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NHL midseason awards: The conversation starts after MVP Connor McDavid

Connor McDavid should be a lock for the Hart Trophy, but there is plenty to debate about the other NHL award races.

Connor McDavid has far and away been the best player in the NHL this season. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Connor McDavid has far and away been the best player in the NHL this season. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

We’ve reached the midseason point of the 2022-23 NHL season, which inevitably demands reflection on the campaign thus far. It’s time to hand out some awards and superlatives, as we now enter the second half of the year.

There’s a few categories we’ve invented, too: hockey is supposed to be fun, so we’re going to celebrate the best of what the season has offered thus far.

Stats from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, MoneyPuck and NHL.com

Hart Trophy

This was the easiest award to select which is a testament to Connor McDavid’s outright dominance. McDavid leads the NHL with 37 goals and 83 points, playing at a 151-point pace extrapolated over 82 games. He’s far and away the best player in the NHL and though we don’t want to put any ceilings on the 25-year-old, it’s quite possible we’re witnessing his career apex.

The only thing that could potentially hold back McDavid’s MVP candidacy is that the Oilers are still fighting for a playoff spot, sitting in the No. 8 seed in the West. McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are carrying the Oilers single-handedly and Edmonton’s captain is putting on a tour-de-force performance, while the vast majority of his teammates are failing to make meaningful contributions.

Assuming McDavid doesn’t run away with the vote, Nikita Kucherov has been the anchor of a Lightning team that has almost certainly cemented its playoff position in the vaunted Atlantic. David Pastrnak is the best player on a Bruins team that sits atop the league with a stellar 33-5-4 record. Jack Hughes has been on fire all season for a Devils team that plays with electrifying pace. Tage Thompson and Jason Robertson have asserted themselves among the NHL’s elite players. But this is all academic: McDavid is so far ahead of the pack at an individual level that he should be the unanimous MVP.

Our vote: Connor McDavid, David Pastrnak, Jack Hughes

Norris Trophy

It’s a philosophical debate: do you give this award to the best point-producer, or do you factor in the totality of their games? If you turn this award into a simple calculation of the best offensive defenseman, Erik Karlsson would be walking away with the trophy. And we’re not here to denigrate Karlsson’s campaign. He leads the NHL with 37 points at 5-on-5, he’s been in resurgent form for a Sharks team that has looked hopeless without him or Timo Meier on the ice, and he has to be accounted for at all times. He is the slight favourite, but there are other areas to consider.

Adam Fox, who won the award two years ago, and Jaccob Slavin are the two best defensive defensemen in the league. Fox is fourth among defensemen in scoring with nine goals and 44 points on the year, so he has a more reasonable chance of catching Karlsson. He’s always playing against the opponent’s best scoring line, he moves fluidly as a power-play quarterback and he ranks eighth in the NHL with 44 takeaways. He is the primary challenger against Karlsson.

Jaccob Slavin is the NHL’s premier defensive defenseman — he’s a human eraser on the back end. Slavin is the best player in the league at suppressing odd-man rushes, he’s always in the right place, he always facilitates clean zone exits and he leads the NHL with 56 takeaways against 22 turnovers, an absurdly positive ratio. He also boasts the best expected goals against per 60 among all defensemen with at least 500 minutes logged. Slavin’s counting stats won’t blow anyone away — three goals and 15 points in 44 games — and therefore he may be ignored by some members of the electorate. But if we’re assessing the best defenseman in the NHL, Slavin has to be included at the start of the conversation.

Our vote: Erik Karlsson (by the slightest of margins), Adam Fox, Jaccob Slavin

Vezina Trophy

Linus Ullmark could’ve been signed by anyone, but the Bruins smartly pounced and inked him to a four-year, $20-million deal in July 2021 and the rest is history. Ullmark has been one of the league’s best surprises and he’s been one of the primary reasons why the Bruins are pulling away from the rest of the Atlantic. Ullmark leads the NHL in goals saved above expected, goals against average and save percentage. It certainly helps to have a stellar backup in Jeremy Swayman but Ullmark has easily been the best goalie in the league this year. No one besides Ullmark and Bruins management saw it coming.

Hellebuyck had a rough 2021-22 season but he’s returned to elite form and has been the Jets’ best player. Ranking second in save percentage and fourth in goals saved above expected, Hellebuyck has weathered the volume required of a true No. 1 goalie and if Ullmark’s play dips in the second half, expect Winnipeg’s star to capture the Vezina for the second time.

Sorokin is in the middle of another excellent campaign and the five-time KHL All-Star is firmly in contention for some NHL hardware, too. New York’s system is entirely reliant on its defensive discipline, which is largely propelled by Sorokin playing at a superstar level. Sorokin ranks second in goals saved above expected, firmly on Ullmark’s heels, and this race may end up being the closest among the major awards.

Our vote: Linus Ullmark, Connor Hellebuyck, Ilya Sorokin

Linus Ullmark is the favorite for the Vezina Trophy at the midway mark. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Linus Ullmark is the favorite for the Vezina Trophy at the midway mark. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Selke Trophy

There’s a line of thinking that presumes this is Patrice Bergeron’s award to lose until proven otherwise, but that can also be a bit lazy. Bergeron has been the best defensive forward in the NHL once again, however, while always being matched up against the opponent’s top scoring line. Among skaters with a minimum of 400 minutes played this season, Bergeron leads the NHL in 5-on-5 expected goals against at 1.82 clip, while generating 3.6 expected goals per 50, the fifth-best total in the league. More simply: if Bergeron’s on the ice, your team is in deep trouble. He plays on arguably the best line in the NHL and his impact has been profound for a Bruins team that has been a juggernaut.

There are several challengers to Bergeron’s throne, but the leading candidate is also the captain of a major power in the East. Jordan Staal has been fantastic for the Hurricanes, who have dominated possession and shot-creation metrics as a team the entire year. Staal ranks fifth among all qualified players at expected goals against per 60 at 5-on-5, he consistently puts the Hurricanes in an advantageous position and he wins faceoffs at a nearly 54 percent clip.

The down-ballot voting ought to be fascinating. Mitch Marner has been a tremendous all-around weapon for the Maple Leafs, he’s been outstanding on the penalty kill and he’s dominating the expected goals splits, while ranking third in turnovers forced. Mark Stone has lived up to his reputation, while Nico Hischier appeared to be the real threat to Bergeron’s award, before cooling off for a prolonged stretch in December. Mikael Backlund may have the best statistical case, but he’s not always deployed against the opponent’s top threat. It should be compelling how it plays out, but Bergeron should emerge victorious again.

Our vote: Patrice Bergeron, Jordan Staal, T3: Mitch Marner, Mark Stone, Nico Hischier and Mikael Backlund

Calder Trophy

Matty Beniers has been outstanding for the Kraken and neatly encapsulates the franchise’s turnaround during the 2022-23 campaign. He’s running away with the rookie scoring race, notching 36 points, harboring a 10-point cushion over Cole Perfetti. Seattle’s offense was completely anemic during its inaugural campaign. With Beniers at the forefront, while showing a newfound ability to roll four lines, the Kraken lead the NHL with 116 goals scored at five-on-five. Barring injury, Beniers should have this award secured.

Kochetkov excelled for the Hurricanes but with Frederik Andersen activated from injured reserve, he was sent down to the AHL, thereby disqualifying him from this race. Owen Power has been a steady addition to an exciting Sabres team that is still a year away from meaningfully fighting for a playoff spot. Beniers has this one in the bag.

Our vote: Matty Beniers, Pyotr Kochetkov, Owen Power

Jack Adams

Devils fans were forced to apologize to Lindy Ruff after ripping off a torrential winning streak during the early months of the season. Nobody other than Ruff and the Devils organization itself saw this team ascending into a genuine Stanley Cup contender this year. It’s not a mirage, either. New Jersey is soundly among the best shot-creation teams in the league and it has copied Colorado’s turbo-paced approach to winning games. Will it pay off in the playoffs? That has to be eventually proven, but through the first half of the year, Ruff has earned the rich plaudits.

Dave Hakstol has seen his team go from being incapable of scoring, to being able to score with any of his four lines. He’s been an excellent voice in a room for a younger team that is still looking to shock the world. Seattle’s possession numbers have been excellent, while the team’s top defense pairing of Vince Dunn and Adam Larsson are quietly among the NHL’s best.

Usually, this award is a signifier of the team that performs surprisingly better than expected but we have to give it up for Montgomery. Boston is playing at a 137-point pace in the NHL’s toughest division. That alone qualifies Montgomery for this designation. Boston is rolling through its competition and Montgomery will get more than just flowers if the Bruins lift the Cup this summer.

Our vote: Lindy Ruff, Dave Hakstol, Jim Montgomery

Most surprising team: New Jersey Devils

Armed with a litany of No. 1 picks and some aggressive free-agent signings, the Devils shouldn’t have shocked the hockey world like this. No one really thought this was their year. Hughes has played like an MVP candidate, while Dougie Hamilton, John Marino and the Devils’ defensive corps are no longer viewed as a liability. By now, Colorado’s speed is a known quantity to the league but if you haven’t seen New Jersey’s attempt to play as the fastest show on ice, make a point of watching a few games in the second half.

Most disappointing team: Florida Panthers

We won’t dwell on the disappointing Florida Panthers for too long. Matthew Tkachuk has lived up to the hype but the Panthers have otherwise lost the flair and shot-creation fluency that saw them become the Presidents’ Trophy winner last year. If Florida misses the playoffs, while its first-round pick is allocated to Montreal because of the Ben Chiarot trade, disappointment may descend into disaster.

Breakout player: Dylan Cozens

Can you really be considered a breakout player if you had a 68-point season the previous year? That’s what disqualified Tage Thompson from this superlative, so we’re passing it off to his Sabres teammate, Dylan Cozens, who ranks 46th in league scoring with 40 points in 41 games. Cozens along with Thompson are the center of Buffalo’s offensive revival and though it appears unlikely that it will nab a playoff spot this season, the future looks bright.

Most fun player to watch: Jack Hughes

Hughes and the Devils have officially arrived. A world-class skater with creative flair to boot, Hughes zips around the ice with what would seem like reckless abandon, only to distribute the puck into clean shooting lanes. He’s undersized even in the modern NHL but he’s bold, dripping in confidence, he tries audacious plays all the time and he can execute with speed. We used to fawn over the Avalanche for the same qualities, but Hughes has earned this designation — with his best friend, Trevor Zegras, ranking second.

Most enticing trade candidate: Erik Karlsson

If the asking price for Karlsson is three first-round picks, while the Sharks retain 18 percent of his salary, this ought to be one hell of a trade deadline. Karlsson, the leading Norris candidate, doesn’t fit San Jose's timeline and he’s far more valuable to a contender than a team in flux, which hasn’t quite realized that it’s time to bottom out. It may sound nuts, but Karlsson is worth that price for more than a few teams. We’re all the way here for some fireworks and a blockbuster trade for Karlsson could redesign the landscape of the league.

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