NHL Awards Watch: New leaders for MVP, Norris and Vezina

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Since our last installment, two major things have happened in NHL Awards watching. The first is that the Professional Hockey Writers Association released its midseason balloting, which is like a wet finger in the air to see where the winds are blowing for potential candidates. (And in the case of Aleksander Barkov for the Selke Trophy, an indication that maybe some of our peers are just filling in names without due diligence at this point in the season.)

The other major happening? John Gibson finally collapsing under the weight of the Anaheim Ducks after carrying them for three months. The goalie's January was a horror show, and that's not even counting the "welcome mat for pucks" that he was in the NHL All-Star Game. In the first month of 2019, Gibson went 2-5-2 with a .900 save percentage and a 3.26 goals-against average, giving up more even-strength goals (26) in nine games than he had in 12 games in either of the previous two months. That stretch, combined with the Ducks' distance from the wild card, has knocked Gibson off the Hart Trophy ballot, for the moment.

So who replaces him?

Here's the NHL Awards Watch for February.

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 that the PHWA votes for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Lady Byng trophies; broadcasters vote for the Jack Adams Award, and general managers handle the Vezina. Also be mindful of the "You Gotta Be in It to Win It" protocol for the Hart and the Jack Adams.

All stats from Corsica and Natural Stat Trick.

Jump ahead to an award:

Hart | Norris | Selke | Calder
Vezina | Lady Byng | Jack Adams

Art Ross Trophy (points leader)

Current leader: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning (80 points)
Watch out for: Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks (76 points)
Dark horse candidate: Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames (74 points)

Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leader: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (37 goals)
Watch out for: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (31 goals)
Dark horse candidate: David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins (30 goals)

Hart Trophy (most valuable player)

Leader: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
Finalists: Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames; Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks

The PHWA voters have Kucherov as their leader in the MVP race. Previously, he has been absent from this ranking, perhaps due to a glut of other worthy candidates or an allergy toward default placement of the Art Ross leader at the top of the Hart Trophy ballot. But it has become increasingly apparent that Kucherov isn't just the highest scorer on the league's best team, but he is the highest scorer on the league's best team by a considerable distance.

Through 52 games, he has 15 more points than Brayden Point, his frequent linemate, and 21 more points than the next leading Lightning scorer Steven Stamkos. You can see the difference in Point's offensive numbers when he's lined up with Kucherov. The Russian winger is having a special season, even if his goal-scoring pace is down a click from last season, when he was sixth for the Hart.

Gaudreau is another player thriving on an offensive juggernaut of a line (and of a team), but there's no denying the impact he is having in his best season in the NHL. When Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are on the ice, the Flames get a greater percentage of the goals scored, scoring chances and high-danger chances. The Flames' shooting percentage with those two on the ice is 11.11, compared to 7.69 when they're not on the ice. As for Gaudreau individually, consider this: He has 61 points (!) in the Flames' 34 wins this season, including 22 even-strength goals. One assumes his 1.40 points per game average is going to wane, but until then, Johnny Hockey is in line to become Johnny Hart.

The last spot here has been Nathan MacKinnon's to lose. The fact that the only thing Avalanche goaltending can save these days is some money on their car insurance by switching to Geico isn't his fault. But while both MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen can state strong MVP cases, we're giving the final slot in the top three to the Canucks' rookie sensation Pettersson.

His 1.12 points per game paces Vancouver, while his 23 goals lead the team -- and seven of those qualify as game-winning goals. The Canucks have a plus-34 goal differential when he is on the ice; when Pettersson isn't there, they have a minus-44 differential -- which speaks not only to the thinness of the team's lineup, but to the massive success that their rookie star has had by comparison.

The games played is an issue. Provided he doesn't miss anymore time, Pettersson would tap out at 71 games played. Taylor Hall won with 76 games played last season; Peter Forsberg won with 75 games played in 2002-03; and obviously Mario Lemieux won MVP awards with lighter work rates.

As it stands, Hall had a higher points per game (1.22) than Pettersson, but they share one aspect: the Big Narrative, wherein a team makes the playoff cut from out of nowhere thanks to the transformative efforts of a star player. Pettersson was a shot of adrenaline to a Canucks team that appeared middling at best before the season. If he gets them across the finish line with these numbers, he could challenge for MVP as a rookie, something no one has accomplished since another slender forward from the Western Conference named Wayne Gretzky did it in 1980.

Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Leader: Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
Finalists: Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames; Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks

This is where things get tricky in the Awards Watch. Giordano, at this juncture of the season, shouldn't be in the top three for the Norris. Yes, he is second in points (53) to Burns (57) and leads all defensemen in plus/minus at plus-30. He has the gaudy numbers and finished atop the PHWA ballot. He is, without question, the "Guy Who Deserves a Norris at Some Point So It Might as Well Be This Season" player.

The thing is, others have been better. It's impossible not to have him on this ballot because of all the "Giordano for Norris" hype that he has generated and because the Flames' offense isn't drying up anytime soon. But has he had a better season than the Sharks' defensemen listed here? Better than Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins or Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild or Mattias Ekholm of the Nashville Predators? I think Giordano is ahead of Morgan Rielly of the Toronto Maple Leafs, pending Jake Muzzin's impact in Toronto. But the notion that Giordano should be a Norris front-runner when he no longer is the best defenseman in his own division feels like a narrative decision rather than a factual one.

Having two defensemen from the same team up for the Norris would be a rarity in a post-expansion NHL, but Karlsson and Burns have only played 142 minutes together at 5-on-5 and have been that good otherwise. When neither of them is on the ice, the Sharks are a sub-50 percent possession team and have a 44.9 goals for percentage. Their impact, then, is considerable.

Karlsson has 43 points in 47 games, with a 6.84 relative Corsi percentage and a 53.85 goals-scored percentage. Burns leads all defensemen with 57 points in 53 games, with a 3.12 relative Corsi percentage and a 54.0 goals-scored percentage. Looking at expected goals -- which measures shot volume, adjusted for shot quality -- their numbers are extraordinary. As Travis Yost of TSN points out in his praise of the Sharks' duo, "Burns has played nearly 1,000 minutes to the tune of a 56 percent expected goal rate (and 54 percent actual goal rate). That's usually the type of performance that puts a guy in the middle of the Norris Trophy discussion. Karlsson has been even better at 5-on-5. His expected goal rate is above 60 percent (actual goal rate at 54 percent)."

These are phenomenal numbers, and they would be even more impressive if the Sharks didn't have the third-worst goaltending in the league this season (.891 save percentage). With strong candidates for the Norris in Toronto and Pittsburgh, it's difficult to envision the PHWA nominating two players from the same team for the prize, even when they're Norris darlings like Burns and Karlsson. But the numbers indicate it would be deserved at this point.

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Leader: Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators
Finalists: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins; Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

The writers picked the wrong year to back Aleksander Barkov, who is in the negative in goals (minus-7) and shot attempts (minus-43) at 5-on-5 this season in 50 games.

When Stone is on the ice for the Senators, they are a plus-14 in goal differential at 5-on-5. When he's off the ice, they're a minus-44. We've sung his praises for months as the rare winger who merits the Selke Trophy, and he has done little to invalidate that notion. His plus-12.16 relative Corsi and plus-14.76 in relative expected goals-for percentage just underscored it.

We've also been on the Crosby-for-Selke train for quite a while. He has a plus-30 goal differential at 5-on-5. Put in even more stark terms: Just 25 goals have been scored in the 763 even-strength minutes he has played, and the Penguins get over 68 percent of the goals scored. He has a relative Corsi percentage of plus-9.78, as well. It has been just a dominating all-around season for Sid, who also is 55.8 percent on faceoffs. He is right there with Stone.

Patrice Bergeron finished atop the PHWA ballot despite playing just 36 games this season, but if we're calling Elias "41 games" Pettersson a Hart candidate, we suppose Bergeron can be in the Selke conversation. As Bergeron seasons go, this isn't exactly one for the time capsule, but that's like calling something "a lesser Beatles album." He still is playing outstanding defensively relative to his teammates, has a 56.02 Corsi percentage and wins 56.7 percent of his faceoffs. It's a shame he missed that time to injury, though.

Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

Leader: Robin Lehner, New York Islanders
Finalists: Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs; Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

There's no question that Lehner has been the beneficiary of the system Barry Trotz has installed for the Islanders, who are giving up close to five fewer shots per game than they were last season. But as a Martin Brodeur supporter, it would be utter hypocrisy to not acknowledge Lehner's success as something symbiotic with, rather than as a by-product of, that system.

Lehner leads the NHL with a .932 save percentage in 28 games, going 16-7-4. He leads the NHL with a 2.02 goals-against average. His 18.79 goals saved above average is the best in the NHL, with a solid .654 quality starts percentage. Is 28 games enough, as compared with other workhorses? Better question: Should we hold the Islanders' usage against what is clearly, statistically, the best goalie in the league this season? (With the best backstory, without question. Lehner could sweep the Vezina and the Masterton.)

Andersen has contributed eight points in the standings to the Leafs with his stellar play, sporting a .922 save percentage and a 2.57 goals-against average in 35 games, all while facing an elephantine 1,146 shots. His 16.33 goals saved above replacement ranks him behind only Lehner and Vasilevskiy. The Lightning goalie has a .925 save percentage and a 21-7-2 record in 30 games. One assumes that the goalie for the best team in the NHL this season will receive Vezina love ... but honestly, the guy he replaced in Tampa -- Ben Bishop -- is having a better season with the Dallas Stars, sporting a .925 save percentage and a .625 quality starts percentage on what is demonstrably a worse team.

Gibson is on the back burner now after that horrific January. Keep an eye on him, along with Carey Price, who might get more credit than he deserves for the Montreal resurgence, and David Rittich, who probably doesn't get enough credit for the Flames' rise.

Calder Trophy (top rookie)

Leader: Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
Finalists: Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres; Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers

Pettersson has had this thing locked up for months, and BY GAWD THAT'S CARTER HART'S MUSIC!!!

True, the Flyers' rookie goaltender has 16 games to his credit. In those 16 games, he's 10-5-1, including a seven-game winning streak that's unexpectedly catapulted the Flyers back into the playoff race. That's the second-longest winning streak for a goalie under the age of 21 in NHL history, trailing only Jocelyn Thibault's 8-0-0. He has a .925 save percentage and a 2.48 goals-against average. It's only 16 games, but the buzz is with him, and his current trajectory should land him in the top three, besides the fact that he's a goaltender excelling in Philadelphia, which probably merits its own award.

(Please note that Jordan Binnington of the St. Louis Blues is 6-1-1 with a 1.86 GAA in 10 games, doing the same season-salvaging duty in the West as a rookie netminder.)

Pettersson still has this trophy in his silky hands, and may continue to unless injuries come into play. It was always a long shot that two rookie defensemen were going to make the Calder final three. Miro Heiskanen has been outstanding for the Dallas Stars, but Dahlin is second in rookie scoring (28 points). The only wrinkle might be if Jesperi Kotkaniemi or Andrei Svechnikov have a late-season offensive surge to help the Canadiens or Hurricanes (respectively) into a playoff spot.

Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play)

Leader: Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Finalists: Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames; Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

These are the top three finishers for the Byng, according to the PHWA midseason poll. Barkov has an incredible plus-22 penalty differential at 5-on-5, which we suppose makes him the apex of gentlemanly play this season. But overall, we'll repeat what we always say about this award: The writers should have nothing to do with it, and it should be an award handed out by the NHL Officials Association.

Jack Adams Award (best coach)

Leader: Barry Trotz, New York Islanders
Finalists: Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning; Bill Peters, Calgary Flames

Again, status quo. Trotz is the story of the season, as the Islanders just keep winning. Cooper's Lightning remain on a torrid points pace. Peters has the Flames at a remarkable plus-45 goal differential. But watch out for Paul Maurice if the Jets win the Central with more points than the Flames have in the Pacific.