Unofficial 2020-21 NHL Awards Ballot: Hart Pick is Easy, Norris Pick is Not

Connor McDavid will win the MVP in a walk, but voters face an agonizingly tough decision on the NHL's top defenseman this year.
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Atypical year, atypical voting process.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing about the 2020-21 NHL season will be remembered as normal. How unprecedented are the circumstances? The Vancouver Canucks, making up for the time lost when the Brazilian virus variant ravaged their team in late March and early April, are still finishing up their regular season with meaningless games against the Calgary Flames while the playoffs are underway. Enough said.

With the divisions temporary realigned into contained structures this season and few writers travelling, the COVID-influenced NHL configuration is also affecting the voting process for the NHL Awards. To rectify the disparity in divisional representation among the writers this year, the Professional Hockey Writers Association is only permitting 100 voters: 20 for each division and 20 at-large voters.

After each of the previous five seasons, I’d voted on all the PHWA Awards as a member of the international chapter, but I’m not one of the 100 this season. A silver lining: I can share my phantom award picks at any time just for fun.

So let’s do a dry run for when the official PHWA ballots are revealed in the months to come. To keep my voting muscles active, I’ll go through a full mock ballot for all the awards I’d typically vote on as a PHWA member: the Hart Trophy, Norris Trophy, Calder Trophy, Lady Byng Trophy, Selke Trophy, NHL All-Star Team and NHL All-Rookie Team. This is not an official ballot and will not count. Reminder: the league’s GMs vote on the Vezina Trophy for best goaltender, while broadcasters vote on the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year.

HART TROPHY (most valuable player)

1. Connor McDavid, Oilers
2. Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs
3. Sidney Crosby, Penguins
4. Aleksander Barkov, Panthers
5. Juuse Saros, Predators

I was one of the pre-season prognosticators claiming Connor McDavid “could” get 100 points in 56, games, but I was only, what, 50 percent sure? He blew past it with a stunning 105 points in the greatest individual offensive season since Mario Lemieux’s 1995-96. With McDavid on the ice at 5-on-5, The Oilers outscored opponents 64-48 and outchanced opponents 524 to 418. With him off the ice, the Oilers were outscored 68-51 and outchanced 711-602. He is the team. This is one of the easiest Hart votes in recent memory.

That said, the secondary candidates are excellent. Matthews put on an all-time great goal-scoring display relative to era with 41 in 52 games. Crosby’s tremendous two-way play helped the Penguins to a first-place finish despite spending much of the year minus Evgeni Malkin. Barkov continued his evolution into a dominant 200-foot player with an impact reminiscent of Sergei Fedorov’s. And Saros? Well, if we take the award definition literally, he was as valuable to his team as any player. He almost singlehandedly punched Nashville’s playoff ticket, leading the league in goals saved above average per 60 minutes.

NORRIS TROPHY (best defenseman)

1. Adam Fox, Rangers
2. Cale Makar, Avalanche
3. Dougie Hamilton, Hurricanes
4. Charlie McAvoy, Bruins
5. MacKenzie Weegar, Panthers

Fox’s dynamic puck-rushing skills are obvious, but it doesn’t do him justice to say he deserves the Norris simply because of his offense. He made a massive 5-on-5 impact this season despite the fact he regularly was tasked with stopping elite competition. His most common forwards faced this season included the likes of Crosby, Brad Marchand, Alex Ovechkin and their linemates. The Rangers didn’t make the playoffs but, without Fox’s 24:42 per night, they might’ve been a last-place team.

One could make a case Makar’s all-around impact was even greater, yes. He averaged a point per game and leads all blueliners on a per-game basis in Game Score Value Added per game. But Makar missed 12 games in a 56-game season. That’s 21.4 percent of the year. Him winning the Norris would be the equivalent of doing so while playing 64 games in an 82-game season. Shoutout to Makar’s teammates Devon Toews and Samuel Girard, who are also deserving of Norris consideration, but this is such a tight race. Hamilton makes his team so dangerous when he’s on the ice pushing the play. McAvoy blossomed into the all-around ice general the Bruins desperately needed him to be. And how about Weegar’s season? Opposing chances died against him, and he led all blueliners in takeaways per 60. No Victor Hedman? Nope. He’s still a beast, but he wasn’t a healthy beast down the stretch, and his play suffered as a result.

CALDER TROPHY (top rookie)

1. Kirill Kaprizov, Wild
2. Jason Robertson, Stars
3. Alex Nedeljkovic, Hurricanes
4. Igor Shesterkin, Rangers
5. Josh Norris, Senators

Kaprizov and Robertson have existed in a tier above the pack all season. Both were tremendous as freshmen, but I give Kaprizov the edge because he had less help, most commonly playing with Victor Rask (!) and Mats Zuccarello, whereas Robertson’s linemates Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski had monster years.

Nedeljkovic will get “Binningtoned” – having a phenomenal rookie season after securing his 1A goaltending gig relatively late in the year. If Nedeljkovic started another 10 games, he’d be right there. His .932 save percentage led all goalies, and only Saros placed higher in GSAA/60. Shesterkin excelled despite one of the league’s harder workloads, and Norris, who won the AHL rookie of the year in 2019-20, outshone more-hyped prospect Tim Stutzle in Ottawa this season.

LADY BYNG TROPHY (most gentlemanly player)

1. Jaccob Slavin, Hurricanes
2. Jared Spurgeon, Wild
3. Roope Hintz, Stars
4. Ryan Pulock, Islanders
5. Sean Couturier, Flyers

I seek candidates for the Lady Byng in this order of priority: (a) shutdown defensemen who thwart opposing attackers while somehow not taking penalties; (b) two-way forwards who thwart opposing attackers while somehow not taking penalties; and (c) star forwards who endure lots of punishment without retaliating. The typical voting pattern tends to pick players from (c) most commonly. I’ll continue to ride or die for defensemen, as it’s much tougher to play that position effectively without getting dirt under the fingernails.

Slavin should have multiple Lady Byngs by now, but he’s never been a finalist, topping out at fourth last year. This season, he took one penalty in 56 games while playing almost 23 minutes a night in a shutdown role.

SELKE TROPHY (best defensive forward)

1. Aleksander Barkov, Panthers
2. Phillip Danault, Canadiens
3. Joel Eriksson Ek, Wild
4. Patrice Bergeron, Bruins
5. Joe Pavelski, Stars

The Selke feels harder to vote on every year, because, as my pal Dom Luszczyszyn and I discussed at length last year after we submitted our ballots, it feels like the award is so open to interpretation. Do you give it to the best purely defensive forward? The forward with the most responsibility at both ends of the ice? Does the forward have to play a certain number of minutes or kill penalties? For a deeper dive into these questions, Shayna Goldman of The Athletic wrote a great piece here.

My strategy: try to honor all the different mini definitions of a Selke-worthy forward with a mixed bag of candidates. Barkov is the clear winner for me, a horse who plays a ton of minutes, makes a massive impact at both ends of the ice and tilts the shot share in his team’s favor. As for the rest: Danault and Eriksson Ek get my No. 2 and 3 votes for pure defensive impact, Bergeron affects the game at both ends like Barkov does, and Pavelski is my alternative pick because he doesn't kill penalties but was still excellent defensively this season at even strength.

NHL ALL-STAR TEAM

CENTER: Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Aleksander Barkov

LEFT WING: Brad Marchand, Jonathan Huberdeau, Artemi Panarin

RIGHT WING: Mikko Rantanen, Mitch Marner, Mark Stone

DEFENSE: Adam Fox, Cale Makar, Dougie Hamilton, Charlie McAvoy, MacKenzie Weegar, Devon Toews

GOALTENDER: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Juuse Saros, Connor Hellebuyck

NHL ALL-ROOKIE TEAM

FORWARDS: Kirill Kaprizov, Jason Robertson, Josh Norris

DEFENSEMEN: Ty Smith, K’Andre Miller

GOALTENDER: Alex Nedeljkovic

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