NHL Awards Watch: Calder Trophy race officially heating up

Scott Rovak/NHLI/Getty Images

The more the Tampa Bay Lightning chase history, as the NHL's top team is on track to challenge the league's single-season points record, the more awards they could collect in June. They have the MVP award nearly locked up, they lead in for the top goaltender award, and their coach is right in the mix for the Jack Adams.

But while the Lightning are the talk of the NHL, something else buzzworthy happened since the last awards watch: The resurgence of the St. Louis Blues and the emergence of goalie Jordan Binnington, who aims to spoil Elias Pettersson's Calder Trophy party.

Here's the NHL Awards Watch for March. 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 PHWA votes for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Lady Byng; broadcasters vote for the Jack Adams, and general managers handle the Vezina. Also keep in mind the "You Gotta Be In It To Win It" protocol for the Hart and the Jack Adams.

All stats from 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 (106 points)
Watch out for: Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks (94 points)
Dark-horse candidate: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (90 points)

Rocket Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)

Current leader: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (45 goals)
Watch out for: Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (40 goals)
Dark-horse candidate: John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (37 goals)

Hart Trophy (most valuable player)

Leader: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
Finalists: Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames; Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

The only possible argument to be made against Kucherov, who at this point is the overwhelming favorite to win the Hart Trophy? That the Lightning would still be the class of the Eastern Conference, and perhaps the league, regardless of his contribution. But that argument is a symptom of how we define "value" with regard to the Hart Trophy in the modern era, which is someone dragging their team to the playoffs through their sheer will. Wayne Gretzky won the award eight straight times in the 1980s with dynastic Edmonton Oilers teams, and no one filed a protest in most of those seasons. Nor should they with Kucherov.

He's on pace for 131 points, which would make him the first player to crack 130 since 1995-96. The Lightning have played 66 games. Kucherov has points in 50 of them. He may not be the sole reason why Tampa Bay is leading the NHL, but to deny his impact on the Lightning's point total -- and their pursuit of the all-time NHL mark for points in a season -- would be unacceptable.

Gaudreau (30 goals, 53 assists) was second in the PHWA midseason voting, and second in the most recent NHL.com straw poll. His next goal will set a career high for the 25-year-old Flames winger, and he's two points away from setting a standard in that category. He's an offensive pace-setter for one of the league's best offensive teams. As of now, a lock to be a Hart finalist.

That last spot is a bit wide open. Please keep in mind that we adhere to the "gotta be in it to win it" rule, which unfortunately means we dismiss the candidacies of current playoff outsiders Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks, Connor McDavid of the Oilers and the Colorado Avalanches' Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. Which means the last Hart Trophy finalist in this edition of the Awards Watch came down to two familiar faces (and rivals for nearly 15 years): Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.

You could make a strong case for the Penguins captain, who has done everything he can to drag Pittsburgh into the playoffs: 83 points in 62 games, including 29 goals, while putting forth perhaps the best defensive effort of his career. He's 17 points better than the next-leading scorer on the Penguins.

Ovechkin is 14 points better than the Capitals' next-leading scorer, but he's 24 goals better than T.J. Oshie, Washington's second-highest goal scorer. Again: Ovechkin's 45 goals are more than double the next-highest goal scorer's on the team. And he has a respectable 75 points in 65 games, too. It's easy to look at the defending Stanley Cup champs leading the Metro and assume that they've been on autopilot. But in reality, their goaltending has been suspect and they've had growing pains under new head coach Todd Reirden. So Ovechkin's performance has been absolutely vital, and the stuff of an MVP candidate.

Norris Trophy (top defenseman)

Leader: Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames
Finalists: Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks; Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

With 16 games remaining, Brent Burns is on pace for around 89 points. To put this in perspective: The highest point total for a defenseman in the last 25 years was 91 points by Ray Bourque in 1993-94. If we're going to hand Kucherov the MVP award for a historic point total on a really, really good team, how could we deny the Norris Trophy to Burns on similar terms?

Yet with every straw poll and in every conversation with voters, the wind is blowing in Giordano's direction. He's got the case for it, no doubt: 61 points in 63 games, skating 24:41 per night, a 56.5 Corsi for percentage and a plus-5.5 percent relative Corsi at even strength.

Most importantly, he has two things going for him that Burns does not: He's never won the Norris, and had a few promising campaigns thwarted by injuries; and he's got the "old guy" thing, as he attempts to become the fourth player in NHL history to win the Norris at age 35 or older. Giordano already gained headlines by becoming just the eighth player since 1979 to post a career high in points after his 35th birthday.

Burns has the overwhelming numbers. Giordano has the impressive numbers -- and the narrative.

The last finalist likely comes down to Morgan Rielly of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Letang, to whom I'm giving the nod here. Why? Both because he's having a better season than Rielly and because I hope this gesture might make some voters consider how much better he's been before casting their ballot for Rielly.

Letang has him beat in even-strength metrics per 60 minutes like primary assists (0.62 to 0.52), giveaways (2.29 to 3.36), takeaways (2.44 to 2.32) as well as shot attempts (plus-164 to minus-1) and scoring chances-for percentage (54.79 to 50.36). That's with fewer offensive zone starts on average as well. Letang plays more (25:55) than Rielly (22:49), including on the penalty kill. Hopefully he returns from the injury he suffered in the Stadium Series game quickly, and continues what we believe is a Norris-caliber season. But, keep in mind: In both the PHWA and NHL.com straw pools, Rielly was the third finalist.

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Leader: Mark Stone, Vegas Golden Knights
Finalists: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins; Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Stone remains on track to become the first winger to win the Selke since Jere Lehtinen in 2002-03. The Golden Knights' huge trade deadline acquisition, Stone has a 9.82-percent relative Corsi at 5-on-5, which is third best in the NHL. He's ninth in high-danger shot attempts percentage (58.4) among forwards who've skated a minimum 800 minutes. There's no predicting what his numbers end up doing with the Golden Knights, as much of his Selke case has been in comparison to his Ottawa teammates. But for now, he's the leader for the Selke.

Bergeron's place on this list is tenuous because he's only played 49 games. But he was third for the Selke last season and played 64 games, and it's not like he doesn't have a case: he's 57.5 percent on faceoffs, and has a stellar 7.10 percent relative scoring chances vs. that of his teammates. (He also topped the PHWA ballot at the midseason.)

As stated earlier, Crosby has been played at a high level defensively this season, with a 9.18 Corsi for percentage relative to his teammates, and the Penguins get 59.2 percent of the high-danger shot attempts at 5-on-5 when he's on ice, to go along with his 54.8 faceoff winning percentage. Not a traditional candidate for the Selke in some areas -- just 16.08 percent of his starts are in the defensive zone, for example -- but worthy of Selke consideration.

Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)

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

Vasilevskiy is putting together quite a season behind that Lightning juggernaut, with a 30-7-4 record, a .931 save percentage and an NHL-best 29.58 goals saved above average. The only issue is his work rate at 41 games (due to injury), which trails a couple of the league's other workhorses. But otherwise, he's been the NHL's best.

Andersen has a strong case, too, at 31-13-3 with a .923 save percentage and a .681 quality starts percentage that tops Vasilevskiy's (.634). As of Monday, no one has faced more shots on goal than Andersen, and he's been more than up to the task of being Toronto's last line of defense. In fact, if you believe in goalie point shares -- i.e. the estimate of the number of points contributed by a player due to his play in goal -- Anderson has added 11 points to the Leafs this season, best in the NHL.

Lehner (.931) and Thomas Greiss (.928) have such similar numbers that there might be concern the general managers who vote on the award will see them both as a product of the Islanders' system. If they don't, then Lehner obviously gets the nod for overcoming his personal struggles to the tune of a 23.13 goals saved above average. If they do, that could open the door for Dallas Stars goalie Ben Bishop, Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury or Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price to swoop into that final finalist spot.

Unless, of course, the general managers don't have any issue with a Vezina finalist tapping out at around 35 games, because there are two rookies that might have a rather strong case if they don't ...

Calder Trophy (top rookie)

Leader: Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
Finalists: Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues; Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres

There were two ways in which Pettersson wasn't going to win an award that he basically had in the bag after the first month of the season: Injuries, which have limited him to 55 games but haven't sabotaged his campaign; and someone just posting bonkers numbers in the second half of the season and presenting a compelling alternative to a favorite trying to wire the field.

Enter, Jordan Binnington.

The St. Louis Blues goalie is 15-3-1 and currently leads the NHL with a .933 save percentage and a 1.68 goals-against average. He has a quality starts percentage of .789, which is absurd; he has a 12.33 goals save above average, which is astounding. He's credited with helping the Blues go from the bottom of the conference to third in the Central Division. And he's got swagger:

Here's the problem: 21 games. That's his work history this season. The Blues have 17 games remaining. Even giving him 14 of those 17, that gets him to 35 games played. Is that enough to earn a spot as a finalist? With due respect to deserving rookies who would be pushed outside the top three -- looking at you, Miro Heiskanen, Brady Tkachuk, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Andreas Johnsson -- it probably does. But with Pettersson potentially playing in the neighborhood of 70 games and currently sporting 56 points in the 55 he has played, it won't be enough to dethrone him.

For a minute, it appeared we might get both Binnington and Carter Hart (.917, 2.79) in the top three for the Calder. But with Dahlin posting 37 points in 64 games and playing solid hockey all season, the final finalist spot should belong to him.

Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play)

Leader: Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Finalists: Ryan O'Reilly, St. Louis Blues; Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

Barkov has taken just one minor penalty this season to 27 drawn, which is astounding for a player with his defensive acumen. For Rielly to be a defenseman and only have eight penalty minutes is impressive. Ditto Ryan O'Reilly, who has 10 penalty minutes and won the Byng back in 2013-14 for his gentlemanly play.

But, once more, with feeling: The writers should have nothing to do with voting on this award. It should be handed out by the NHL Officials Association.

Jack Adams Award (best coach)

Leader: Barry Trotz, New York Islanders
Finalists: Craig Berube, St. Louis Blues; Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning

Oh, what a race this has turned out to be: Trotz, whose defensive system turned the Islanders into a division title contender and whose narrative -- Stanley Cup champion coach leaves in contract dispute to take over a team just in time to see its franchise player leave -- is undeniable; Cooper, who is orchestrating a season that may end up with the Lightning earning the highest single-season point total in NHL history; and Berube, who took over a complete mess, gave it the structure it needed and has it in the playoffs (thanks in no small part to an outstanding rookie goalie, but since when did the Jack Adams not reward coaches made by their goaltenders?) Trotz still has the lead here, for his story on and off the ice.