Sports

NHL Awards Watch: MacKinnon or Kucherov for MVP? Competition for Bedard?

New Year’s Day is the moment when the NHL season hits another gear. Suddenly it’s All-Star Weekend. Then it’s the trade deadline. Then teams start getting eliminated from playoff contention, while others start clinching postseason spots.

Along the way, the NHL’s awards races will come into sharper focus, too. Already we’re starting to see the voters flock to some favorites at the top of their ballots.

Welcome to the NHL Awards Watch for January, where the actual voters for some of these awards share their current thinking. 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 (61 points)
Watch out for: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (58 points)
Longer shot: Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers (50 points)


Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leader: Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (29 goals)
Watch out for: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning (26 goals)
Longer shot: Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks (24 goals)


Hart Trophy (MVP)

Leader: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
Finalists: Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks; Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

For 19 games this season, Nathan MacKinnon decided that he wouldn’t be stopped. He’s one of the few players in the NHL who has the luxury and the talent to decide such things, a player who can strap his team to his back and carry it for over a month. His 19-game point streak was the second longest by an Avalanche player in franchise history. He posted 13 goals and 23 assists in those 19 games.

The timing of that streak obviously played to his benefit in this edition of Awards Watch, as the streak finished up Dec. 29. MacKinnon earned 42% of the first-place votes from our panel to shoot to the top of the Hart Trophy balloting. MacKinnon is seeking his first league MVP award, having finished second twice and third once in the voting.

“MacKinnon is a bull in a metal shop but he still manages to break things when he hits them,” one voter said. “No superstar impacts the game with his physicality quite like MacKinnon.”

“This might be the most consistently dominant he’s looked in his career for a team that’s needed consistency,” another voter said.

MacKinnon’s hot streak kept the Avs in a three-team fight for the Central Division crown, and catapulted him near the top of the league’s scoring leaders. But as of Dec. 31, there was one player who had amassed more points than MacKinnon: Nikita Kucherov, who was the second-highest vote-getter among our panelists.

Kucherov had 61 points, including 26 goals, in 37 games. The Lightning haven’t been themselves this season. Andrei Vasilevskiy missed time and has not been as dominant as usual, and the team has a 3.46 goals-against average. Tampa Bay has scored itself out of trouble in some games. Kucherov is a big reason for that.

“Tampa is probably not near a playoff spot had it not been for him,” one voter argued.

One of the criteria used through the years for the Hart Trophy has been the distance between a player’s point total and those of his teammates. MacKinnon was 12 points ahead of Mikko Rantanen and 15 points ahead of Cale Makar as of Dec. 31. Kucherov was 21 points ahead of Brayden Point for the Lightning scoring lead. He has meant everything to them.

Hughes was third in the voting, with around 16% of the first-place ballots. He was in the top three for the award in last month’s edition, too.

The Canucks captain led all defensemen in points through 36 games (45 points), logging 24:32 per game.

“The way the Canucks have turned it around with him at the helm is outstanding,” one voter said. “The Hart goes to the ‘player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.’ If that doesn’t define Hughes this season, I don’t know what does.”

But for argument’s sake, one voter felt that J.T. Miller was a more worthy MVP candidate than Hughes. “It’s hard not to notice Miller’s starring role in the Canucks’ stunning rise,” said the voter, who ultimately had MacKinnon up top. “Not only does he lead the team in points, he is excelling at both ends of the ice.”

Since 1969, the Hart Trophy has been awarded to only two defensemen: Hall of Famers Bobby Orr, who won the award three straight seasons from 1969 to ’73, and Chris Pronger, who won the award with the St. Louis Blues in 1999-2000.

In the history of the award, no American-born defenseman has won the Hart. Fun fact: More defensemen born in the United Kingdom (Tom Anderson, 1941-42) than U.S.-born blueliners have won NHL MVP.

The next highest vote-getter for the Hart was New York Rangers winger Artemi Panarin, who leads the NHL’s top team with 50 points in 35 games. Also receiving first-place votes were David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins and Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“I think Matthews and Kucherov are the other Hart finalists at this point,” one MacKinnon voter said.


Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

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

Since the start of the season, it has felt like a two-defenseman race for the Norris Trophy. This month’s Awards Watch did nothing to shake that feeling.

Hughes was on top in November. Then Makar shot to the lead last month with around 56% of the first-place votes. This month, it’s Hughes on top again, and with a rather emphatic lead over his rival on the Avalanche.

Hughes earned a whopping 79% of the first-place votes. He and Makar were the only defensemen to receive first-place votes for the Norris.

“They have been the two best defensemen this year,” one voter said. “It’s not to say others may not challenge but they do so much for a pair of teams that have been among the top 10 in the league this year.”

Hughes leads Makar in points and plus-minus, but Makar is ahead in points per game and plays slightly more on average.

Neither player had a blockbuster December, but Hughes was slightly better from a point-production standpoint (12 points in 12 games). Makar, meanwhile, was overshadowed by the points explosion from his teammate MacKinnon.

“Hughes has cooled a little bit of late, but he’s still on track for 102 points and he is impacting the Vancouver offense at a staggeringly consistent pace with puck possession numbers that lap the rest of the field,” one Hughes voter explained.

Some of Hughes’s underlying numbers aren’t as stellar as Makar’s, as the Avalanche defenseman has the clear advantage in expected points percentage, for example. Makar also plays a more critical role on the team’s penalty kill than Hughes does for the Canucks.

Makar won the Norris in 2021-22 and has been a finalist for three straight seasons. Hughes has never been a finalist.

The only other defenseman to earn a mention from our voters was Dobson, who had 35 points in his first 35 games while skating to a plus-17.

“Dobson was third in points by NHL defensemen as of Dec. 29 and second in average ice time to LA’s Drew Doughty. He has been a rock,” said one voter who had Hughes in first.


Calder Trophy (top rookie)

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

For the second straight month, Bedard is the unanimous choice for NHL rookie of the year, earning every first-place vote.

The first overall pick in the 2023 NHL draft had 32 points in his first 35 games, with 15 goals, both best among rookies. He filled highlight reels with goals that showed off his skill — see above that Michigan goal against the Blues — and his star status, like his recent overtime game-winner for the Hawks.

Bedard is skating 19:37 per game, the highest for any rookie forward.

“Seriously, why bother listing Nos. 2 and 3?” one voter quipped.

In fairness, there are a few other rookies on the radar, if not on Bedard’s level yet.

Luke Hughes of the New Jersey Devils was pushing Bedard earlier this season for the Calder, and is still logging big minutes (19:59 per game.) But he’s been market corrected by Faber, who leads all rookie with 24:43 in ice time per game, which puts him in the top 10 for all players this season. He also has 16 points in 34 games.

“Listen, I love Faber, but it’s freakin’ Connor Bedard,” one voter said.

“Brock Faber is making a case as a rookie, but the only way Bedard does not win is injury,” another declared.

Another Wild player to consider: Marco Rossi, a center who is still eligible for rookie of the year despite having appeared in two previous seasons. Rossi has 22 points in 34 games and has some impressive underlying defensive numbers.

“Rossi’s 11 goals were second among NHL rookies and a much-needed offensive boost for a team that still isn’t getting enough from Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello,” one Bedard voter noted.

Another name to watch, as he was tied with Rossi in goals after 38 games: Adam Fantilli of the Columbus Blue Jackets.


Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

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

Leader: Thatcher Demko, Vancouver Canucks
Finalists: Adin Hill, Vegas Golden Knights; Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

Demko continues to lead the Vezina voting from our panelists, but his lead has decreased.

The Canucks goaltender had 70% of the first-place votes last month. That lead is down to 47% of the first-place votes in this Awards Watch.

Through 25 games, Demko was 17-7-1 with a .917 save percentage and a 2.46 goals-against average for surprising Vancouver. One voter felt Demko deserved first overall “even if his save percentage has slipped slightly.”

Cutting into Demko’s lead is Hellebuyck, who replaces Dallas Stars goalie Jake Oettinger in the top three. Oettinger didn’t receive a first-place vote this month.

Per Money Puck, Hellebuyck led all goalies in goals saved above expected through 26 games, just slightly ahead of Demko. Hellebuyck won the Vezina in 2019-20 and has been top three on three occasions. With the Jets contending for the Central Division title, Hellebuyck will continue to get his props for the Vezina.

Meanwhile, Hill continues to get support despite having been beset by injuries over the last month. He made his return from injury on Dec. 17 but lasted just over six minutes before leaving the game. It was his only appearance for the month.

Still, the numbers have kept voters impressed. Hill has a .933 save percentage, a 1.93 goals-against average and a 10-2-2 record in 15 appearances. The work rate might not be there, but there was some proof of concept that Hill’s playoff heroism wasn’t an aberration.

“It has to be Adin Hill, because we all definitely saw this coming,” one voter snarkily noted.

Right behind Hill was Cam Talbot of the Los Angeles Kings. He has a 14-7-3 record with a stellar .924 save percentage for the Kings, and ranked sixth in goals saved above expected.

“What a renaissance Talbot is enjoying behind a team that defends extremely well,” one voter said. “I don’t want to call him a system goalie, but like Adin Hill in Vegas, I wonder.”

The only other goalie to receive a first-place vote was Ilya Sorokin of the New York Islanders, last year’s runner-up.


Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Leader: Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Finalists: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins; Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

Barkov might be on his way to succeeding Patrice Bergeron as Mr. Selke.

Barkov earned just over 47% of the first-place votes, topping the ballot for the NHL’s top defensive forward for the second straight month. Opponents are averaging just 1.25 goals against per 60 minutes when Barkov is on the ice.

“Florida’s expected goals numbers when he’s on the ice are off the charts,” one Barkov backer said.

“He’s a total monster this year,” another opined.

Barkov already has one Selke win. Kopitar has won the award twice in his incredible career and has the same kind of on-ice impact as Barkov (the Kings average 1.67 goals against per 60 minutes with Kopitar on the ice).

Interestingly enough, one voter felt Kopitar wasn’t even the best defensive forward in his team.

Phillip Danault‘s defensive acumen is a big reason why the Kings are every bit a Cup contender,” said the voter, who ultimately cast their ballot for Barkov.

Please note that Kopitar has a better faceoff winning percentage (57.8%) than either Danault or Barkov.

The only other forward to receive multiple votes was Crosby. He’s crushing it on faceoffs (60.9%) but doesn’t factor into the team’s penalty kill like Barkov and Kopitar do for their teams. Crosby has an under-the-radar Selke candidate for a few years now.

Other players to receive first-place votes for the Selke beyond the top three: Mikael Backlund of the Calgary Flames, Sean Couturier of the Philadelphia Flyers, William Karlsson of the Vegas Golden Knights, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Eeli Tolvanen of the Seattle Kraken.

Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller and Carolina Hurricanes center Jordan Staal, who were finalists in last month’s Awards Watch, did not receive first-place votes this month.


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.

Through Dec. 31, Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson and Toronto’s Auston Matthews were both in the top 20 among scorers and had just two penalty minutes.


Jack Adams Award (best coach)

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

Leader: Rick Tocchet, Vancouver Canucks
Finalists: Peter Laviolette, New York Rangers; John Tortorella, Philadelphia Flyers

Through 36 games, the Vancouver Canucks were atop the Pacific Division. The work that Tocchet’s done in turning around the team is getting much of the credit — specifically, their improvement defensively from 25th in the NHL in goals against per game last season to fourth this season.

Granted, a healthy and effective Thatcher Demko likely played a role in that. But there’s no denying that Vancouver has been a much improved team overall in Tocchet’s first full season.

“Tocchet took a lot of criticism for his lack of success in Tampa and Arizona. It’s funny how different a coach can look when he has some talent with which to work,” one voter said. “I don’t know if Tocchet has learned from the hard-driving, negative-reinforcement tactics he used in previous stops, but it’s clear right now that he has the Canucks’ ears.”

Tocchet earned just over 52% of the first-place votes. The second-most first-place votes went to Tortorella, who has turned the Flyers into an unexpected playoff contender.

“Him being my Jack Adams favorite is the wildest thing to happen this year,” one voter said.

“It’s January and the Flyers have not faded at all. They have gone from the reality of a rebuild into a resurgence in under a year, largely due to Tortorella,” another voter explained. “They have balanced scoring, they get an investment from all five skaters on the defensive end, they play a physical game.”

Laviolette made the top three for the second straight month, with the Rangers atop the NHL in points at the end of 2023. He has them playing with pace and toughness while getting contributions from throughout the lineup.

Laviolette has never won the Jack Adams Award, having lost to then-Sabres coach Lindy Ruff by a single point in the voting in 2006.

Right behind Laviolette in this month’s Jack Adams voting was Andre Tourigny, head coach of the Arizona Coyotes, who has orchestrated some Mullett Magic in getting them into the wild-card race.

“If Andre Tourigny can lead the vagabond Coyotes to the playoffs, he deserves the award — even ahead of Rick Tocchet,” one voter declared.

Boston Bruins coach Jim Montgomery was the only other coach to receive a first-place vote.

“I don’t understand how the Bruins are still this good without Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci up the middle,” one voter said. “Their center depth is not strong, yet here they are atop the Atlantic Division… again.”

The favorites are coming into focus for these awards races. But there’s still plenty of season left.

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