It’s here! Awards Watch is back, the monthly article where we take stock of all the trophy races around the league. The NHL is an ever-changing landscape where players can get hot or cold at a moment’s notice which is why keeping tabs on the front-runners throughout the year is important. Sometimes it’s boring, like Connor McDavid running away with the Hart Trophy last season. But other times, a player takes over with a strong finish, like Adam Fox usurping Victor Hedman for the Norris Trophy last season.
This is the first edition of the Awards Watch this season so it’s the most likely one to see changes going forward. It might also be the most fun one as some unsuspecting players surge to the top of various leaderboards with hot starts before the usual suspects catch up. It’s a time to give different players their due, imagining a world where maybe they can actually keep this play up to win a major award.
We’re a quarter way through the season and while that’s still not a lot to go on, it’s enough to have a rough idea going forward. Based on my interpretation of their numbers to date, here is how the awards race currently shakes out.
Given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team.
Criteria: Skaters ranked by Game Score Value Added
Note: For this edition of awards watch, goaltenders were omitted due to their value being difficult to scale to skaters this early in the season.
Okay, okay, okay. I know what you’re thinking already looking at the graphic above. I’m going to need you to remain calm. I’m looking at you, Edmonton. There is a very simple explanation for why neither Leon Draisaitl or Connor McDavid are not first on the list and it’s not because I don’t like them or the Oilers — I’m a big fan of both players. The reason is merely games played: Draisaitl has two fewer than the guy at the top and is currently playing at a 6.4-win pace. That’s the best mark in the league. McDavid has other reasons, but we’ll get to that.
If we were to vote today, Draisaitl is probably the guy at the top of the ballot because he’s been arguably the best player, though things are obviously close with his more famous teammate taking a lot of the spotlight. Draisaitl is on a 78-goal, 160-point pace, which is so utterly ridiculous that we can gloss over the 49 percent expected goals rate he currently has. That he has an actual goals percentage of 64 percent is another reason. Those two numbers should converge (Draisaitl has been fortunate to see some great goaltending behind him), but his all-world offence should make sure that his goal rate is well above expected.
Draisaitl is not the runaway leader though. On top of the McDavid factor, there’s also Alex Ovechkin who has decided to have not just a renaissance season, but one of the best starts to his career, period. At 36 years old, that’s simply unheard of.
Ovechkin is on a torrid 68-goal, 132-point pace of his own and though there is a lot of good luck involved with that right now (his on-ice shooting percentage is a staggering 18 percent), he still deserves credit for the accomplishment so far. His underlying numbers are decent by his standards and is in a similar boat to Draisaitl: modest expected goals rate (51 percent) with an unsustainable goals rate (72 percent). That difference won’t last, but it’s been an absolute treat to witness for now.
What aids Ovechkin’s case further is what’s happening around him and that’s where some shine also comes off Draisaitl. The Capitals have been ravaged with injuries to start the season and Ovechkin has literally had to carry the team to its current standing, a sparkling 14-4-5 record that looks legit. The team has the second-best goal differential in the league at plus-25 and Ovechkin has been a major catalyst to that. He, of course, has teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov, but no Nicklas Backstrom, TJ Oshie or Anthony Mantha for much of the season start should’ve had the Capitals reeling. Ovechkin made sure that wasn’t the case and for those that live on narrative street that has value.