Place Your Bets: The NHL Awards Breakdown

With Wednesday’s NHL opening night almost upon us and the team-based predictions already filed away, we’ve got one last chance to make some picks for the various individual awards. And you can bet there will be a few surprises as the season unfolds.

Literally, you can bet on that. The NHL isn’t like the NFL, where you can find someone offering odds on every little thing. But some online sportsbooks do release lines for various pro hockey player props, and that includes the major individual awards. Those odds can be a good sign of who’s expected to do what.1 And they can offer up a fun preseason challenge: figuring out whether any underdogs have a shot at earning some hardware.

So let’s take a crack at five major NHL awards. We’ll start by looking at the favorite and whether they really deserve that status. Then we’ll dig further down the list to try to find the best long-shot candidate, which we’ll define as anyone who’s listed at odds of 10/1 or longer. Finally, we’ll go off the board by picking a candidate who didn’t even make the oddsmaker’s list, but who still has a realistic chance at an upset win.

All of that ends up being harder than it sounds for a few of these awards, but nobody said this would be easy. We’ll start in the same place that most team’s chances of a decent season rest: with the guys in goal.

Vezina Trophy (best goaltender)

The Vezina is voted on by the GMs, who probably weigh traditional stats like wins and goals-against average a little too highly, but the results are about what you’d expect most years.

The favorite: Last year’s winner, Tuukka Rask, gets the top spot at 3/1, just edging out Henrik Lundqvist at 4/1. No argument here; these are the best two goalies in the league.

The long shot: I was all set to go with Cory Schneider, who was originally listed at 10/1. I guess I wasn’t the only one, as he’s since dropped down to 8/1. I also thought about going with Ben Bishop (12/1), just to confuse all the Lightning fans who are still mad at me for suggesting he may not be a sure thing.

Instead, I’m going with Pekka Rinne at 12/1, and it’s not a pick I feel great about, largely because I’m not big on the Predators’ chances. But Rinne was a finalist in 2011 and 2012, and if he’s healthy and can get Nashville into the playoff hunt, then he’d have a chance. Then again, those are two really big “ifs,” since he’s 31 and coming off hip arthroscopy, and the Predators look like they’ll have a tough time making much noise in the Central. I basically talked myself out of this pick in one paragraph. Let’s just move on.

Going off the board: There are only 17 goalies on the list, so we’ve got almost half the league to work with. And there are some good names to pick from, including Jonathan Bernier, Brian Elliott, Nicklas Backstrom, and maybe even Frederik Andersen. But I’m going to go with Jimmy Howard of the Red Wings, who’s been very good over the course of his career and should rebound from an off year in 2013-14.

James Norris Trophy (best defenseman)

In theory, this one goes to the best all-around defenseman. In reality, the media voters usually lean toward guys who contribute offensively, so we’re looking at somebody who’ll rack up the points.

The favorite: This one goes to Erik Karlsson at 4/1, which is a bit of a surprise. Karlsson won in 2012, but he wasn’t in the top five in either of the two most recent seasons. There was a bit of a backlash against the flashy Senator after his win, with critics accusing him of being a one-dimensional offensive defenseman who wasn’t good enough in his own end to warrant the honor. That was probably true back then, but he’s improved his overall game, and we also have a better appreciation now for the defensive value of a blueliner who keeps the puck in the other team’s zone. Still, I wouldn’t have Karlsson ahead of guys like Shea Weber or Zdeno Chara, who are both listed at 11/2, or even P.K. Subban, who’s at 8/1.

The long shot: I’ve already gone on the record picking Drew Doughty for this year’s Norris, but he’s listed at 8/1 so I’ll have to work my way a bit further down the list. I’ll go with Victor Hedman (15/1), who’s quietly gone from being considered a kind-of-sort-of bust to one of the league’s better big men, and still has room for improvement at 23.

Going off the board: This would have been Mark Giordano territory, since he was left off the original list, but the sportsbook went and added him later. That makes it tough, because only three players who got so much as a single Norris vote last year aren’t listed — Andrei Markov, Brent Seabrook, and Matt Niskanen, none of whom hold much appeal. I’m trying to think of a young guy who could have a Karlsson/Subban-type breakout, but nobody’s jumping out at me. Cam Fowler? Jake Gardiner? John Carlson? I’m not seeing it.

So let’s make a slightly safer pick and go with the Coyotes’ Keith Yandle, who usually racks up decent point totals and finished as high as fifth in Norris voting in 2011. Look, I said it was a safe pick, not a good one.

Calder Trophy (rookie of the year)

You’d expect this one to go to a top draft pick, and sometimes it does  last year, first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon ran away with it. But we also see plenty of unexpected names make a run at the award, partly because so much of a rookie’s success has to do with opportunity and the makeup of his team.

The favorite: The Lightning’s Jonathan Drouin clocks in as the 9/4 favorite despite a thumb injury that could keep him out of the lineup on opening night. He was the third overall pick of the 2013 draft, and it was a mild surprise when he didn’t make the Tampa Bay roster last year. After another solid season in junior, he’s a year older than most of his competition for this award, and the Lightning are stacked with offensive talent. It’s a solid choice, although Anaheim’s John Gibson at 3/1 will look like a steal if he can eventually win the Ducks’ starting job.

The long shot: There is not much to work with here, since only four guys on the list meet our 10/1 criteria, and none are expected to play a full season in the NHL. Max Domi has already been sent back to junior, Sam Bennett probably will be, too (but may get a nine-game tryout in Calgary first), and Henrik Samuelsson and Hunter Shinkaruk were both sent to the AHL. So, um … pass?

Going off the board: This is a tough category, since there’s always a handful of rookies who come out of nowhere and earn at least a finalist spot. But I’m going to jump on what seems like a glaring omission: Johnny Hockey. That would be Johnny Gaudreau, the Flames rookie who’s spent the past few weeks doing stuff like this.

Rocket Richard Trophy (most goals)

This one’s a little different than the rest, since it’s not an award that anyone votes on — the trophy just goes to whoever scores the most goals, without any room for bias or subjectivity. That’s also true for the Art Ross (most points), but we’ll skip that one because it usually ends up being so similar to the Hart voting. On the other hand, you can win the Richard every year and still have everyone agree that you’re terrible.

The favorite: Steven Stamkos at 2/1 is a slight favorite over the defending champ, Alex Ovechkin, who’s at 3/1. Those two are safe picks, since they’ve combined to win six of the last seven trophies.2 Seeing Stamkos ahead of Ovechkin is maybe a mild surprise, but that’s nit-picking.

The long shot: This is a tough category for the underdogs, because you’ve basically got Stamkos and Ovechkin (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Sidney Crosby) owning the 50-goal plateau, and everyone else struggling just to crack 40. Assuming the top guys stay healthy, you’d need someone else to really break through to challenge them. That leads me away from guys like Max Pacioretty (12/1), Phil Kessel (15/1), or Patrick Sharp (25/1), since by this point we have a pretty good idea what their ceiling looks like. Evgeni Malkin (15/1) scored 50 goals two years ago, so he’d have a chance, but I’d prefer to go with someone young enough to make a significant leap. That leaves us with a pair of 14/1 long shots: Tyler Seguin and John Tavares. Both are probably better bets for the Art Ross, but we work with what we have, so I’ll flip a coin and go with Seguin.

Going off the board: Things get even tougher here. Only one player from last year’s top 10 goal scorers isn’t on the list: Chris Kunitz, who scored 35 playing next to Crosby and doesn’t seem like a guy who could score 50 in a season without Crosby getting at least 55. As with the long-shot category, we’re looking for a breakout candidate, but the field is thin. Among guys 23 and younger who aren’t already on the list, you’re looking at Ryan Johansen (only just signed and could be rusty), Tomas Hertl (has only played half a season), and Jeff Skinner (currently out with a concussion). I hate every one of those picks, so I’m going to take MacKinnon, who had a measly 24 goals last year but only just turned 19 and is going to be an All-Star for the next decade. Could he have a sophomore breakout and double his goal total, sort of like Rick Nash did a decade ago? No, he probably couldn’t, but if I’m going to be laughably wrong I’d rather do it with a guy as insanely talented as MacKinnon.

Hart Trophy (most valuable player)

We saved the best for last. Unfortunately, there’s also not much suspense here, since barring injury we have a pretty good idea who’ll win it.

The favorite: Crosby’s the easy favorite at 7/4, well ahead of runners-up Ryan Getzlaf and Stamkos, both listed at 6/1. It’s hard to argue here; if Crosby is healthy all year, he’ll be awfully tough to beat. This award often goes to the Art Ross winner, and Crosby’s listed as a 13/10 favorite there, so even if you factor in a little bit of voter fatigue, a healthy Crosby could run away with it.

The long shot: Let’s go with Jonathan Toews, who’s listed at 16/1. Toews has never been a Hart finalist, even though he’s recently moved solidly into the “best player in the game” discussion. He’s never quite put up the sort of offensive numbers that voters like to see, topping out at 76 points in 2010-11. This could be the year that he cracks the 80-point mark, which would be enough to earn him some “his time has come” voting love, especially if Crosby falls short of his usual 100-plus points. Anze Kopitar at 18/1 would also be a decent pick, for essentially the same reasons.

Going off the board: There are plenty of good defensemen and goalies who aren’t on the list; those positions rarely win the Hart, but could make for a tempting long-shot pick. Kessel is a somewhat surprising omission, after finishing no lower than seventh in scoring in each of the past three years. Patrice Bergeron would make for a nice pick, for the same reasons as Toews and Kopitar.

But I’m going to go out with a big-time boom-or-bust pick: Joe Thornton. I laid out my feelings on this year’s Sharks in last week’s preview; after a mess of an offseason, they’re basically impossible to predict. In fact, they’ve already raised eyebrows by having Thornton skate with the fourth line. But all of that makes me think it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which Thornton goes into “eff you” mode, finishes in the top five in scoring, and leads the Sharks to the top of the Pacific. And if he does, anyone who loved a good story would find it hard not to cast a vote his way.

Of course, the other possibility is that the Sharks are done with Thornton and are just trying to embarrass him into waiving his no-trade clause. That would hurt his chances here, since only one player in the entire history of the league has ever won the Hart in a season in which he was traded. Can’t quite remember who that guy was, though.

Filed Under: 2014 -15 NHL season preview, NHL, Vezina Trophy, Cory Schneider, Ben Bishop, Pekka Rinne, James Norris Trophy, Erik Karlsson, Calder Trophy, Rocket Richard Trophy, Hart Trophy, jonathan toews, Joe Thornton

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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