Say this about those filling out NHL awards ballots this year: None of us will be affected by recency bias.
The three-month separation between the last games and the call for votes demands careful study of the data (more than usual), review of film, and a deep dive into notes we took during this strange and stunted season.
All of the material I’ve reviewed in the last week confirms my faint memories of the fall, winter, and spring. Few players were better than Connor Hellebuyck.
He may not win the Hart Trophy, since goalies have their own Cy Young-like award and skaters get deeper MVP looks. But six years after his short but effective run in Hockey East, the ex-UMass Lowell puck-stopper should easily win his first Vezina Trophy.
The Vezina is voted on by the general managers, not the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. Before I get to my ballot, a few notes on Hellebuyck.
No statistic presents a complete picture, but some are far more telling than others.
▪ One important metric in understanding Hellebuyck’s performance, as tabulated by Josh and Luke Younggren at Evolving Hockey, is goals saved above expected. It takes a goaltender’s expected goals against and subtracts how many goals they actually allowed.
What are expected goals? Simply put, a measure of quality shots. A quick primer: To calculate the stat called xG, statisticians use the NHL’s publicly available play-by-play data, which tracks shot location and type of shot, plus other factors such as time and score, to measure how often specific types of shot attempts typically find the back of the net. They give each result a weight, based on success rates. It’s common knowledge that a rebound chance from the doorstep is far more likely to go in much more often than a 40-foot slap shot. Expected goals formulas put a number on it.
Using these metrics, it’s safe to say Hellebuyck was more reliable under duress than any netminder in the league.
In the goals saved above expected category, there wasn’t much of a gap between No. 2, Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper (8.71), and No. 10, Dallas backup Anton Khudobin (6.15). But there was a Great Lake of separation between second place and Hellebuyck, who lapped the pack with 19.86. Those numbers may not be as concrete in the mind as, say, 50 goals or 100 points. But in real-life terms, that’s a ton of gigantic saves that kept his team in games.
▪ At the pause, the Jets held the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference (37-28-6, 80 points). If the season resumes, they are set to face Calgary for a play-in berth. Someone looking at the standings might see “203 goals against” and think Winnipeg’s team defense was pretty good.
The Jets lost four defensemen — Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Chiarot, Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba — and checking forward Brandon Tanev in the offseason. Nearly every forward had an off year.
The Jets wound up surrendering a horrifying amount of good shots, ranking third-worst in expected goals against (2.73). When taking into account their ability to generate scoring chances and the ones they allowed at the other end, they were dead last, even worse than the laughingstock Red Wings.
Four Jets (Mark Scheifele, Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, and Kyle Connor) ranked in the top seven of individual expected goals against, and Patrik Laine was 15th. All played more than 1,000 minutes. In other words, Winnipeg’s better players were on the ice for a lot of good shots against.
▪ Based on shot quality, no goalie in the NHL was expected to allow more goals than Hellebuyck, and yet he ranked sixth in save percentage (.922). No goalie had more shutouts (6) and only one, Carey Price, played more minutes. Hellebuyck started all but 15 of the team’s 71 games.
Hellebuyck has led the league in saves for two years in a row, and was third three years ago. Maybe he should be tired.
Maybe he should be MVP.
Since the GMs began voting on the award (1982), the only unanimous Vezina winner was Boston’s Pete Peeters in 1983. Hellebuyck, with all due respect to Tuukka Rask, should be next.
Rangers’ Panarin was most valuable
In a typical year, my methodology involves a lot of in-person viewings, video study, and number-crunching. In this shortened season, I attended 30 Bruins games at TD Garden and 21 on the road, and rewatched all 70 Bruins games. Divisional opponents quickly become familiar, but that’s not enough to have a good handle on the league. I caught up on full and partial games and highlights of other teams over breakfast, on the stationary bike, and while in transit.
That still leaves hundreds of thousands of plays unaccounted for, so I lean on data. The statisticians at the NHL are a big help in tackling specific inquiries, and their database is essential far beyond goals and assists. I love using Hockey-Reference for historical context. The advanced thinking by Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Wild, Emmanuel Perry and Micah Blake McCurdy, among many others, has greatly expanded my view of the game. I’m hopeful the NHL’s eventual foray into player and puck tracking yields a bountiful harvest of public information (though I’m not holding my breath).
The more biased sources of info — chats throughout the season with players, coaches, scouts, executives, hockey operations personnel, broadcasters, other writers and observers — are less reliable, but still valuable.
One writer’s choices, and the reasoning behind them. I look forward to finding out how wrong I was:
1. Artemi Panarin
2. Connor Hellebuyck
3. Nathan MacKinnon
4. Leon Draisaitl
5. Elias Pettersson
“Most valuable to his team” is ringing in my ears. Not only did Panarin drag the Rangers to the playoff bubble, he is the reason they are no longer rebuilding. He was an effective defensive player and lights-out offensively. He was plus-36 on a team that finished 23rd in goals against. He scored 20 points more than his closest teammate, and was far ahead of the rest of the league in on-ice plus-minus relative to his teammates (per Evolving Hockey). He had a league-best 71 points at even strength. His most common linemates were Jesper Fast and Ryan Strome, who are merely OK.
Hellebuyck … I just couldn’t give him the nod, considering the strong crop of skater choices.
MacKinnon was 43 points ahead of his next teammate, making sure the Avalanche finished second in the West despite a litany of injuries to top players.
I can already hear the wailing in Edmonton. As productive as Draisaitl was — and kudos for scoring 12 points in six games while Connor McDavid was hurt in February — his poor defensive numbers drag him down, and I don’t think he’s the best player on his own team. Draisaitl played 868 all-situations minutes with McDavid, more than any other teammate. In a midseason poll of PHWA members, conducted in January, the leading candidate for the Hart was McDavid. Draisaitl didn’t make top three.
This is not “highest scorer.” Whenever the league holds its awards ceremony, Draisaitl will be rightfully recognized as the runaway Art Ross winner.
Tough call in the fifth spot. Pettersson touched all areas of the game for the Canucks. Also deserving consideration: Brad Marchand was an every-night, two-way play-driver for the Bruins, and his linemate, Rocket Richard co-winner David Pastrnak, was sublime.
1. Roman Josi
2. Victor Hedman
3. John Carlson
4. Jaccob Slavin
5. Alex Pietrangelo
This is an award based on “greatest all-around ability.” While Carlson had ridiculous stat totals (15-60—75 in 69 games), stopping attackers is as important as attacking. Among 98 defensemen with 1,000 minutes or more at five on five, Carlson’s rate of expected goals against (xGA/60) was 14th-highest. The tape confirms these woes. Josi (16-49—65) had numbers galore, and grades out as a capable defender. Hedman certainly passes the eye test, has the production (11-44—55), and was a top-20 defender. He is the total package, like Slavin and Pietrangelo.
Stick tap to Dougie Hamilton, who was a clear contender before breaking his leg in January. Also, I’m convinced Charlie McAvoy will be on everyone’s list next year. The growth in his game was substantial.
1. Quinn Hughes
2. Cale Makar
3. Adam Fox
4. Dominik Kubalik
5. John Marino
This was the toughest call. I went back and forth between Makar and Hughes until submitting my ballot. Makar (12-38—50) had 3 fewer points in 11 fewer games than Hughes (8-45—53). I find it hard to knock rookies for the holes in their games, but Hughes’s defensive metrics aren’t great; Makar’s are OK. To break this tie, I asked, which rookie had the biggest impact? That is Hughes, who was scoring at a point-per-game pace since the All-Star break, and kept the underdog Canucks in the race for a playoff spot. Take Makar off the Avalanche and they’d be OK.
Lady Byng Trophy
1. Nathan MacKinnon
2. Elias Pettersson
3. Auston Matthews
4. Aleksander Barkov
5. Teuvo Teravainen
This is my least-favorite award on the ballot. The referees should opine on the gentlemanly aspect of a player’s game, not the writers.
I suppose it’s best we leave this out of the hands of the officials, though. It would be awkward if they gave out the award, only to have one of them wave it off, and then they conferenced at the side of the stage and parsed individual frames of video while the awards show ground to a halt.
They also don’t need another reason to be blamed.
Anyway, MacKinnon had 12 penalty minutes and 93 points. Can we vote on the Vezina instead?
1. Anthony Cirelli
2. Sean Couturier
3. Ryan O’Reilly
4. Patrice Bergeron
5. Valeri Nichushkin
It was difficult not to go with Couturier, who has received votes for all but one of the previous eight years and was a runner-up two years ago. I try to vote based on that year’s results and not story lines or career arcs, but there is an element of it being “his turn.” If Couturier is not recognized at some point for defending as well as he does, it will be a shame.
He is more than worthy of a nod this season. When he was on the ice, the Flyers allowed 2.1 goals per 60 minutes. That’s very good; only 12 forwards who played more than 900 minutes had a better rate.
The first? Cirelli, who saw Tampa Bay allow 1.47 goals per hour when he was on the ice. He played a ton of hard minutes and allowed little. Last year’s winner, O’Reilly, didn’t slip by much (he led the league in on-ice shot attempts against per 60, with 45.15).
Having watched nearly every shift Bergeron took, I saw a brilliant defensive player, lifting sticks and blocking passes and sealing walls and being a general nuisance, his perfect positioning allowing his two linemates to stay on the attack. Even though his line is deployed more in offensive situations these days, he remains an all-world defender.
A lot of other candidates were considered — Blake Coleman, Phillip Danault, Zach Aston-Reese, Mark Stone — but Nichushkin is emerging as a fantastic stopper. He gets the nod based on his goals against per 60 — 1.25 — being lowest in the league among forwards who played at least 700 minutes. Cirelli was sixth (1.47). Aston-Reese was seventh (1.49). David Krejci, by the way, was fifth (1.46) while carrying a variety of offense-focused wingers.
The PHWA also votes on the Masterton Award, for perseverance and dedication to hockey. I voted for Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan, who overcame alcohol issues (and some awful events in his past) to return to his goal-scoring ways. We do not vote on the Jack Adams (coach of the year), but Bruce Cassidy, John Tortorella, and Alain Vigneault are strong candidates.
We also select postseason all-star teams. My votes:
Center: 1. Leon Draisaitl; 2. Connor McDavid; 3. Nathan MacKinnon.
Right wing: 1. David Pastrnak; 2. Nikita Kucherov; 3. Patrick Kane.
Left wing: 1. Brad Marchand; 2. Artemi Panarin. 3. Alex Ovechkin.
Defense: 1. Roman Josi; 2. Victor Hedman; 3. John Carlson; 4. Jaccob Slavin; 5. Alex Pietrangelo; 6. Charlie McAvoy.
Goaltender: 1. Connor Hellebuyck; 2. Tuukka Rask; 3. Ben Bishop.
Forward: 1. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago; 2. Victor Olofsson, Buffalo; 3. Nick Suzuki, Montreal.
Defense: 1. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver; 2. Cale Makar, Colorado.
Goaltender: 1. MacKenzie Blackwood, New Jersey.
Diversity Alliance mission: eradicate racism in hockey
A critical step for the NHL: Evander Kane of the Sharks and former NHLer Akim Aliu are co-heads of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, which will work with, but remain independent from, the NHL. The league now has, in theory, what amounts to a racial justice ombudsman.
The executive committee includes defensemen Matt Dumba of the Wild and Trevor Daley of the Red Wings, forwards Wayne Simmonds of the Sabres and Chris Stewart of the Flyers, and the recently retired Joel Ward. Their stated mission, in part, is to “eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey.” They have the blessing of Colin Kaepernick, who counseled the players during a lengthy Zoom call.
Hockey needs to reach more lower-income households to really be “for everyone.” Socioeconomic reach will be a focus of the new alliance. It will be interesting to see how the independent HDA meshes with the NHL’s four newly created committees, which plan to address diversity and racial issues from the league, player, fan, and youth hockey perspectives.
Not exactly an endorsement
John Tortorella changed his tune on national anthem protests, but didn’t quite go all the way. The Concord-raised Blue Jackets coach told The Athletic that those who kneel mean “no disrespect toward the flag.” While coaching Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey in 2016, in the wake of Kaepernick’s protests in the NFL, Tortorella said he would bench a player who did so.
Tortorella defended those earlier comments, saying playing for one’s country is “a little bit of a different story,” and said he hoped a player would talk to him before protesting, and then “we would bring it to the team to discuss it, much like it’s being discussed in our country right now. How can we rectify some of these problems?”
Not saying Torts’s heart is in the wrong place, but does that sound like a coach fully backing a player who wants to speak out?
David Pastrnak won his fourth consecutive Golden Hockey Stick award as the Czech player of the year. Pastrnak, who at age 19 became the youngest winner of the trophy, tied Jaromir Jagr’s record for consecutive wins. Only two players have won the award more times than Pastrnak: Jagr (12) and Dominik Hasek (5). The favorite son of Havirov, Czech Republic, received 51 out of 52 first-place votes, finishing well ahead of Blackhawks rookie Dominik Kubalik and Flyers forward Jakub Voracek . . . More awkward first steps in the NHL’s social justice efforts: After Tyler Seguin’s appearance at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, the NHL put together, then tweeted, then deleted, a 45-second video that displayed images of Seguin at the rally, and Instagram commenters congratulating him for showing up. The league shouldn’t have made what amounted to a commercial for its sudden wokeness . . . Of the eight active Vezina winners — Ryan Miller (2010), Henrik Lundqvist (2012), Sergei Bobrovsky (2013, ‘17), Tuukka Rask (2014), Carey Price (2015), Braden Holtby (2016), Pekka Rinne (2018), and Andrei Vasilevskiy (2019) — only Rask and Vasilevskiy finished among the top 35 goalies in save percentage. Price was 39th. Good goaltending: appreciate it while you can.