The continuing offensive explosion in the 2018-19 NHL season has produced an intense race for the Hart Trophy, has tightened the field for the Calder and has created a Vezina race in which only a few goaltenders are head-and-shoulders above their peers' plummeting save percentages.
Here's the NHL Awards Watch for December. Again, this is a prediction of how I expect the voters would consider the current candidates, as well as a look at their merits. Keep in mind the Professional Hockey Writers Association votes for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Lady Byng; broadcasters vote for the Jack Adams, and general managers handle the Vezina.
Art Ross Trophy (points leader)
Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)
Current leader: Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets (21 goals)
Hart Trophy (most valuable player)
Leader: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
This is a tough category because you're dealing with some teammates dueling for the MVP. Nikita Kucherov is building a case with 42 points, but ask the Lightning, and they'll say Point is their most valuable player. Rantanen is leading the league with 46 points, but MacKinnon has 19 goals and the shine from coming so close to winning the Hart last season. McDavid doesn't have that problem as the Oilers' clear MVP, and he obviously has dragged his team as far as it could go before Ken Hitchcock arrived to win a series of 2-1 games.
I'd give the edge to MacKinnon, based on history, the viability of the Avalanche as a playoff contender and because he's closer to the goals lead than McDavid is to the points lead (for now). Keep in mind that as the season continues, we'll implement the "gotta be in it to win it" voting rule as it pertains to Hart candidates making the playoffs. Yes, this was a message for McDavid fans.
Norris Trophy (top defenseman)
Leader: Ryan McDonagh, Tampa Bay Lightning
What's interesting about McDonagh, besides the fact that the guy is having his finest season in the NHL, is that by the end of the season his own teammate (last year's winner Victor Hedman) could surpass him. But for now, he's been the best defenseman in the league, with 20 points in 29 games despite just 45.3 percent of his shifts starting in the offensive zone.
Carlson is putting together his second consecutive monster season, and after finishing fifth for the Norris and having a Stanley Cup run in the spotlight, his profile's never been higher. Rielly is having a terrific offensive season (30 points in 28 games) and will have the awesome power of a fully armed and operational Toronto media supporting his candidacy. We can't put Rielly in the driver's seat until his underlying numbers tick up, but Hedman's took a while last season, too.
Vezina Trophy (best goalie)
It's a razor-thin margin right now between Andersen and Rinne, but the old man (and reigning Vezina winner) has the edge, despite the sample size. He leads the NHL in even-strength save percentage at .948 through 19 games, and he tops Andersen in low-danger save percentage (98.45). Andersen is a workhorse (23 starts) and has faced the second-most shots in the league. His even-strength save percentage is solid (.940), and he's second in the league in quality starts percentage (.783). But his 17.62 goals saved above average is best in the league, by far.
Gibson gets into the top three for what's basically an MVP season, dragging the Ducks' analytic chaos to a playoff spot.
Calder Trophy (top rookie)
The pace has slowed a bit from when Pettersson seemingly had the Calder locked up in October, but 13 goals and 23 points lead all rookies, and traditionally the winner of the rookie of the year is going to lead in one of those categories. Unless, of course, the winner is a defenseman, and there are a gaggle of them in contention.
We'd rank Dahlin ahead of Miro Heiskanen of the Dallas Stars and Henri Jokiharju of the Chicago Blackhawks. Heiskanen has the ice time, leading all rookies with a hefty 22:57 average time on ice. But Dahlin has had the more impressive year. Take it away, Travis Yost of TSN:
Dahlin has (a) scored more, individually (b) scored more, on-ice; (c) given up less, on-ice; (d) generated more [shots], on-ice; (e) generated less [shots against], on-ice; (f) has had a relatively larger impact on teammates, shots and goals.
Heiskanen has ice time. https://t.co/U4l6WcslUU
- Travis Yost (@travisyost) December 3, 2018
Tkachuk has entered this race on a rocket sled and is the forward to watch when it comes to someone dethroning Pettersson.
Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)
Leader: Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators
It's about time we hand this trophy back to a winger, isn't it?
The last time a non-center won the Selke was in 2003, when Jere Lehtinen captured it for the third time. Since then, the Selke has seen more C's than I did in college-level math classes. (Quick aside: I got a D in Math 001 as a freshman because it was an 8 a.m. class and I never went, figuring I could ace the tests. Turns out there were also daily quizzes. Whoops.)
Stone plays right wing and had received a modicum of Selke love back in 2016-17, when he finished sixth in the voting. He was 22nd last season, mostly because his 58-game sample size wasn't nearly enough. He's played 28 games this season, has 30 points, and is just crushing it in the underlying numbers: His relative Corsi is 15.6 percent, he gets 56.99 percent of the high-danger shot attempts when on ice, and his scoring attempt percentage (58.06) is just on another planet compared to other Senators. I understand the impossible sales job that is "the best defensive player in the NHL is on a team giving up 4.07 goals per game," yet here we are.
Point's Selke case has been made for the past two months, as people start to recognize him as the next great young two-way center. The Lightning tasked him with being a shutdown guy, and his offense hasn't been sacrificed.
But Crosby? Yeah, Crosby.
The highest he's ever finished for the Selke is seventh, in 2016. But look at his numbers this season, especially in relation to what the Penguins have been, and I think he's got a case: 54.8 percent on faceoffs; a 9.76-percent relative Corsi that's best on the team; he's getting 57.8 percent of the scoring chances and about 60 percent of the high-danger shot attempts at 5-on-5; and the Penguins have a 91.84 save percentage at 5-on-5 during his 367 minutes in 23 games. His defensive game has steadily gotten better and has always been underappreciated. Maybe it's time to appreciate it.
Again, it's early. Right now, some of the usual suspects don't have the sample size (Patrice Bergeron) or are having off years (Anze Kopitar, Radek Faksa) or don't have the air-tight case some have made then out to have (Aleksander Barkov, Sean Couturier). Things can change here, and probably will, in a season in which the goals-per-game pace remains 3.08.
Jack Adams Award (best coach)
Leader: Barry Trotz, New York Islanders
The Jack Adams loves a redemption story, and Trotz going from the Stanley Cup championship to the Islanders -- and turning them into a playoff team -- would rank among the greatest one-year narratives for any coach. Housley and Peters both have their teams in playoff spots, with the former perhaps having more Jack Adams juice than the latter because, you know, "Buffalo."
Watch out for David Quinn with the Rangers, Jared Bednar should the Avalanche overtake the Predators for a division title, and most of all Ken Hitchcock if he bails enough water and turns that leaky ship around in Edmonton.