Let’s cut to the chase: Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov is the NHL MVP no matter whether you define “most valuable” as the best player on the best team or as the player who had the best season. The question isn’t whether he has been the NHL’s top skater this season but rather how much better he has been than anyone else in an unusually high-performing field.
The 25-year-old from Russia has a league-leading 126 points (40 goals and 86 assists), 10 points more than Connor McDavid, who is second, for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning, shattering the franchise scoring record set by Vincent Lecavalier (108 points in 2006-07) and the assist record shared by Brad Richards (68 in 2005-06) and Martin St. Louis (2010-11). Kucherov also tallied 71 points (21 goals, 50 assists) during the first 43 games of the season, becoming the first player since Jaromir Jagr in 1999-2000 to hit the 70-point plateau that quickly. And lastly, he passed Joe Thornton (2005-06) for the most points in the salary cap era.
And while some pad their point totals with secondary assists, only McDavid (57) has more primary assists than Kucherov (53) and no player has been credited with a higher percentage of points on his team’s goals scored (82 percent) while on the ice. No player has a higher rate of points scored per 60 minutes than Kucherov does this season, either.
“It’s not at all surprising. He was unbelievable last year and seemed to get no recognition for it,” McDavid told John Wawrow of the Associated Press. “They’re a team that scores a lot of goals. And he’s in on most of them. It’s pretty impressive.”
Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames) and Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals) could (maybe ... possibly ...) siphon some votes away from Kucherov, but this should be a unanimous choice for the Hart.
Here are my picks for the other major end-of-season awards. Spoiler alert: Some are controversial.
Norris Trophy — Best defenseman
Candidates: Brent Burns (San Jose Sharks), John Carlson (Washington Capitals), Mark Giordano (Calgary Flames)
Winner: John Carlson
This is the closest race in years, but the award’s directive — “an annual award given to the defenseman who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position” — helps determine a winner.
To be included for discussion, a blue-liner must play in all phases of the game: even strength, on the power play and on the penalty kill. And they cannot be token minutes; he must be a fixture at all times on the ice. If we set (arbitrary) minimums of 1,000 even-strength minutes with 150 minutes on both the power play and penalty kill, we can whittle the pool of 230 active defenseman to 13. We can then remove anyone who negatively impacts his team’s play in any of the three phases using goals above replacement, a one-size-fits-all number that encapsulates how valuable a player is in terms of on-ice play, relative to a replacement-level player.
Perhaps surprisingly to everyone other than former Norris winner Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, Burns does negatively impact his team on the penalty kill (minus-1.6 GAR in 2018-19), eliminating him from contention even though he leads the league’s defensemen in scoring. Eliminating Burns and the other 10 blue-liners who are a drag on their team in at least one of the three phases of the game leaves us Carlson, Giordano and the Minnesota Wild’s Jared Spurgeon.
Spurgeon is having a fine year but not one that stands up to the résumés of Giordano, the second-leading scorer behind Burns, or Carlson’s career-high 70 points, the fourth-most among defensemen. Giordano, in turn, isn’t as helpful as Carlson, the most valuable defenseman overall this season, according to goals above replacement. That in of itself might not be traditional enough to sway the voters, but the 29-year-old also has a plus-21 rating while skating almost a minute per shift, the third-highest allotment behind Dustin Byfuglien and Ryan Suter.
Vezina Trophy — Best goalie
Candidates: Frederik Andersen (Toronto Maple Leafs), Ben Bishop (Dallas Stars), Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay Lightning)
Winner: Ben Bishop
Every Vezina winner since 1995-96, not including abbreviated seasons, has won at least 30 games, showing how important that criteria is to the 31 general managers who vote for the award. But that shouldn’t stop Bishop, 26-15-2 in 45 games, from claiming his first Vezina. After all, Dallas hasn’t made it easy for Bishop to win, unlike some of the other contenders. For example, the Lightning provided Vasilevskiy 3.7 goals per game of support during his starts. Andersen received 3.6 goals per game in support from the Maple Leafs. The Stars averaged just 2.7 goals for Bishop, which is the league average. If Bishop had similar goal support to what Vasilevskiy and Andersen enjoyed, he’d probably have 30 or more wins.
The Stars netminder also leads the NHL in save percentage (.933) and is a league-leading 30 goals better than an average netminder facing the same number of shot attempts. Vasilevskiy is second in goals saved above average (26).
Bishop’s high-danger save percentage at even strength (.877) is also the highest among goaltenders facing at least 250 such shots. He also has stopped 34 of 38 high-danger shots against on the penalty kill (.895 save rate), the second-best performance after the Philadelphia Flyers’ Carter Hart.
Calder Memorial Trophy — Rookie of the year
Candidates: Jordan Binnington (St. Louis Blues), Rasmus Dahlin (Buffalo Sabres) and Elias Pettersson (Vancouver Canucks)
Winner: Elias Pettersson
Pettersson was a slam dunk for this award early in the season — the 20-year-old from Sweden tallied 23 goals and 45 points in his 40 games before the all-star break — but then he mustered just four goals and 20 points in the 30 games since. That opened the door for Binnington, the Blues’ young stud goaltender, to make it a race.
Binnington, 23-5-1 with a .927 overall save percentage and NHL-leading 1.89 goals against average, is a big reason St. Louis is in the playoffs, but his NHL debut didn’t occur until December, swinging the pendulum back to Pettersson and his 70 games played.
Plus, Pettersson’s scoring rate cannot be overlooked: His 0.94 points per game are the seventh-highest since 1998-99 among rookies skating at least 1,000 minutes. Only Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Mathew Barzal, Artemi Panarin and Paul Stastny had more productive debuts.
Jack Adams Award — Coach of the year
Candidates: Jon Cooper (Tampa Bay Lightning), Bill Peters (Calgary Flames), Barry Trotz (New York Islanders)
Winner: Barry Trotz
The Jack Adams Award is bestowed by the NHL Broadcasters’ Association to “the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success.” That wording makes it easy to choose Trotz, last year’s winner as well.
In 2017-18, the Islanders were the worst defensive team in the NHL. They allowed 293 goals, the most any squad gave up since the Philadelphia Flyers permitted 297 in 2006-07, with 174 of those originating from high-danger areas such as the slot and the crease. This year the Islanders have allowed a league-low 190 goals against, with just 110 coming from high-danger areas.
Plus, Trotz — without the services of John Tavres, who bolted for Toronto this summer — helped the Islanders exceed expectations by a wide margin.
Before the season, the Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn recorded 14 different point predictions from methods that included Vegas over/unders, NHL 19 video game simulations and analytical models as well as educated guesses at point totals for the 2018-19 campaign. The average point total for New York was 81, the sixth-lowest among all NHL teams. The Islanders have 101, 20 more than expected, with one game to play. The Flames, by comparison, are exceeding their projection (91.9) by 15.1 points.
The Lightning averaged a projection of 105.4 points with an actual total of 126, but they were supposed to be good. The Islanders weren’t and couldn’t have been without Trotz’s influence.
Note: Neil Greenberg is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association but does not participate in the voting for the year-end awards per the policy of The Washington Post.
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