The NHL Awards races had an upheaval since our last edition.
(Well, except for the one where Patrice Bergeron is the leader. You know, like every year.)
But the races for MVP, best defenseman, top rookie, most dominant goalie and coach of the year all have new favorites. Such are the unpredictable dynamics of an unpredictable NHL season.
Welcome to the NHL Awards Watch for January. 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 from the entire 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. Also keep in mind the unofficial “you gotta be in it to win it” protocol for the Hart and the Jack Adams.
Art Ross Trophy (points leader)
Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)
Hart Trophy (MVP)
One of McDavid’s greatest virtues is the way his play and accomplishments reduce the vocabulary of verbose hockey journalists to a few brusque phrases of astonishment.
Among the justifications for voting McDavid as the top MVP pick were:
“He’s running away with it.”
“Because holy s—.”
In 39 games, McDavid has 73 points. That puts him on pace for 154 points this season, which would be the highest total since Mario Lemieux’s 161 points in 70 games back in 1995-96, which is not a misprint. McDavid led the NHL with 33 goals in those 39 games and was one assist off of Nikita Kucherov‘s league-leading 41 helpers after Wednesday night.
There was a 15-point gap between McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, his teammate and the second-leading scorer in the NHL through Wednesday. McDavid is seeking his third MVP win and his fifth time as a finalist.
All that said, the Oilers are squarely on the playoff bubble. Many voters abide by the “you gotta be in it to win it” mantra. But that didn’t deter our voters this month, as McDavid was ranked first on all but two ballots. “It’s not his fault that the Oilers are a bubble team. They’d be a lottery team without him,” one voter said.
It would be interesting to see if Thompson would have garnered more than a single vote from our panelists if the Sabres were in a wild-card spot. Our last Awards Watch was published Dec. 1, 2022. Since that time, Thompson’s had more goals (16) than anyone in the NHL and was behind only McDavid in points (26) during that stretch.
Through 36 games, Thompson had 30 goals and 25 assists for 55 points — 12 goals and 13 points better than the Sabres’ next highest scorer. He’s a force of nature offensively: Thompson hasn’t gone more than two games without a point this season and hasn’t gone more than two games without a goal since Oct. 29.
“Can one player lift a downtrodden franchise on his back and carry it to its first postseason since 2012?” asked one voter, who had Thompson second on their ballot.
Robertson was the leader for the Hart last month. His production remains tremendous for the season — 26 goals and 29 assists in 40 games — which is why he ranked first on one ballot. The drop-off in support is likely more about McDavid’s dominance than Thompson market-correcting him as the new hotness in the MVP race — but don’t discount the latter effect.
These were the only three players mentioned by our voters. David Pastrnak, who was a finalist last month, didn’t get a vote.
Norris Trophy (top defenseman)
By far, the closest awards race at this point in this season.
Karlsson garnered the most first-place ballot support from our voters. The 32-year-old defenseman is seeking his third Norris Trophy, having previously won the award in 2012 and 2015. He’s been a finalist four times in his career.
Karlsson has 53 points in 39 games to lead all defensemen in scoring. His 1.36 points per game average would be the highest for an NHL defenseman since Al MacInnis of the Calgary Flames in 1990-91 (1.32). Perhaps the most impressive part of that: 39 of his 53 points have come at even strength.
“When a defenseman is on track to eclipse the 100-point barrier — it hasn’t happened since 1991-92 — you hand him the Norris,” one voter said.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The knock on Karlsson’s Norris Trophy candidacy is his defensive effectiveness. The Sharks give up 2.67 expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 with Karlsson on the ice and have a save percentage of .884. — two of the worst defensive numbers among Sharks defensemen.
“He finished second in 2016 after amassing 82 points. No chance he loses out after potting 100 this season,” said one voter, who added “Cale Schmale” to underscore their support for Karlsson. Makar, who led this category last month, had the votes to be a finalist here. That’s not a surprise based on his reputation — many had him penciled in as the Norris winner before the 2022-23 season — but perhaps a little surprising based on his actual results.
There’s no question Makar is having another great season. His 27:09 per game is more ice time than any other defenseman in the league. He had a points per game average of 0.94 through 36 contests. That’s obviously a mark that most NHL defensemen would give their left skate to have, but that only ties him for fifth among defensemen this season.
That average would also be the third-best average of Makar’s career. He’s running into the same problem that’s plagued other annual awards darlings: Being judged against their past achievements rather than those of their peers at the moment.
Dahlin was the NHL Awards Watch leader for the Norris in November but fell off the ballot last month, with one voter saying: “If Buffalo keeps on losing, we’ll have to look elsewhere.”
Well, they stopped losing and guess who’s back, back again? (“Dahlin’s back … tell a friend.”) The Sabres defenseman was third in average ice time (26:21) and points (39) through 35 games. He’s been effective in both ends at 5-on-5, although the majority of his points have come on the power play (21). He’s a plus-14 on a Buffalo team that’s not exactly known for its defense. As we mentioned, the Norris voting was close. One voter actually had Makar and Dahlin tied for first.
“Adam Fox has my vote. Among all the defensemen with the counting numbers that have become a prerequisite for this award, Fox’s suppression numbers really stand out,” one voter said. “But I want to give Josh Morrissey some love here because he’s been fantastic and it’s likely nobody is paying attention because he’s in Winnipeg.”
But Morrissey has had an incredible offensive season, with 43 points in 38 games. That’s usually the kind of output that lands a defenseman in a Norris finalist spot.
“Do they do ad campaigns in Winnipeg?” another voter asked.
Calder Trophy (top rookie)
Beniers was the odds-on favorite to win the Calder before the season. The Kraken center has delivered on that promise and then some: 12 goals and 27 points in 36 games, playing 17:12 per night which is second among all rookie forwards behind Noah Cates of the Flyers (17:51).
He’s given Seattle exactly what its lineup was lacking last season: a No. 1 center to mesh with its collection of talented veteran wingers. Beniers and Jordan Eberle have had particularly good chemistry. The former Michigan Wolverine has also hung in there defensively in his first full NHL season, which isn’t always the case for young centers. Beniers topped over 66% of the voters’ ballots.
“He has really strengthened Seattle’s center position,” one voter said.
That Beniers is being chased by two goaltenders at the moment speaks to a positional dilemma that both Hart and Calder voters grapple with every season: As one voter put it, “The challenge lies in what you value more: someone who has played more games or the overall impact they have had?”
Thompson led the Calder race last month. He won 18 of his first 28 games this season, with a .915 save percentage. His underlying numbers aren’t elite.
“A pedestrian 1.8 goals saved above expected, which ranks 35th in the NHL,” said one voter. “But he has shored up a position of major concern.”
Thompson’s narrative remains one of the most compelling of awards season: Rookie goalie gets thrown into the crease after starter Robin Lehner goes down for the season due to surgery and is tasked with backstopping one of the NHL’s most prominent Cup contenders. That alone could get him a nomination.
The problem for Thompson is that he’s not the only rookie netminder with a shot at the Calder. There’s Stuart Skinner with the Edmonton Oilers, who has a similar “save the team!” narrative to his season. And then there’s Kochetkov, who won 10 of his first 15 appearances with sterling numbers (.924 save percentage, 2.08 goals-against average, three shutouts) for the Hurricanes. “If Pyotr Kochetkov keeps this up, he’ll pass Thompson. But sample size matters in this two-horse race,” said one voter.
These were the only rookies given first-place votes by our panel. Two more players in the conversation after three months of the season: center Mason McTavish of the Anaheim Ducks, who has quietly moved within five points of Beniers as of Wednesday; and winger Matias Maccelli of the Arizona Coyotes, who had 22 points in his first 30 games.
“Maccelli won’t remain in the race because he’s out another month with a knee injury, but his season was being completely overlooked on a bad team,” one voter said.
Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)
Note: General managers vote for this award.
If the general managers follow the lead of the writers, this is a three-goalie race. This trio of netminders was our top three in the December edition of the NHL Awards Watch. This time, it’s Ullmark leading the pack instead of last month’s top vote-getter Sorokin.
Ullmark has been outstanding this season. He’s 21-1-1 for the Bruins with a .939 save percentage and a 1.86 goals-against average. According to Money Puck, he leads the NHL in goals saved above expected with 21.5.
“He has one regulation loss on the season. Already 15 fewer than John Gibson,” one voter quipped.
But one Ullmark backer admitted that it’s anyone’s Vezina. “This is a razor-thin race that could change multiple times between now and the end of the season,” the voter said.
Sorokin was the second-highest vote-getter among our panelists. It’s easy to understand why: 14 wins in 25 games with a .926 save percentage and a 2.29 goals-against average. He’s second to Ullmark in goals saved above average (19.1).
One voter said: “Eyeball tests suggest to me that Sorokin is more dependent on his team for success than the other two, but then the Bruins are a machine.”
That voter backed Hellebuyck for the Vezina. “No. 2 in save percentage, No. 3 in goals saved above expected,” the voter said.
Not only that, but the Jets netminder’s resurgence this season is a primary reason why Winnipeg is contending in the West. The general managers won’t ignore that.
Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)
Bergeron is firmly the favorite to win a sixth Selke Trophy, building on the NHL record that he established by winning it in 2021-22. It would be his 12th straight nomination for the top defensive forward award, which is also a record: No NHL player has had that many consecutive nominations for an award.
The Bruins get 62% of the shot attempts, 1.78 expected goals against per 60 minutes and a .959 save percentage when he’s on the ice. He’s still as dominant as they come. Plus, this might be his final season in the NHL. One assumes voters would like to give him a metaphorical gold watch before retirement.
“His faceoff percentage, his attention to defensive details, his line’s dominance when he’s on the ice … just change the name to the Bergeron Trophy,” one voter opined.
The only player other than Bergeron to get a first-place vote? That would be Marner. He’s having an incredible offensive season for the Leafs, but Toronto fans and pundits have been building a case for him to be a Selke finalist. As Toronto Star columnist Kevin McGran wrote recently: “He is the first penalty-kill option on a top penalty-killing team. And 5-on-5? The best defense is a strong offense.”
One challenge for Marner: He’s a winger, and we haven’t had a winger win the Selke since Jere Lehtinen of the Dallas Stars in 2002-03.
Other candidates mentioned by voters did not receive a first-place vote. Of that group, Hischier had the most juice. The Devils have a .935 save percentage at 5-on-5 when he’s on the ice, and they give up just 1.66 goals against per 60 minutes.
One voter said Hischier is “a close second” to Bergeron. Another said: “He’s been such an enormous part of their success at both ends of the ice. I can’t think of any recent No. 1 overall pick who gets less attention than Hischier.”
Other players mentioned by our panelists: Phillip Danault of the Los Angeles Kings, who was in the top three in our last Awards Watch; Mikael Backlund of the Calgary Flames, who one voter said “is really growing on me here” as an underrated Selke candidate; and Frederick Gaudreau of the Minnesota Wild.
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.
That established, the Byng usually just goes to the best player with the fewest penalty minutes. So we’ll proclaim New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes (two PIM, 44 points in 38 games) as the clubhouse leader for the award.
Jack Adams Award (best coach)
Note: The NHL Broadcasters’ Association votes on this award.
Montgomery had double the support of either of the other two coaches here.
By now, the Jack Adams voting trends have been well established. It usually goes to two types of coaches: ones who take a mediocre team and make it good, and ones whose fingerprints are clearly visible in shaping their success.
Montgomery took a good team and made it a juggernaut but also easily fulfills that second criteria. He’s given the Bruins a sense of accountability, he has unleashed their blue-line offense and the players have total buy-in for what he’s preaching.
“They’re on pace for 137 points, which would be an NHL record,” one voter said. “When I spoke to their beat writers at the start of the season, they had them pegged for the No. 7 or No. 8 seed in the East. Just a ridiculous season that Boston is crafting.”
Ruff led the race for the Jack Adams last month, but the Devils hit a bumpy patch in December. He might actually fulfill both criteria: turning around a non-playoff team and having it play his brand of attacking, transition hockey.
“I’m already resigned to the fact that Jim Montgomery is going to win this, but it seems the two defining characteristics of his first season in Boston are ‘got otherworldly goaltending’ and ‘isn’t Bruce Cassidy,'” one Ruff supporter said. “Ruff, meanwhile, has the Devils looking a lot like his Sabres teams from the 2000s. Yes, they’re in a bit of a funk right now, but any coach that survives an arena chant calling for his firing only to get the same fans to collectively apologize in the same way gets my vote.”
Bowness rounds out the top three. He’s gotten a defensive commitment from the Jets that other coaches haven’t, and has helped players like Morrissey level up. And in another grand tradition for Jack Adams voters, his team is also being carried by a Vezina-caliber goalie.
Other candidates receiving first-place votes included Jared Bednar of the Colorado Avalanche, Rod Brind’Amour of the Carolina Hurricanes and Bruce Cassidy of the Vegas Golden Knights, the latter of whom was in our top three last month.
Personally, we’d love to see Montgomery and Cassidy both as Jack Adams finalists because we’re messy like that.