The first quarter of the NHL season is over. Each quarter marker is a convenient time to waste some words arguing about who’s in the lead for the NHL awards. Never one to miss an opportunity to waste words, here are my early season leaders in the race the Hart, Norris, and Vezina.
Let’s start with the methodology I’m using to assess the skaters. First of all, it’s not a methodology. It’s some bad math paired with my own opinions from watching hockey while drinking and tweeting. Specifically, I used three stats that I think are good representations of how a player has performed this season. The first two are via Evolving Hockey and the third is via Corsica.
The first is wins above replacement (WAR), which measures how many wins a player provides their team above a replacement level player. In real terms, think of a replacement level player as a 13th forward or 7th defender on an NHL team. The second is an expected goals regularized adjusted plus minus (xG RAPM). That sounds complex but can be thought of as the impact a player has on their team’s expected goal differential. And the third is game score, which measures how well a player performs based on box score stats.
I took those three stats, accounted for the difference in the amount of games teams have played, standardized them among qualifying skaters, and added them up to get a ranking of NHL skaters so far this season. This is a brute force way of getting at a ranking but the sophistication is exactly proportionate to the amount someone should care about NHL trophy races after the first quarter of the season.
For reference, here is what the top twenty forwards and defenders looked like by this metric at the end of last season for some additional context as to the results this approach yields.
To help get a view of the Hart contenders, below are the top 40 players by this approach regardless of position.
The player in first place in this ranking should be of particular interest to Lightning fans. Brayden Point is off to a stunning start this season. He grades out as the best player in the league using this crude approach ahead of John Carlson, Mark Stone, Connor McDavid and David Pastrnak to round out the top five.
Even looking at these numbers, I can’t make a definitive case that he should be the leader at the quarter mark to win the Hart. I think that probably goes to McDavid based on the numbers here and the fact that he looks like a hockey mutant from a different universe on the ice. But I think Point belongs on the ballot. He’s put together a special combination of scoring and two-way play driving that puts him among the best players in the league through 20 games.
I don’t know if he can sustain this level of play for an entire season. He was great last season but his lack of power play production suppressed his counting stats and made him invisible to analysts who focus on those sorts of things. This year, he started off with a similar lack of production at 5v4 but has exploded in that area recently since being added back to the top unit. If he stays there all year, he could put together a special season.
My top five for Hart right now would be: McDavid, Stone, Point, Pastrnak, and Jeff Skinner.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the defenders. The chart below has the same “methodology” except I standardized within positions instead of across all skaters so the order is slightly different. For the Norris, we only care about defenders but I left the forwards just for fun. This is fun, right?
The top of the defender list has some familiar names, some unfamiliar names, and some lightning rods. John Carlson is doing his best to make sure the Caps get their money’s worth for his new contract. Erik Karlsson continues to play great despite decidedly not great results in terms of goals. Markus Nutivaara has been a revelation in Columbus. Same with Thomas Chabot in Ottawa.
For Lightning fans, I’m burying the lead. We can talk about Mikhail Sergachev in a minute but first, let’s marvel at Braydon Coburn. Yes, that Braydon Coburn. Thirty-three year old Braydon Coburn who is playing mostly on what is ostensibly the third pair.
The stats used here aren’t rate stats so his lack of playing time relative to others on this list is taken into account in the calculations. He’s just been that good. I don’t really know what to say about that other than weird things happen in twenty game samples and he’s found the fountain of youth playing alongside Sergachev. I can’t imagine these results will continue but I will be watching intently because seeing him play this well is a treat.
Sergachev is also a surprise but not to the degree that Coburn is. The second-year player should already be on everyone’s radar as a potential future star. He’s still afforded a cushy role on the third pair with others taking the toughest minutes in Tampa but he is making the most of that cushy usage.
Going back to the top of the list, Dougie Hamilton makes an appearance. That isn’t surprising at all. He’s been among the best blue liners in the league for the last few seasons. Justin Faulk is off to a great start in Carolina and Aaron Ekblad is having a huge bounce back season so far for the Panthers.
My top five for the Norris would be: Carlson, Morgan Rielly, Karlsson, Hamilton, and Colton Parayko.
I don’t have a chart for the Vezina but through 20 games, this is a two player race. John Gibson has 2.4 WAR and Frederik Andersen has 2.5. The next closest goalie is at 1.9. Andrei Vasilevskiy is in 9th at 1.3.
My vote for the Vezina goes to Gibson and I have a very well-reasoned thought process driving this decision. Playing behind a Randy Carlyle coached team is a cruelty that deserves to be rewarded with something shiny. John Gibson sits in his net every game and watches an apocalyptic nightmare unfold in front of him. The Ducks are bad and it’s not fair to Gibson. I wouldn’t blame him if he just knocked the net off and went home most nights.
In addition to the above, Gibson still has a comfortable lead in goals saved above expected over Andersen so he gets the slight edge. But I couldn’t argue too strenuously with a vote for Andersen.
Awards are silly and arguing about them is even sillier. But if we’re going to give them out, let’s at least try to a decent job of identifying who deserves them. If the Hart truly supposed to go to the most valuable player, I don’t think we can have a real conversation about it without including a player adding as much value as Brayden Point is to the Lightning so far this season.
Point is emerging as a star. Last year, he got people’s attention with his addition to the All-Star Game and the way he played in the playoffs. Especially the way he controlled the matchup against the Bergeron line the second round against Boston.
This year, he’s taken another step forward putting him into a realm where he has few peers. I don’t expect him to maintain this level for the entire season. He will have some stretches where he can’t score at this rate or gets less fortunate with the results around him. But he’s showing that he has the tools to be a special player and if he can stay within shouting distance of how he started the season, that the Lightning will have another dominant player to add to an already intimidating roster.