What NHL award should exist but doesn’t?

NHL News

What NHL award should exist but doesn’t?

Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: There’s certainly room to hand out awards that reflect the changing nature of the NHL. We could better account for analytics and award players who best drive possession, produce high shooting percentages or play tough minutes. We could pore over spreadsheets and extract the numbers that help prove why one player, statistically, is more valued than another. But what’s missing from NHL awards are the intangibles. This is the true fabric of hockey: a collection of nuances we can’t quite explain that makes one player or one team rise above the rest. It’s chemistry, it’s work ethic and determination, it’s also a bit of puck luck.

And so I suggest we account for this in our end-of-the-season celebration. Let’s build up story arcs and reward the humans underneath the helmets and the face masks. Let’s also help the NHL in marketing its own players, giving a mainstream audience a narrative it can grasp onto. Let’s introduce the NHL Breakthrough Player of the Year Award.

This an idea cribbed from the World Rugby Association, the ESPYs and by editor Chris Sprow, and I absolutely love it. The concept is fan-centric and rooted in personality. It’s a trophy given to someone who has dramatically altered his star trajectory. While we often recognize rookies who burst onto our radars with stellar freshman campaigns, here’s a way to reward the late bloomers — whose accomplishments are just as, if not more, impressive.

How could we have an awards ceremony without acknowledging a player like William Karlsson, who was an afterthought for two teams during the first three seasons of his career, never scoring more than nine goals, and now leads one of the best teams in the NHL with 35 goals, a league-leading plus-39 plus/minus rating, and an otherworldly shooting percentage (24 percent)?

This is also a way to recognize a player like Brayden Point, the second-line center for the Tampa Bay Lightning who has become so valuable that GM Steve Yzerman won’t even entertain his name in trade talks. Or maybe it’s a way to honor second-year stud Patrik Laine, who is having a star moment in a small market with the Winnipeg Jets, or Taylor Hall, who needed a change of scenery to fully blossom to his potential with the New Jersey Devils.

If you look at the winners of the ESPYs Breakthrough Athlete of the Year award from 2012 on (Jeremy Lin, Colin Kaepernick, Richard Sherman, Mo’ne Davis, Jake Arrieta, Dak Prescott) you’ll see that the thread is a player who separated himself or herself among a crowded field and leveraged a star-making season into marketing success. I’d love to see that replicated in the NHL.

Greg Wyshynski, senior writer: As a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, I’ve been inspired to see how much more involved the voting for the Selke Trophy — given to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game — has become.

Gone are the days of “pick the guy with the best faceoff percentage” and “Hey, this forward’s plus/minus is super good” and “I recognize this name and recall him winning previously so … heck, why not, here’s another Selke.” Voters are now incorporating advanced stats to determine a player’s usage and on-ice impact defensively, among other factors. Sure, the same guys seem to win the award on an annual basis, but it’s not our fault that Patrice Bergeron continues to be Patrice Bergeron.

But there’s still one lingering issue with the Selke that this deep dive into analytics hasn’t remedied: The last 13 winners have been centers. Take it back to 1992, and 22 of the last 25 winners have been centers. That’s a lot of centers for an award for “best defensive forward.”

So here’s my proposal: Let the centers have the Selke, as they basically have it already. Spin off an award for best defensive winger.

This wouldn’t just be designed to share the awards love with players who have been clearly frozen out of the Selke — despite Bob Gainey, a left wing, winning the first four of them — but to put the spotlight on what great defensive wingers do and who the best defensive wingers are in the NHL today. Imagine if there was an award for someone like Mark Stone of the Ottawa Senators, who had the honor of finishing sixth for the Selke last season — behind five centers, and in front of five more.

As for a name, the obvious choice would be Gainey, who is currently tied with Bergeron for most Selke wins, with four. But let’s not go with the obvious choice.

The award for the winger who best demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game shall be named the Jere Lehtinen Trophy, after the Dallas Stars winger. Not only because he won the award three times, but because having one of those trophies named after a European-born player is a novel concept.

Chris Peters, NHL prospects writer: When the Pro Hockey Writers Association voted on mid-season awards, one of the awards we voted on that basically doesn’t exist was the “Rod Langway Award,” which is given to the best defensive defenseman. I liked the idea in theory, but as I sat down to consider who I’d vote for, I didn’t feel like there was a ton of separation between the players I’d select for the Norris and what I’d select for the essentially imaginary Langway. That was pretty much reflected in the voting, too. Drew Doughty won the Langway and finished second for the midseason Norris. Victor Hedman, who finished third in Langway voting, was selected as the midseason Norris winner. I think the way we all view the role of a defenseman is evolving. A shutdown defender who blocks a lot of shots and plays a physical game still has value, but the way that player impacts the game pales in comparison to defenders with skill, who move the puck and who are able to help their team keep the puck out of their own zone.

So I’m going to go in the complete opposite direction. I’d like to see a defenseman scoring title. Call it the Bobby Orr Trophy. There would absolutely be years where a player wins both, just as there are plenty of Art Ross-Hart Trophy combos. But the existence of an official scoring title for defensemen could motivate the PHWA voter base to take a closer look at what makes a great all-around defenseman, which I think is already happening more regularly, just as Selke Trophy voting is evolving, as Greg mentioned. You have to consider all of the ways a defenseman impacts the game.

I also think it adds another layer of intrigue as the season winds down. The Art Ross race is usually fun to follow. Jamie Benn‘s Art Ross win in 2014-15, when he scored four points on the last day of the regular season to beat out John Tavares by one, was some great drama on top of playoff races. This year, the top five defensemen in league scoring are bunched up, so it would potentially be a fun race to the finish. Can John Klingberg hold off John Carlson, Brent Burns, P.K. Subban and Shayne Gostisbehere? If we’re giving goalies the Jennings for best goals-against average, then I think we could certainly stand to add the Orr.

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