Welcome to our first-quarter edition of the NHL Awards! Time flies by when you’re having fun and we’re now approaching holiday season with a large enough sample to give some players their due recognition.
There are several worthy candidates this year for the Hart Trophy, and it’s somewhat surprising that Connor McDavid isn’t being considered — indicative of how awful the Oilers have been in the first quarter. And yet, history has a way of repeating itself. Nikita Kucherov, the 2019 Hart recipient, is playing better than ever before.
Kucherov leads the NHL in points, scoring chances, and individual scoring chances and is second in shots at 5-on-5 behind David Pastrnak. Examining Kucherov through the prism of microstats is perhaps the most boring way to evaluate one of the most fun players in the league, who is torching teams in transition with his ability to get his shot off from anywhere.
Quinn Hughes, meanwhile, has been the league’s best overall defenseman and is the archetype of the modern blue-liner, boasting all-world speed, lateral agility and playmaking. Vancouver’s captain has been on the ice for a league-best 25 goals for versus 11 against, is tied for second in league scoring and is the primary reason why the Canucks have shocked the world with a stellar 14-7-1 start to the year.
Kucherov and Hughes, by some measure, have been the league’s two most impactful players, but that doesn't mean the award isn't still up for grabs, however. Maple Leafs star William Nylander has joined the NHL’s elite on the basis of a 17-game point streak to begin the year. Pastrnak is shooting the lights out for a Bruins team that is once again pulling away in the Atlantic Division. Cale Makar is challenging Hughes for the best defensemen title, while his teammate Nathan MacKinnon is a one-man shot parade. Through the early going, it's clear this won’t be a McDavid runaway victory with everyone else playing for second.
Hughes and Makar are redefining what it means to be a modern defenseman and they’re both neck-and-neck in total scoring — Makar has recorded six goals and 32 points, trailing Hughes by one point with a game in hand. They both carry similar defensive profiles as well and Hughes has taken major strides at mitigating chances, while Makar occasionally pays for his offensive invention.
There have been so many terrific defensemen in the league this year that it almost feels unfair to limit our choices to a top-three vote, and there’s a good chance there’s a third tier of defensemen who may feel slighted by our extensive honorable mentions.
Drew Doughty is in the midst of another terrific season at both ends of the ice for a Kings team with the anatomy of a contender and an unbeaten road record. Jaccob Slavin remains a human eraser for the Hurricanes while his partner Brent Burns hunts for offense. Erik Karlsson, who was derided in this space last year for his sub-par defensive impact, has benefited from a change of scenery with the Penguins. Adam Fox would surely be in this conversation too, but he’s been on LTIR since Nov. 3. Morgan Rielly is doing Herculean work for a Maple Leafs team that struggles defensively when he’s not on the ice. Brandon Carlo and Hampus Lindholm continue to be steady forces for a Bruins team that sucks the life out of opponents. It’ll be a fascinating down-ballot award this year.
This award race is the likeliest to change over the course of the year given that it’s an exceptionally tight race. Thatcher Demko is helping the Canucks shatter all prior expectations and has been exceptional with an extremely heavy workload. Meanwhile, Adin Hill, who could’ve won the Conn Smythe Trophy last summer, has hit the ground running and is stifling opponents while Vegas’ zone defense remains a puzzle teams can’t figure out. Plus, once again, Ilya Sorokin is keeping the Islanders afloat, with the most goals saved above average at 5-on-5.
Connor Hellebuyck is also having another vintage season for the Jets, while both Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark — last year’s winner — could conceivably take home the award as the Bruins remain impenetrable. With a larger sample, this race will have a bit more clarity — for example, is Cam Talbot a Vezina contender, or is his hot start the byproduct of excellent structure from the Los Angeles Kings?
Demko, Hill, Swayman and Sorokin have the best marriage of conventional stats, advanced stats and the eye test coming together. Ullmark could easily pull ahead of the race if he continues with a series of stellar performances. It’s anyone’s race but for now, Demko and Hill are ahead of the pack.
Thatcher Demko, Vancouver Canucks
Adin Hill, Vegas Golden Knights
Jeremy Swayman, Boston Bruins
There’s been some ambiguity to our choices, but not here. Aleksander Barkov is in the middle of a tour-de-force all-around performance for the Panthers and is easily the best defensive forward in the NHL. Barkov has been on the ice for 16 goals versus three against — the fewest of any player with over 200 minutes played at 5-on-5. He’s also tied for seventh among all players in expected goals against per 60, he wins 55 percent of his faceoffs, he has a 2:1 takeaway/giveaway ratio and he’s averaging a point-per-game. He’s way out in front of the competition.
Jordan Staal ranks second, though he isn’t nearly the offensive player Barkov is. While his minus-three goal differential at 5-on-5 may be disqualifying, Staal ranks second in expected goals against per 60 and the Hurricanes control nearly 68 percent of the goals when he’s on the ice, plus he’s winning 56.3 percent of his faceoffs. He’s an essential part of Carolina’s sound defensive structure and is back in the mix again.
Perhaps the Metropolitan Division really is a gauntlet as Michael McLeod has separated himself from the honorable mentions, winning 62.5 of his faceoffs, while ranking 8th among forwards in expected goals against per 60. The 25-year-old boasts blazing speed, and though he doesn't have much of an offensive touch, he’s doing his part to keep the goals out of the net.
We gave consideration to Minnesota’s Marcus Foligno, Toronto’s Auston Matthews (17 takeaways versus nine giveaways while playing the opponent’s best line) and Vegas’s Mark Stone, but Barkov and Staal are ahead of the pack.
Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Jordan Staal, Carolina Hurricanes
Michael McLeod, New Jersey Devils
We don’t need to quantify this one too much. Connor Bedard is far and away the best rookie in this class, he’s already an elite NHL player regardless of seniority, he is a one-man offense unto himself, his resting speed is elite, to go along with his one-of-one release. Bedard leads all rookies with 10 goals and 17 points and we expect this gap to widen as the season progresses.
Logan Cooley is putting up decent numbers for a Coyotes team that is still struggling to gain legitimacy, ranking second in the rookie scoring race. Leo Carlsson has justified the Ducks’ decision to take him second overall last summer, while Matthew Knies, Marco Rossi and Luke Hughes have been tossed into high-impact roles for their respective teams. Barring injury, this will be known as the Bedard class.
It’s usually pretty difficult to go over the marginal tactical reasons why some coaches are better regarded than others, so this one often goes to the team that defies expectations. You’re probably getting the sense that this is turning into a Canucks blog, but we assure you, this is just happenstance.
Rick Tocchet has taken a perpetually underperforming Canucks team and through 21 games provided the structure and the anatomy of a Western Conference contender. There’s probably some regression to be expected from the likes of J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson, but through the first quarter, walk it like you Tocchet.
Our vote: Rick Tocchet, Vancouver Canucks
Most surprising team: Detroit Red Wings
Detroit has been competitive in the vaunted Atlantic Division, currently holding the third divisional playoff spot. Alex DeBrincat has been reinvigorated playing for his hometown and has been one of the NHL’s most lethal scorers at 5-on-5. It all took a change of scenery for Justin Holl to emerge as an above-average defenseman (through one quarter, at least!) — he’s been on the ice for 16 goals for, eight against while primarily paired with Ben Chiarot.
They've also gotten balanced scoring throughout the lineup, while their top-six is playing with explosive pace and their plus-14 goal differential suggests that this isn’t a fluke out of the gate. The league is better off when Original Six teams are elite (stop booing me, I’m right!) and the Red Wings’ return to relevance has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.
Patrick Kane is signing with the Detroit Red Wings, per sources.
The 35-year-old is coming off hip resurfacing surgery.
After meeting with several teams, I'm told Kane was very impressed with Detroit's coach Derek Lalonde X's and O's hockey acumen and vision for Detroit.
— Emily Kaplan (@emilymkaplan) November 28, 2023
Of course, adding Patrick Kane certainly won't hurt matters either.
Most disappointing team: Edmonton Oilers
Edmonton has fallen flat on its face out of the gate, firing Jay Woodcroft and hiring Kris Knoblauch — best known for being McDavid’s junior coach with the Erie Otters — mere weeks into the season. McDavid and the Oilers said Knoblauch was hired independent of their previous relationship, an explanation no one buys, and a team boasting two former MVPs firmly in their primes is languishing in seventh place in the Pacific Division. Something needs to change quickly, or McDavid would be within his rights to disrupt the landscape of the league and ask for a move elsewhere at the end of the year.
Most fun player to watch: Connor Bedard, Chicago Blackhawks
In a similar vein to the thrills of watching San Antonio Spurs rookie phenom Victor Wembanyama, Bedard is a joy to watch and it was evident from his first game that his all-world shooting ability and spatial sense would translate to the NHL.
Bedard doesn’t need any space to get his shot off, and since the Blackhawks are often trailing games, he has the license to unleash full offensive havoc at any cost. A true game-breaking talent at 18 years old, Bedard has exceeded the hype and then some and exemplifies why people choose to obsess over this sport in the first place.