeron.

“Can I still vote for Bergeron?” one voter asked, still battling that force of habit.

The Panthers have an expected goals against per 60 minutes of 2.07 when Barkov is on the ice at 5-on-5. They also have a save percentage of .941 when he’s out there. He’s crushing it in the faceoff circle with a Bergeron-like 57.2% winning percentage and contributes shorthanded minutes to Florida. Barkov last won the Selke in 2021.

Barkov earned 61% of the first place votes this month. As usual, the Selke remains a wide-open field behind the leader.

The next two players after Barkov were Staal and, somewhat surprisingly, Reinhart. The Hurricanes center is seeking his first Selke win in his 18-season career. He provides shutdown minutes at 5-on-5 and quality penalty killing time for the third best unit in the league.

There are some metrics for which Reinhart is actually better than Barkov, such as expected goals per 60 minutes (1.97) for the Panthers. His candidacy got a boost from Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, who had Reinhart atop his Selke ballot last month.

The classic cliché about the Selke voting is that it’s the best offensive player who usually wins the award for best defensive forward. Reinhart fits the meme, with 42 goals in 61 games.

Among the other players receiving first-place votes for the Selke: Sidney Crosby of the Penguins, who has never been nominated for the award; Mitch Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, although a winger hasn’t won the Selke since Jere Lehtinen in 2002-03; J.T. Miller of the Vancouver Canucks and William Karlsson of the Vegas Golden Knights, who would be first-time finalists; and Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings, seeking his third Selke win (2016, 2018).

One voter really liked Marner for the Selke, likening his brief shift to the Maple Leafs’ defensive corps — because of injuries on the back end — as “channeling Sergei Fedorov” this season.

“Marner has been a two-way bedrock for the Leafs this season and for the last few years in general,” the voter said. “What he’s doing is too hard to ignore, and it deserves recognition in a season that’s become so much more open now that Patrice Bergeron has retired and this race is open.”


Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play)

This is the part where I mention that the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play should be voted on by the league’s on-ice officials or by the NHL Players’ Association instead of the PHWA.

Typically, the voters just give the award to the player with the most points and the fewest penalty minutes. Through Sunday, Auston Matthews had 53 goals in 59 games and just four penalty minutes. He’s a two-time Byng finalist. He’s due!


Jack Adams Award (best coach)

Note: The NHL Broadcasters’ Association votes on this award.

Leader: Rick Tocchet, Vancouver Canucks
Finalists: Paul Maurice, Florida Panthers; John Tortorella, Philadelphia Flyers

The Canucks have wobbled a bit in recent weeks, but they’re still one of the season’s biggest surprises and poised to challenge for the Presidents’ Trophy.

One Tocchet voter believed that his case will be bolstered even more “once the Canucks coach gets credit for helping pull his team out of this mini tailspin.”

Tocchet has rightfully gotten credit for that, from challenging his players early in the season to turning around their defensive metrics with this system.

“Tocchet is a no-doubter,” one voter concluded.

“Tocchet is the clear leader with the job he has done shoring up the Canucks defensively,” another supporter said.

Stathletes has Vancouver on track to earn 110 points this season, which would be a 27-point improvement year over year.

“Because expectations were so low in Vancouver, Tocchet will overshadow the fine work of savvy vets Peter DeBoer, Paul Maurice and Peter Laviolette,” another voter quipped.

But Tocchet is not clear of the competition quite yet. He earned 48% of the first-place votes from our panelists, while Flyers coach John Tortorella was second (30%).

So which subversion of expectations wins out: Tocchet taking the Canucks from the bubble to the top of the league or Tortorella taking the Flyers from the conference basement to a playoff spot?

“If Philadelphia makes the playoffs, it would be a crime if Tortorella isn’t coach of the year,” one voter said. “If the Flyers fall out, the job Rick Tocchet has done in Vancouver is Jack Adams-worthy.”

Maurice was the next highest voter getter. Sometimes, NHL Awards can honor a two-year body of work rather than just a single season. The good vibes Maurice earned by guiding the Panthers to the Stanley Cup Final carried over into this season, where they’re challenging for the best record in the NHL. Maurice has never won the Jack Adams in his 1,828-game career as an NHL coach.

“Maurice kept the Panthers on the right path in spite of not having his two best defensemen to start the season,” one voter said.

The other coaches to receive first-place votes were Jim Montgomery of the Boston Bruins, who won the award last season, and Andrew Brunette of the Nashville Predators, in his first season as their head coach.

“Montgomery has coached a team to the top of the standings despite massive offseason losses and with an obvious talent deficiency at a key position,” the Montgomery backer said.

“Paul Maurice, John Tortorella and Rick Tocchet are all fantastic options. It’s just that Brunette has found ways to get the most out of the Predators at different times of the season,” the Brunette voter explained. “Think about where we’re at with the trade deadline. Many teams in that wild-card race are facing difficult decisions and the Preds keep winning. There is something to be said about what they are doing.”

Plus, isn’t canceling a field trip for your struggling players to see U2 at The Sphere in Las Vegas, and then watching them turn their season around, the stuff Jack Adams Awards are made of?

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