NHL awards watch: Connor McDavid leads stacked Hart Trophy field

Throughout the season I’ll be breaking down the numbers behind the race for each major player award: the Hart, the Norris, the Calder, the Selke, the Vezina, the Art Ross and the Rocket Richard. Numbers of course aren’t everything, but they add much-needed context to the awards race and can help shine a light on players deserving of more recognition while adding caveats to other players who may have some warts. This post will present the top 10 for each category based on a set criteria of guidelines. There is plenty of room for discussion and debate within (and outside) those guidelines.

We’re in the stretch drive of the season. The All-Star break is in the rearview, the trade deadline is up ahead and the awards races are getting hot. That makes it a perfect time for another awards watch.

OK, not much has changed since the last iteration, but that doesn’t mean the awards races can’t be interesting. Especially now that we’re in the part of the season in which players have a real shot to cement their cases — or find a way to gain ground in the season’s final third.

As usual, this is a snapshot of how each awards race looks from an analytical perspective. Numbers aren’t the be-all, end-all, but they always serve as a strong starting point for debate and discussion. They can help illuminate an unsung player’s case or dim the prospects of a player who may not be as worthy as he appears. In either case, the numbers start the conversation — not finish it.

Based on my interpretation of the numbers, here’s how each awards race currently shakes out.

Data as of Feb. 13

Hart Trophy

Given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team.
Criteria: Skaters ranked by Net Rating, adjusted by position.

The Hart Trophy was Nathan MacKinnon’s to lose — or so we thought.

One night can change everything and Connor McDavid showed that Tuesday with a dominant six-assist performance in which the Oilers outscored the Red Wings 7-1 at five-on-five with him on the ice. He earned a Game Score of 8.8, the second highest this season, which was enough to completely close the gap on MacKinnon — and surpass him. On a per-game basis, McDavid was already ahead before last night, but now there’s no question as to who’s leading with McDavid’s Net Rating up 0.3 on MacKinnon with seven games in hand. He’s on pace for a Net Rating of plus-30.2, well past MacKinnon’s pace of plus-25.8.

McDavid may currently trail MacKinnon by 10 points, but his six-assist night bumped his point pace all the way up to 134, two higher than MacKinnon’s and now only five behind Nikita Kucherov’s. That’s not a result of being a power-play merchant, either. McDavid’s 3.2 points per 60 leads all players — no one else is above three.

What gives McDavid the extra edge is his utterly transcendent two-way game where the Oilers have earned 63 percent of the expected goals with him on the ice — a career high. That’s a product of both the best offensive play-driving of his career and, perhaps more importantly, the best defense. The Oilers allow only 2.38 expected goals against per 60 with McDavid on the ice, 0.13 fewer relative to teammates. Those are also career bests.

McDavid is still the best player in the world and he’s not going to let anyone take over his Hart Trophy reign without a fight. The MVP is now his to lose and it doesn’t feel like he’s going to lose any grasp of it from here on out.

That doesn’t mean the race can’t still be interesting — it’s just that everyone else is fighting for second. There is a strong case to be made for most of the field listed above and we’re going to quickly go through why the main competitors deserve a nomination in what should otherwise be a very tight race.

Nathan MacKinnon: He’s second in the league in Net Rating thanks to a combination of elite production (second in points) and on-ice impact. This has been his most complete season and he’s been especially dominant at five-on-five. His 2.98 points per 60 there is second to McDavid. That he’s performing at such a high level while enduring 23 minutes per night is a serious show of his ability to dominate despite a taxing workload.

Quinn Hughes: The league’s best defenseman this season at the very least deserves the honor of being the first defenseman nominated for the Hart Trophy since Chris Pronger won it in 2000. He may deserve even more than that with how instrumental he’s been in igniting and orchestrating Vancouver’s offense and bringing the team to the top of the league. He’s on pace for 100 points while bringing the heat at both ends of the ice. 

Auston Matthews: He’s almost on pace for the first 70-goal season since 1992-93, over 30 years ago. He’s doing it while facing the toughest assignments and excelling defensively. Matthews remains a unicorn in how he delivers value with his ability to contend for both the Rocket Richard and Selke Trophies simultaneously. And he’s doing it with a weaker supporting cast (especially on the back end) than the guys ahead of him.

Nikita Kucherov: This year’s points leader has been explosively dynamic for the Lightning and arguably the most terrifying power-play weapon this season. He’s having an offensive season on par with MacKinnon’s — without anything close to the same support. All due respect to Brayden Point and Victor Hedman, but they aren’t Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar. Kucherov’s poor Defensive Rating is his biggest slight, but that’s partly driven by a below-average defense corps — one that some of the other contenders here don’t have to deal with.

Sam Reinhart: Matthews isn’t the only one scoring above a 60-goal pace while providing Selke-level defense. Sam Reinhart is, too. He may not have as many goals as Matthews, but he makes up for that to an extent with his defensive value, which is currently higher. He’s having an extremely special season and is more than worthy to be next to the five other great skaters here. He has the second highest goals percentage and expected goals percentage of anyone in this group.

Connor Hellebuyck: The “goalies are the most valuable players” crowd will certainly raise an eyebrow at Connor Hellebuyck being ranked ninth despite technically being the league’s most valuable player. Saving 23 goals above expected is six more goals in value than MacKinnon, right? Yes — but there’s a reason goalies are rarely considered for the Hart. Hellebuyck shows up ninth because, among goalies, he’s in the 99.7th percentile, which is ninth when compared to skaters. Relative to their positions, the skaters’ value shown here is more impressive. Still, if you don’t care about semantics and only care about value, it’s usually going to be the best goalie in the league’s award to lose. That’s Hellebuyck.

It’s going to be really tough to whittle that down to four other names — but that first name is as easy as it usually is.

Norris Trophy

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Given to the defenseman who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.
Criteria: Defensemen that play top pairing minutes ranked by Net Rating.

Some may view this as a two-horse race, a product of how close Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar are in points per game — and of Makar’s pedigree. That does a disservice to the special season Hughes is having and gives a bit too much credit to Makar’s, which is a lot more hollow than his usually illustrious efforts.

Hughes leads all players in Net Rating by a pretty substantial margin and it stems from his tremendous on-ice impact. In previous seasons, it was fair to downplay Hughes’ value as being mostly reliant on scoring points. Not this year. On a per-60 basis, the Canucks are 0.84 goals, 0.27 expected goals, 12.1 shot attempts better with Hughes on the ice this season. He’s been a five-on-five marvel led mostly by an offensive game that’s been upgraded to be significantly more commanding. He is taking more shots and creating more chances individually, dominating the ice anytime he steps foot out there.

The same cannot quite be said for Makar whose relative on-ice impacts have only been average this season. The Avalanche are earning fewer chances and surrendering more with Makar out there, diminishing his total value. That’s not to say Makar isn’t valuable, or that he can’t catch Hughes down the stretch. It’s merely an explanation as to why he’s currently so far down the list in terms of overall value this season.

The other dirty little secret is usage. What makes Makar’s on-ice impact even less impressive is how often Colorado opts for a five-man unit that features Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Devon Toews. For reference, Makar has spent 70 percent of his five-on-five minutes with MacKinnon. Hughes has spent 31 percent of his with Elias Pettersson. Given that, you’d expect Colorado to dominate a lot more with Makar out there and have a lot more opportunities for offense compared to Vancouver with Hughes. And that simply isn’t the case. Add Makar’s extreme offensive zone start usage and it shouldn’t be a contest between the two this season.

The other competition likely isn’t close either. Noah Dobson has been a revelation for the Islanders and has emerged as an elite No. 1 defenseman. But it’s worth noting that much of his high Defensive Rating is a product of a .945 on-ice save percentage — the Islanders actually give up more chances with him than without him. It’s still impressive given the difficulty of his minutes and the fact he’s one point off the team scoring lead (and that’s while having the worst offensive supporting cast to work with). But there’s a fair bit of good fortune involved here.

Evan Bouchard is next and he has the same quality of teammate caveat as Makar, as Edmonton also often employs a five-man unit. He’s still elite, but that fact likely inflates his offensive totals. 

That’s not to say those three defensemen aren’t worthy of nominations. Nor are other strong choices on the list (for the defensive defenseman truthers, Gustav Forsling is your guy this year). It’s just to point out that those caveats don’t exist for Hughes, whose numbers are already significantly better regardless. 

It’s Hughes … and then everyone else.

Selke Trophy

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Given to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.
Criteria: Forwards who play over 15 minutes per game, receive 15 percent of their team’s short-handed minutes and face above-average forward competition, ranked by Defensive Rating.

The Selke Trophy race is unsurprisingly led by a Florida Panther — just not the one you might expect. It’s Sam Reinhart at the top of the list, not Aleksander Barkov.

This feels a lot like the old days when Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand would both find their way to the top of the list, an honor earned by being the league’s premier two-way duo. That distinction may now belong to Barkov and Reinhart, who have been monsters for the Panthers this season, helping Florida become one of the league’s very best defensive teams.

In the case of Bergeron and Marchand, the difference between the two was usually pretty simple — we know who drives the bus there and it often showed up in their numbers. That may seem to be the case here, but I’m not quite as convinced. Barkov certainly has a stronger reputation as the better defensive player; perhaps it’s best to defer to that and assume he’s the one driving the bus. 

That’s a fine position to take, but it’s notable that in each of the last five seasons, Reinhart has the stronger relative impact on expected goals against. Barkov played tougher minutes for a lot of those years, but this year they’ve spent a lot of time together and Reinhart still comes out ahead. I’d still probably defer to Barkov myself — watch the games and all that — but Reinhart is no slouch. He’s a big reason why Barkov is posting the best two-way numbers of his career. Both are very strong options this season.

Jordan Staal is sandwiched between the duo and I would really love for him to get the recognition of a nomination this season, offense be damned. He hasn’t had one since 2010. Staal came close last season with a fourth-place finish and has been even better this season in a pure matchup role, allowing just 1.84 expected goals against per 60, 0.28 better than teammates. Both are career bests.

Anze Kopitar and Sean Couturier are some usual suspects in the top 10. Both will likely be on many Selke shortlists this year with their defensive excellence despite facing a taxing burden every night. They’re shutdown kings for a reason. Nick Suzuki is showing he can one day belong among those players, though the last month has him dropping down to fifth on the list.

Auston Matthews has shown a strong knack for exemplary defense in previous seasons, but has never qualified by the criteria listed due to a lack of short-handed ice time. That’s changed this season and he makes a strong appearance here with the fourth best Defensive Rating among qualified forwards — tied with Barkov. He’s been particularly great since the last awards watch, on the ice for only 1.96 expected goals against per 60 and 1.29 goals against per 60.

Matthews faces the toughest assignments for the Leafs and has parlayed that into 0.2 fewer expected goals against per 60 relative to teammates on the season. That’s on par with where he was during his MVP season where some felt he had a strong Selke case … if not for the existence of Bergeron and a total lack of short-handed usage. Both those things have changed which means this year he should be firmly in the mix.

Calder Trophy

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Given to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the NHL.
Criteria: Rookie skaters ranked by Net Rating, adjusted by position.

I’m still working on adjusting for usage better and hopefully, that will be ready in time for the next awards watch. It will certainly make Connor Bedard look better than he is here, but it still may not be enough of an adjustment to put him right at the top. 

Bedard having the best points-per-game rate for a rookie remains impressive, and is doubly so given he has the worst offensive teammate quality of any player in the league. It all depends on how much we should care about his defensive game. While it’s notable that the Blackhawks haven’t been able to buy a goal since Bedard’s injury (1.42 goals per 60 since, 2.3 goals per 60 before), it’s also true that their defense has actually improved by an even larger margin (2.76 goals against per 60 since, 3.99 goals against per 60 before). At five-on-five, their expected goals percentage is up five points since Bedard’s injury.

Looking at his All Three Zones possession-driving ability shows Bedard has all the makings of a superstar with how he creates in the offensive zone and how efficient he is moving the puck in transition. But one thing he is not is involved in the defensive zone. It’s a revelation brought about by this exploration into Matty Beniers’ Selke potential and one that might answer why the Blackhawks allow so many chances with Bedard on the ice. He’s already great at turning pucks into exits and exiting cleanly — he just doesn’t do it often at all. His defensive zone workload shows a center who isn’t helping his defenders out nearly enough.

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Again, that’s fine for a rookie. With his efficiency in that regard, there’s no doubt he’ll get there one day — especially with more support. But it does help partly explain why his defensive numbers are so crummy. It’s not just the team around him.

As for the other rookies, it’s funny that Brock Faber’s reputation has surged once he started putting some numbers on the board (14 points in 14 games since the last awards watch) despite the rest of his game falling apart. Faber is now on pace for 52 points and leads all rookie defensemen in scoring, but his eye-popping on-ice numbers have come back down to earth a bit over the last month. He still carries strong relative metrics at both ends of the ice in a tough role which is why he leads all rookies in Net Rating. But as he’s been placed in a larger role with bigger minutes while being tasked with providing more offense, his defensive numbers have taken a hit. 

Faber is still graded as the most valuable rookie for good reason. He has a strong body of work overall that can mitigate some defensive weaknesses shown over the last month as his role changed. He’s still working on finding the right balance to his game to be a top dog at both ends of the ice, but it’s clear the potential here is enormous.

I still believe the Calder race is between those two. Filling out the rest of the ballot is a bit trickier.

Ridly Greig, Connor Zary and Tyson Foerster hold similar impacts by Net Rating and are solid hipster picks. Their scoring isn’t exactly eye-popping, but their relative impact on expected and actual goals is substantial. The Senators, a bottom-feeder, earning 56 percent of the expected goals and 67 percent of the actual goals with Greig on the ice is pretty huge in particular. 

As for the bigger names, Luke Hughes has been a great puck-mover this year with solid impacts at five-on-five that are comparable to Faber’s. The reason he’s not higher is that his on-ice impacts have diminished over the last month as his minute difficulty has increased. Marco Rossi has also been a solid scorer and has been a nice surprise defensively (though it helps to have Minnesota’s support on that front).

Vezina Trophy

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Given to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at this position.
Criteria: Goaltenders who have played half of their team’s games or more ranked by goals saved above expected, courtesy of Evolving Hockey and MoneyPuck.

It would be a complete shock at this point if Connor Hellebuyck didn’t pick up his second Vezina Trophy after the season he’s having. He’s currently sporting a .924 save percentage and has an eye-popping goals saved above expected of 23.7 (MoneyPuck has him at 25, Evolving Hockey has him at 22.4 after adjusting for the high amount of expected goals this season). Hellebuyck also has the narrative angle of pushing the Jets toward the top of the West, allowing three or fewer goals in 29 straight games dating back to Nov. 2. That’s unreal consistency.

Jacob Markstrom may have been a surprise to see at the top of the list for some folks during the last awards watch, but I doubt anyone is surprised now with his play over the last month. He’s been phenomenal and has almost single-handedly kept the Flames in the playoff race. Evolving Hockey has him as the goalie with the league’s best GSAx rate, while MoneyPuck has him fourth. Since the last awards watch, he has a .932 save percentage.

Thatcher Demko rounds out the top three and remains right in the thick of the mix. Nearly everything said about Hellebuyck also applies to him, just to a lesser degree. He’s been a key factor in Vancouver’s shocking surge up the standings. 

From a pure efficiency standpoint, Adin Hill deserves a lot of love here. He’s almost tied with Demko despite playing half the games and his .931 save percentage leads all starters. His workload holds him back from ranking higher, but that could change down the stretch now that he’s healthy.

Art Ross Trophy

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Given to the player who leads the National Hockey League in scoring points at the end of the regular season.
Criteria: Skaters ranked by their projected end-of-season point total.

This might be the most exciting Art Ross battle in recent memory, especially after Connor McDavid’s six-point night turned it into a true three-horse race. That puts all three of McDavid, Nikita Kucherov and Nathan MacKinnon on pace for over 130 points. The fact that two of those guys will lose is heart-breaking but makes for some fantastic theater down the stretch.

Kucherov currently has the edge, but as we saw Tuesday night, that can change in an instant. All three of these players have elite game-breaking potential and the rare ability to put up massive points on the board over long stretches. As of now, they are expected to be within six points of each other, which is close enough to make it anyone’s Art Ross to lose.

Rocket Richard Trophy

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Given to the NHL’s top goal scorer.
Criteria: Skaters ranked by their projected end-of-season goal total.

This is still Auston Matthews’ to lose as he remains on an absurd near 70-goal pace. He likely slows down to the 65-goal range, but either way, he should be safe. Sam Reinhart is the next closest player and he’s three goals back, has played three extra games and obviously doesn’t have the same pedigree. David Pastrnak looks to be the only other player projected to eclipse 50, though both Nathan MacKinnon and Nikita Kucherov are close.

— Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick and Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones project

(Top photo of Connor McDavid: Perry Nelson / USA Today)

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