Monday, June 21, 2010

Awards Picks: Hart, Vezina, Norris, Calder

The NHL Awards show will be Wednesday night in Las Vegas. Here's my take on the candidates for the Hart, Vezina, Norris, and Calder, formatted similarly to the picks of Ray Slover for the Sporting News.

Look at the Awards homepage for more.

Hart Trophy:

The Hart Memorial Trophy is an annual award given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team. The winner is selected in a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association in all NHL cities at the end of the regular season.

The candidates: Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Henrik Sedin bios

The favorite: Crosby or Sedin
Who should win: Ovechkin, in a tight one

You really can't go wrong with any of these three guys, but Ovechkin seems the best choice to me. He led the league in points per game and goals per game, narrowly missing out on the Art Ross and Rocket Richard Trophies while missing 10 games (4 due to suspension, 6 due to injury). He was named captain of the Capitals in January and the Capitals absolutely tore up the NHL thereafter, massing about 80% of the available points for the rest of the regular season. He was the most valuable player and best player on the best team, the centerpiece of the league's best offense, a catalyst on the league's best power play. Moreover, he was a +45 on the season, meaning the Caps were allowing nary a goal against at even strength while Ovechkin was on the ice. He also set a career high in assists and helped Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble to career best goals per game rates.

Ovechkin is mainly hurt by playing for a very deep, strong team, and having gotten little penalty killing time (though Sedin and Crosby didn't get much either), with very strong linemates.

Crosby at first glance has the best candidacy, if you ask me. He scored 51 goals to tie for the Richard with Steven Stamkos, with easily lesser teammates than either Ovechkin (Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble) or Sedin (Daniel Sedin, Alexandre Burrows) or Stamkos too (Martin St. Louis, Steve Downie). Pittsburgh as a team was nothing special this season--a strong team, to be sure, but no terrific offense like Washington or Vancouver, no superstar goalie like in Vancouver, and so on. What Crosby did was be the go-to guy on offense on a contender, one on which the wingers did little to nothing and the secondary scoring wasn't rampant in a down year for Evgeni Malkin. Marc-Andre Fleury, while possibly better than in years past, was still annoying Penguins fans to no end, and the Pittsburgh defense was going through trouble as well as top minute man Sergei Gonchar started showing his age, and also emerging as a top faceoff man for his team and in the league. All this while playing tough minutes with weak teammates (by QTeam and QComp).

What ruins Crosby's candidacy for me are a few inconsistencies. First, without Evgeni Malkin in the lineup, Crosby struggled, scoring nowhere near a point per game and in fact closer to 0 points over 82 games than 82 over a season. He also had a large discrepancy in terms of goals at home versus goals on the road--a bit larger than normal, perhaps even acceptable, but Ovechkin showed a lot more balance in his goal scoring. Nitpicky, to be sure, but that's the nature of this award.

Henrik Sedin won the Art Ross Trophy playing in the tougher conference and going one-fourth of the season without his twin brother Daniel on his line due to Daniel Sedin's injury. No other Western Conference player comes remotely close to Sedin's point totals, and that's with Sedin also not even playing 20 minutes a game, significantly less that Ovechkin or Crosby, and playing less on the power play as well. He also averaged better than an assist a game, and you have to think that with Daniel in the lineup all season Henrik Sedin would have hit the 90 assists mark and possibly made a run at 100 (a special mark indeed).

While the West is certainly better, sometimes the difference is overstated. Sedin's QTeam and QComp show him to play with very strong teammates against below average competition. While these measures are imperfect and break down when line matching (checking vs scoring) is in place, the sheer difference between the numbers for Sedin and for Crosby/Ovechkin says to me that Sedin had a bit of an easy time at even strength, since those are too big to be made up by occasional line matching. Moreover, Sedin scored only 29 goals this season, while his competitors scored 50 each while amassing similar point totals. Considering goals are rarer than assists, this is another knock on Sedin. He too played on a deep team in Vancouver, one with a better defense on paper than either Washington or Pittsburgh, yet managed a +34. While good in a vacuum, Daniel Sedin was also +34, meaning over about 20 games which Daniel missed Henrik Sedin was roughly a break-even player at even strength (+0). Not even close to good enough. He gets a lot of praise for that time, but if he was scoring a goal every two games, a point a game, yet +0 a game, then something is wrong. The Canucks as a team stepped up without Daniel Sedin, Henrik didn't just carry them on his shoulders.

Vezina Trophy

The Vezina Trophy is an annual award given to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at this position as voted by the general managers of all NHL clubs.

The candidates: Martin Brodeur, Ilya Bryzgalov, Ryan Miller bios

The favorite: Miller
Who should win: Miller

Brodeur gets the nod because he's Martin freakin' Brodeur, but in reality more deserving of the nomination would be Tuuka Rask or Tomas Vokoun, the most underrated goalie since the lockout. Vokoun had a terrific save percentage and even-strength save percentage (special teams save percentage varies quite a bit from year to year, so ESSv% is the best indicator of a goalie's talent), well above the other candidates.

Back to the candidates--Brodeur started a lot of games for a good team coached by the master of the trap, Jacques Lemaire. Hence his numbers will look good.

Bryzgalov is an interesting case. He finished second in shutouts to Brodeur (with 8 fewer games played, so a tie could have been conceivable) while posting a better save percentage and even strength save percentage on a team that was much younger and much worse on paper than New Jersey. Phoenix, in fact, finished in the bottom 5 in goals for, yet finished 3rd in goals against, in large part due to great goaltending as Phoenix finished with 50 wins and 107 points, good for 4th in the West and well ahead of New Jersey. If New Jersey hadn't been so well disciplined Phoenix would have allowed fewer goals than New Jersey.

The knock on Bryzgalov is that his backup, Jason LaBarbera, posted good numbers as well, hinting that maybe the team defense on Phoenix was more to credit than the goaltending, much as we all love stories of goalies picked up on waivers who later win Vezinas.

So that leaves Miller. Last season Buffalo fell out of the playoffs without Miller, but this season with a healthy Miller they made the playoffs, meaning he certainly has value over replacement. He posted stellar all around numbers, including a ridiculous (and unsustainable over the long term) shorthanded save percentage. The Olympics only served to show again that he is the real deal.

Norris Trophy

The James Norris Memorial Trophy is an annual award given to the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position. The winner is selected in a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association at the end of the regular season.

The candidates: Drew Doughty, Mike Green, Duncan Keith bios

The favorite: Keith
Who should win: Green

This is a very tight race. First thing to note is the time on ice numbers. Keith played much more than either Doughty or Green at even strength and on the penalty kill, while Green played much more than either Keith or Doughty on the power play.

Green led the three in goals, assists, points, power play goals, power play assists, power play points, and plus-minus, and his +/-ON/60 at 5-on-5 was the best of the three by about a goal and a half. The even strength and power play offense Green can provide, in short, is amazing.

On defense at 5-on-5, though, both Keith and Doughty are better. Doughty per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 time was giving up under two goals, compared to close to 2.4 for Green and 2.75 for Keith. Of course, competition matters as do teammates, and fact is Green played with the best teammates and against the easiest competition. Keith played the toughest competition with the worst teammates, while Doughty fell in between.

On the PK, Keith really shines. Under 5 goals against per 60 minutes of 4-on-5 time, plus about 2.3 goals for as well. Doughty gave up more than 6.5 while Green was just above 7, all this with Keith playing more than half his team's PK time. This lead in defense by Keith is somewhat mitigated though by the fact that he played on the best team by Fenwick%, had the best defensive forwards on his team, and played with the best defensive partner in Brent Seabrook (as opposed to Jeff Schultz for Green and Rob Scuderi for Doughty).

Doughty comes out ahead in the general perception of physicality--hits, blocked shots, and so on, though that may not always be the case. He, unfortunately, led (along with Green) the three in giveaways, meaning Keith was more responsible with the puck; then again, Green handles the puck more than almost any other player. Keith and Green had similar takeaway numbers (Green coming out ahead by equating games played) while Doughty came in behind.

In short, Green wins on offense, Keith on defense, and Doughty brings both well. For me though, Green's prolific offense outweighs his average defense. At one point post-Olympics, Green at 5-on-5 was +40, while Keith was +4 (remember that CHI scored a lot of shorthanded goals, which give players +1), for example. That difference is huge. Finally, Green post-Olympics was hands-down the best defenseman in the NHL by my visual analysis, while Keith struggled.

Calder Trophy

The Calder Memorial Trophy is an annual award given to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League. The winner is selected in a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association at the end of the regular season and each individual voter ranks their top five candidates on a 10-7-5-3-1 points system. Three finalists are named and the trophy is awarded at the NHL Awards ceremony after the playoffs.

The candidates: Matt Duchene, Jimmy Howard, Tyler Myers bios

The favorite: Myers
Who should win: Myers

This one is easy. Duchene is automatically out for me since general knowledge is that defense and goalie are harder to come in and play than forward, and both the goalie (Howard) and the defenseman (Myers) put up not just impressive-for-a-rookie numbers, but impressive-for-anyone numbers.

Myers finished second in points to Duchene, while playing against seriously tough competition. This is a defenseman, folks. Howard had a great team ahead of him, one which really turned it on down the stretch (leading to Howard love; before, though, he was more of a dark horse candidate). Furthermore, defense is the hardest to come in and play, by conventional wisdom. This one is a slam dunk.

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