JFresh's 2021 NHL Award Picks
Deciding the 2020-21 Hart, Norris, Vezina, Selke, Calder, and Adams Trophies
With the 2020-21 regular season coming to an end *ahem* shortly, we get to enjoy a brief window to scream at eachother about who deserves the year-end awards this time around. Mercifully this is a lot shorter than the six months of Draisaitl vs. Panarin vs whoever we enjoyed last summer, and the biggest trophy is a lot less controversial than it was in 2020. But there are still some very interesting races, and as you might expect, a lot of the narratives that have developed around them over the coure of the season don’t quite line up with the underlying results. With this in mind, I thought I might offer my own, analytically-informed and surely totally uncontroversial takes on who deserves the hardware.
Stats used here come primarily from my own player cards and TopDownHockey’s Wins Above Replacement and Expected Goal models.
Winner: Kirill Kaprizov - LW, Minnesota Wild
Runners-Up: Jason Robertson, Alex Nedeljkovic
While the notion that Kirill Kaprizov single-handedly carried the Wild franchise to new heights this season is overblown (for that you can credit “not playing Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock”), he undeniably turned in a superb performance this season. While his underlying numbers might not quite match his elite production, they were rock-solid and I have no problem crediting his elite shot and strong passing ability enough to bridge the gap. Whether or not you think Kaprizov should be eligible due to age and his KHL career, the fact of the matter is that he is, and given the rules of the award it does not make sense to penalize him for having a less “impressive” performance relative to his younger competition.
Jason Robertson made a hard run at this and barely falls short in my mind. He matched Kaprizov’s 5v5 primary point total in four fewer games and no player had such a stark impact on his team scoring goals in terms of on/off ice numbers. And if Alex Nedeljkovic had put up the results that he did in 30+ rather than 23 games, he would quite possibly eclipse both of them; he finished 4th in total goals saved above expected (GSAx) this season by TopDownHockey’s model and 2nd in GSAx per game. Doing that after passing through waivers is yet another bit of evidence that (say it with me) goaltending! is! voodoo!
Honourable Mentions: Josh Norris, Nils Hoglander
Winner: Joe Pavelski - C/RW, Dallas Stars
Runners-Up: Philip Danault, Joel Eriksson Ek
Oftentimes, analytically-informed Selke Trophy nominations go towards bottom-six players, typically wingers. This is because many of them grade out extremely well in scoring-chance-suppression metrics relative to top six players and especially centres. If I was going purely on that basis, you’d likely see Zach Aston-Reese and Valeri Nichushkin and Marcus Foligno on here, and while I don’t begrudge people who choose to take the award literally, I favour players who are able to put up elite defensive results in a larger role where their responsibilities are a bit larger than “forecheck and waste time for 13 minutes a night.”
What a season for the 36-year old Joe Pavelski, who stepped into a top line role to replace the injured Tyler Seguin, led the team in scoring, and put up the best defensive results in the NHL. 1st in defensive wins above replacement, 1st in expected goals against per 60, no top six forward in the league was better at preventing scoring chances against this season. While you can quibble with his lack of penalty kill time (37 minutes total), in my mind he provided more defensive value in his 5v5 minutes alone than anybody else did in 5v5 + PK minutes combined.
Next up is the much-maligned Philip Danault, who benefits from the fact that the Selke rules don’t say anything about goals or powerplay points. Danault gets deployed like a shut-down centre - the 2nd-heaviest defensive zone start rate and some of the highest quality of competition in the NHL - and, well, shuts his opponents down. He was 2nd in defensive WAR and did an excellent job considering the defence-optional nature of the North generally. Rounding out the trio is Joel Eriksson Ek, an elite play-driving forward for a few years who broke out this season as the Wild’s second line centre to finally receive the recognition he deserves.
Additionally, the guys who will be nominated for this award (Mark Stone and Alex Barkov, namely) will be just as much if not moreso for their offensive play and production than their defence. Both were pretty good chance suppressors this season but not at an elite level, while they were two of the top offensive players in the league. That being said, I will definitely not be upset if Stone gets the Couturier treatment this year and receives the Selke a few years after he actually deserves it.
Honourable Mentions: Patrice Bergeron, Alex Iafallo, Sidney Crosby
Jack Adams Award
Winner: Joel Quenneville - Florida Panthers
Runners-Up: Jared Bednar, Barry Trotz
There’s no real science to this one, no model I’m going to go off of. I just want to dodge the crap that usually decides this award. As I found when I did my preseason predictions, the Adams usually comes down to two factors: improved standings performance compared to the previous season, and pure percentage luck (either saves or goaltending). So we are not going with Dean Evason (whose Wild led the league in shooting percentage and mostly improved by receiving competent goaltending for a change) or even Mike Sullivan, who barely misses the cut for me.
Instead I’m going with Joel Quenneville, whose Panthers became a sudden contender not through a sudden boost in goaltending or hot shooting but legitimate improvements in performance. Florida ranked 2nd in Expected Goals For Percentage at 5v5 at 55%, a seven point increase from last season, and did it without any high-profile additions or acquisitions. Instead, cast-offs like Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair, Alex Wennberg, Sam Bennett, Patric Hornqvist and Radko Gudas were integrated into a forward-thinking system that transformed this team into one of the league’s best.
The transformation of the Islanders from stats vs. eye test culture war fodder into one of the best possession teams in the league since the bubble also warrants yet more Barry Trotz love, and as good as the Avalanche roster is on paper, they were legitimately the greatest analytical team ever recorded and that owes a lot to the system that Jared Bednar has put into place.
Honourable Mentions: Mike Sullivan, Sheldon Keefe
Winner: Marc-André Fleury - G, Vegas Golden Knights
Runners-Up: Connor Hellebuyck, Andrei Vasilevskiy
Two of my most-shared articles from last summer were my analysis of Marc-André Fleury’s career (“Marc-André Fleury is the Most Overrated Goalie of the Cap Era”) and my overview of how “Goaltending is Basically Random and Will Always Make You Look Stupid.” How fitting that these two threads would converge so neatly this season. After justifiably losing his starter’s net to Robin Lehner after a season where he played legitimately poorly, of course Fleury put up the best season of his 17-year NHL career and the best performance of the 2020-21 season. There’s just no denying it in my mind - he deserves his first Vézina (and first nomination).
Of six available goals saved above expected models, four of them (including the proprietary SportLogiq model) ranked Fleury at #1. Obviously these models aren’t perfect, but they’re much better than save percentage, goals against average, wins, or any other traditional goalie stats that entirely leave out valuable information about team defence and other factors outside a goalie’s control. I’ve seen enough. Flower power wins the day.
Honourable Mentions: Thatcher Demko, Juuse Saros
Winner: Adam Fox - RD, New York Rangers
Runners-Up: Adam Pelech, Charlie McAvoy
Last season I made a lot of people (namely Canucks and Avalanche fans) extremely upset by arguing that Rangers defenceman Adam Fox deserved to be the rookie of the year. Part of my case was that while he had begun the 2019-20 season on the third pair (due to the team’s roster construction), he had earned more ice time as the season went along and was playing his best hockey as a top pairing guy by the time the hiatus hit, proving his Norris-level underlying results weren’t a sheltered-minute fluke.
While nothing can ever take back the paragraphs in my inbox about Quinn Hughes’ beautiful skating, Fox proved the believers right this season. Playing legit #1 defender minutes (over 24 per night), Fox led all defencemen in Wins Above Replacement, finished 2nd in points (1st among guys who didn’t spend 80% of their minutes with McDavid and/or Draisaitl), and basically singehandedly carried the Rangers’ blueline to something resembling respectability. With Fox on the ice, New York was an amazing team (58% GF%, 54.6% xGF%). Without him, they stank (49% GF%, 44.8% xGF%).
After him, there’s a big pile of deserving players that are barely distinct in my mind. Any of them could be arranged in spots two to five and I wouldn’t bat an eye; I’ll highlight two in particular though. Adam Pelech may not play the biggest minutes or produce the most, but no defenceman save for Fox had a bigger two-way effect on his team this year, consistently playing sparkling defensive hockey even as the Isles often struggled with him on the bench. Whether he was out there with Barzal or the bottom six, Pelech shut down the opposition and helped his team dominate. Finally, Charlie McAvoy might never receive the credit he deserves thanks to his relative lack of powerplay minutes and production, but he has a very good case for being the best 5v5 defenceman in the NHL in the past few seasons for his elite two-way play.
Honourable Mentions: Devon Toews, Cale Makar
Winner: Connor McDavid - C, Edmonton Oilers
Runners-Up: Auston Matthews, Mark Stone
I know I’m passing up on a lot of Edmonton hate-clicks by going with the obvious choice, but come on. It’s obviously Connor. 100 points in 56 games was almost unthinkable back in January and he exceeded it by five points; this was the 2nd-best season ever recorded by Hockey-Reference’s Era-Adjusted Points model and the highest raw point-per-game season by an Art Ross winner since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96. And the good news if you think the North was uniquely terrible is that he led the next highest-scoring player in the league by 21 points and the next non-Oiler by 36. That’s a pretty big cushion.
McDavid’s season was just as impressive analytically. The one thing holding him back in previous years from pure unrestrained dominance was his abysmal defensive play, and while he certainly came nowhere close to the Selke conversation, he figured out how to become a roughly average player in his own end without sacrificing the dynamic counter-attacking that forms the backbone of his generational offence. He led the league in shooting-adjusted WAR and even strength offence WAR by huge margins (57% and 41% higher than 2nd place respectively). From a play-driving perspective, no one came close.
Auston Matthews is the clear cut runner-up here. His goal-scoring is out of this world; there is nobody close right now. He scored 41 goals in 56 games, a 64 goal full-season pace; this number was 10 above expected considering the quality of his chances, a testament to how singularly lethal his wrist shot is from long distance. He finished 1st in unadjusted WAR, a metric that favours elite snipers, by a long shot, but he also wasn’t anything close to a one-dimensional sniper either, finishing 2nd in shooting-adjusted WAR thanks to elite offence-driving and average (in a good way) defence.
After that? It’s a crapshoot. Mark Stone’s strong play across the board - offensively, defensively, on the powerplay, on the penalty kill - in a 90-point-pace season pushed him into third place in my books but there are a lot of guys who warrant a mention here.
Honourable Mentions: Sidney Crosby, Mark Stone, Nathan MacKinnon, Marc-André Fleury, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Connor Hellebuyck