Picking the 2019-20 Calder Trophy Winner Using Analytics

(This article was originally written for my Patreon in early April. But, I mean, it’s not like anything has exactly changed since then…)

The 2019-20 NHL regular season is apparently finished, which means there's plenty of time to focus on the most important thing going on in the world right now: voting for the NHL Awards. These conversations have been especially contentious this year because so many of the races are close. Most are voted for by the media, and PHWA members have made their picks pretty clear - and I think a lot of those picks are wrong. 

For the next few days I'll be going through the major awards and use analytics and visualizations to help make my argument for who should be nominated and who should win. Some of these picks will go way against the mainstream consensus, which is part of the fun (who wants to read yet another post about how Carlson should win the Norris). These will be posted in the order that the awards were presented at the 2019 NHL Awards, excluding the ones that either can't be analyzed (I don't know how to measure a player's off-ice humanitarian contributions per 60 minutes) or are boring and I don't care about. 

(Note: This post will use player cards that are a little different than the ones I usually post. They're based on just 2019-20, and instead of just showing WAR-based stats they also include things like expected goals for and against and Corsi for and against. These numbers are adjusted using what's called Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM), a method used by analysts EvolvingWild to isolate a player's stats from the impacts of teammates, opponents, deployment, zone starts, venue, etc.)

Part I: Calder Trophy - Rookie of the Year

In the media, the Calder Trophy conversation has been a two-man race between Western Conference defencemen: Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes. Every so often, another name has snuck into frame (Olofsson? Marino? Kubalik?) but it's clear that one of those two will win. But should they?

In my mind, there are five contenders for rookie of the year. I tried to narrow the field to three, and I just couldn't. This is a stacked rookie class, and each of these players is worth digging into. To me, you could shuffle players #2-#5 in any order and I wouldn't have a problem with it.

#5: Dominik Kubalik - LW, Chicago Blackhawks

Kubalik, the oldest member of this cohort at 24 years old, emerged out of nowhere as a brilliant sniper for the Blackhawks. No player in the NHL scored even strength goals at a higher rate than Kubalik did, beating out Alex Ovechkin by 0.01 G/60. His offensive impact wasn't limited to putting the puck in the net, as he also drove on-ice goals for and expected goals for at an elite rate. While his overall time on ice per game ranked 7th on his team, Kubalik earned a larger role as the season went on, spending more and more time with Jonathan Toews. His defensive game is still a net negative, but the Blackhawks have once again stumbled on a brilliant young offensive player.

#4: Cale Makar - RD, Colorado Avalanche

Makar is the odds-on favourite to win, and it's no surprise why. He's a flashy offensive defenceman with lots of skill and big production, and the second-highest scorer on a contending team. His season has certainly been impressive, but the underlying numbers are not as kind to him as some of his competitors. Makar has a very high even strength offence Expected Goals Above Replacement, which is typically a strong proxy for offensive impact, but a big chunk of it is driven by shooting, which isn't one of the more important assets for a defenceman. Breaking down his offensive impact into goal, scoring chance, and shot attempt driving, his dominance offensively is less apparent. The big discrepency between his goals for and expected goals for numbers could be explained in part by his talent, but it's far more likely that the Avalanches' considerable skill (and shooting luck) at forward is the main reason. Strip those variables away and Makar looks more like a strong and productive offensive defenceman who's above average in his own end than a generational talent. 

#3: John Marino - RD, Pittsburgh Penguins

If rookie of the year were awarded relative to expectations entering the season, Marino would run away with it. The 22-year old, notoriously traded for a 6th round pick last summer, was the Penguins' best even strength and best penalty killing defenceman in 2019-20. Not bad for found money. Marino was frequently challenged with impossible tasks - filling in for Kris Letang, playing #1 minutes, playing with Jack Johnson - and repeatedly exceeded expectations. He's already an elite defensive defenceman, and while the offensive touch hasn't quite materialized yet, he's shown flashes of potential there too (he even finished with a higher primary points rate than Hughes).

#2: Quinn Hughes - LD, Vancouver Canucks

The mainstream argument for Quinn Hughes is three-fold: that he's better defensively than Makar, he plays bigger minutes, and he plays on a worse team. The first charge is difficult to assess. Hughes is already a borderline elite shot attempt suppressor, and yet ranks below average (and worse than Makar) when you add shot quality to the equation. They're roughly tied in terms of defensive goals above replacement, and neither plays on the penalty kill. The second is straightforward; Hughes is second on his team in TOI/GP while Makar is third. Finally, there's no doubt that the Canucks are a worse team than the Avalanche. The gap between the two players is extremely tight, but I give the slight edge to Hughes.

WINNER: Adam Fox - RD, New York Rangers

Very rarely does a defenceman step in and have the kind of immediate impact that Adam Fox has for the Rangers. He is already one of the league's premier play-driving blueliners, and stands out for his exceptional play on the defensive side of the ice - particularly at preventing shot attempts against. On the offensive side of things, Fox drives both goals for and expected goals for at an elite rate, suggesting that unlike Makar he has benefitted the skilled forwards he plays with more than vice versa. 

The mainstream case against Fox is based on his minutes and his points. 19 minutes a night isn't negligible, but he was not immediately thrust onto a top pair like Makar and Hughes. He still ranked 4th on the blue line in TOI/GP, and played over 20 minutes in 18 of his team's final 22 games. The numbers above are also adjusted for quality of teammates and competition, so  we can dismiss concerns that he was incredibly sheltered. Similarly, a 42-point rookie season from a defenceman is remarkable, but less than his two competitors. But not only are his production rates at even strength perfectly good, it's clear that his broader offensive impact aside from what's on the scoresheet far exceeds the other blueliner rookies.

You won't hear Fox's name as a contender for this award, and he might not even finish top three in voting. In my view, that has nothing to do with his performance on the ice. The Rangers rookie is already among the league's elite, and while it remains to be seen if he can repeat his performance this season (perhaps in a #1 role soon), he is more than deserving of the Calder Trophy.