JFresh's 2020-21 NHL Award Predictions
It’s the morning of the 2020-21 NHL season premier, which could - if it all doesn’t get shut down after four days - be one of the greatest seasons in the history of the league. A shorter schedule, vitriol-inspiring new divisions, and the massive uncertainty surrounding almost every team should make things exciting from start to finish. A 56 game season is more prone to randomness and unpredictability than ever: the last time a shortened season took place, we got both a Norris and a Vezina winner who had never earned a single vote before, a 37 year old won the scoring title, and the President’s Trophy winner had the 4th highest point percentage in league history. This season could be weird as hell, in a beautiful way. But alas, I am a lowly stats man and I must try to predict things anyway, even if I know that the predictions will make me look stupid in a few months.
Usually when people put together their awards predictions, they are earnestly trying to guess who will deserve them, e.g. the discussion of who will win the Norris is about who will be the best defenceman. But we know that isn’t how voting works. Any trophy with the remotest amount of subjectivity involved will be influenced by some level of what I would consider irrationality. That means that I will be playing armchair psychologist here, using the past record and habits of the voters to speculate who they might end up liking this season. The result is what might be the most cynical awards prediction of all time.
Winner: Kirill Kaprizov
Runners-Up: Tim Stützle, Alexis Lafreniere
If last year was the Year of Defencemen, this time around it’s all about the forwards. And you know what that means: it’s the opposite of Whose Line is it Anyway because the points are all that matters. If Kirill Kaprizov is what he’s been hyped up to be for the past three years, the Wild won’t hesitate to give him every opportunity to essentially run the show on offence - that means big even strength minutes and top powerplay time. And after last season, when the top two picks put up unspeakably bad results, we have a duo at the top of the 2020 draft with skillsets that should translate effectively. Stützle will likely get to do essentially whatever he wants and will benefit from playing with Evgeny Dadonov, while Lafreniere might hopefully compensate for more limited minutes by racking up powerplay points with Panarin and Zibanejad.
Winner: Anthony Cirelli
Runners-Up: Sean Couturier, Mark Stone
Hear me out. If there’s one thing we know about the Selke, it’s a purely reputation-based award that typically goes to players a few years after they actually deserved it. It also typically has an expectation of point production baked in. Anthony Cirelli finished third in voting last year and his reputation is better than ever after playing a crucial defensive role in the Cup win last fall. Dom Luszczyszyn projects Cirelli at around 56 points, which is firmly in the wheelhouse of recent winners like Couturier and Bergeron. Speaking of which, Couturier seems like a fair bet to be a Bergeron-style standard bearer moving forward while Mark Stone could ride a visible season with the Knights in a weak division and the continued love of the stats nerds to a 3rd place finish.
Winner: Claude Julien or Joel Quenneville or Dean Evason
Like the Norris, the Adams is all about narrative. While with the Norris there are at least a handful of stats (mostly points) that the average voter can use to help make their decision, there are no individual coaching stats out there. As a result, while coaches will occasionally get recognition for doing great work for a contending team, more often than not the Adams is the “biggest surprise” award.
How does that improvement come about? Any smartass stats-savvy hockey fan knows that the Jack Adams is also the “great percentage luck” award. Six of the past seven winners have had their team finish top five in PDO, and typically you need either top tier goaltending, inflated shooting, or both to win:
With that in mind, I’m interested in teams that could ride a percentage bump - which could be even more powerful in a short season - to greatness. By definition this is impossible to really predict, but I’ll do my best here.
The Canadiens finished 26th in PDO due to poor shooting and unremarkable goaltending, finishing at an 82 point pace. If they can claw their way to a playoff spot this season, the pucks start going in, and Carey Price has a good year, they could fit the ticket perfectly. Claude Julien is generally considered an excellent coach and I don’t think the PHWA would have any issues about giving him recognition. The Panthers also struggled to keep pucks out last season, but it’s worth considering that Sergei Bobrovsky struggled far less after the November. If he bounces back, the “Joel Quenneville fixes the dysfunctional Panthers” narrative would be powerful. Finally, the Wild finally got Devan Dubnyk out of the starter’s net and have as legitimate a claim to that final Pacific playoff spot as anyone. Dean Evason would make a great “up-and-comer” story if Minnesota can get the job done.
If there isn’t a PDO bender surprise playoff team (which I doubt), they’ll probably just by default give it to John Cooper or Jared Bednar.
Winner: Seth Jones
Runners-Up: Cale Makar, Victor Hedman
Two things matter the most in Norris voting: points, and being “due.” In the past 14 seasons, 87% of defencemen who exceeded 500 votes also had over 50 points, meaning it will be important for candidates to hit that 34 point mark in the shortened season. And in the past 8 seasons, a different defenceman has won the Norris trophy every year. with six of those winner having previously finished top five in voting.
Seth Jones won’t break any scoring records but I believe he will have something more powerful: a Narrative. I have written extensively on why I do not consider Jones to be an elite player, but that’s irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that he is coming off of what was by any measure his least impressive season in years, and yet thanks to some visible playoff games his stock is higher than ever. What that tells me is that it will not matter at all how he actually plays, because what he brings in the eyes of most people is intangible defensive dominance. It would not surprise me at all if the hockey world decides that he is due for recognition and elevates him if the Jackets make the playoffs.
Cale Makar is a very good candidate to lead defencemen in scoring while playing on a good team, which would guarantee him a nomination spot, while Victor Hedman is kind of the default elite defenceman for a lot of people - a safe vote who’s not going to embarrass you.
Other solid candidates would be Shea Weber (maybe the last chance to get him one), Miro Heiskanen, and Quinn Hughes.
Winner: Carey Price
Runners-Up: Carter Hart, Andrei Vasilevskiy
Wins and save percentage. That’s the ball game here. As I’ve documented elsewhere, goaltending is borderline random and trying to predict it is an easy way to look really dumb. So this is pure speculation and guesswork. I’ve decided to double down on the Habs here, because if Montréal can make a solid push for the #2 or #3 seed in the North - or even grab the #1 spot - I could totally see the hockey world coalescing around Price.
Carter Hart’s here totally unironically - he was superb last year and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him rack up wins in the East division if Boston, Washington, or Pittsburgh falters. Finally, Vasilevskiy is a safety blanket for GMs and the Cup win should only solidify him - you could say he’s the Hedman of goalies.
Winner: Connor McDavid
Runners-Up: Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews
No, this isn’t very imaginative. But with Kucherov, Marchand, and Pastrnak looking out of the running due to injuries and Panarin and Draisaitl subject to regress a bit this year, this trio looks like a safe bet. A big consideration for me is who players will be playing against. McDavid and Matthews will both be in the North division, which projects to be the worst defensively by a wide margin and should allow for some heavy point accumulation. I think it’s fair to expect McDavid to win the scoring title this year and for Matthews to win the Rocket with that in mind. MacKinnon should similarly be able to take advantage of the teams at the bottom of the Pacific to challenge for that number one spot.