One quarter of the way through the NHL season, it's time for an early look at the awards races, along with some advanced stats leaders and trailers. There are some early surprises in the race for the Hart Trophy, but two of the contenders are the league's biggest stars over the past decade.
There are many more players in contention for the awards than just the three that I've named, and a good or bad week can easily alter the landscape, but through the first 20 or so games of the NHL season, this is how the awards races look to me.
Winner: Alexander Steen, LW, St. Louis
Runners-up: Alex Ovechkin, RW, Washington; Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh
Comment: A career low-percentage finisher (9.8% career shooting percentage), Alexander Steen has been a strong two-way player for much of his time in St. Louis, generating more than three shots per game and playing tough minutes for the last three-plus seasons but, suddenly, this year, he has started scoring at an outrageous rate (17 G, 9 A in 20 GP), thanks both to a career-high 23.3% shooting percentage and career-high 3.65 shots on goal per game. While the shots per game could be sustainable, as his line with David Backes and, often, T.J. Oshie, is one of the league's best, but when Steen's shooting percentage starts to fall, he's unlikely to hold off challengers.
Ovechkin recaptured some of his lost lustre last season when he led the league with 32 goals in 48 games (a 55-goal pace in an 82-game season), but he's on fire this season, with 17 goals and 24 points in 19 games. While Ovechin is scoring on a career-high 15.5% of his shots, that's not nearly so far from his career average (12.3%) and his 5.79 shots on goal per game represent the second-best rate of his career. When Ovechkin is generating that many chances, the goals, and points, will follow.
Early in the year, this looked like it would be a runaway for Crosby, who is finally healthy and appeared to be at the peak of his powers. A funny thing happened on the way to that coronation, however, as Crosby has endured a bit of a slump. Now, it's only a superstar slump, which means nine points in the last 13 games, so it's not like he's completely dropped off the map, but when he had 17 points in the first eight games and gave every indication that he would run away with the Hart and Art Ross trophies.
Winner: Erik Karlsson, Ottawa
Runners-up: P.K. Subban, Montreal; Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis
Comment: It has been a trying season for the Ottawa Senators, but Karlsson has been great, scoring a point per game and logging more than 27 minutes of ice time.
Not surprisingly, Karlsson's top challenger is last year's winner, Subban, who has 19 points in 22 games and, despite a manufactured controversy surrounding his ice time, has played a career-high 24:54 per game. This race is a long way from settled, but it's kind of cool to have the last two winners off to strong starts again this season.
There's still plenty of time for other defencemen to climb into the conversation. Alex Pietrangelo is playing as well as he ever had, with more offensive production in the early going. Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Duncan Keith are a couple more early contenders to consider.
Winner: Tuukka Rask, Boston
Runners-up: Josh Harding, Minnesota; Carey Price, Montreal
Comment: If not for Tuesday's loss in Montreal, the award would go to Harding, but he surrendered three goals in a little more than 33 minutes, opening the door just a crack for Tuukka Rask to take the lead. With a .946 save percentage in 18 games, Rask is not only handling a heavy workload, but he's playing better than ever before, and that's saying something because from 2009-2010 through 2012-2013, he had the best save percentage among goaltenders with at least 100 games played.
That's not to suggest that Harding's year hasn't been incredible -- he's allowed 23 goals against in 18 games (1.38 GAA) -- but he's just a hair behind Rask today.
As for other contenders, Price gets the nod over Kari Lehtonen, who missed time with injury, and Toronto's duo of Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer, largely because Price has handled the starter's workload.
Winner: Tomas Hertl, LW, San Jose
Runners-up: Seth Jones, D, Nashville; Torey Krug, D, Boston
Comment: Hertl, the 20-year-old Czech winger burst onto the scene with six goals in his first three games, then went through a bout of mediocrity, scoring four points in the next 11 games, but he's picked up again and with 12 goals and 18 points in 21 games, he's having a lot of success on Joe Thornton's wing. He's on a 47-goal pace and, sure it's not likely to continue, but that's where we are through the first quarter of the season.
Jones has been handling a heavy workload, 24 minutes per game, and is facing tough matchups as he frequently pairs with Shea Weber on the Predators' top pair. He may not score enough to hold voter interest (see Jonas Brodin last season), but Jones appears to be on the fast track to stardom.
A defenceman who may score enough, Krug, is quarterbacking the Bruins' power play and has scored half of his 12 points with the man advantage, but he holds his own at even strength to rank ahead of Calgary's Sean Monahan and Detroit's Danny DeKeyser. Some rookies that didn't start the year in the NHL, including the Rangers' Chris Kreider and the Kings' Tyler Toffoli, are close for consideration already, despite playing fewer games.
Winner: Patrice Bergeron, C, Boston
Runners-up: David Backes, C, St. Louis; Dave Bolland, C, Toronto
Comment: Some things don't change and both Bergeron and Backes have continued in their roles, taking on the toughest matchups for their respective teams, while still controlling puck possession. Keeping the puck away from other teams' best players is a great way to defend, by the way, and the continued excellence of Bergeron and Backes in their roles makes for a great competition.
If not for suffering his ankle tendon injury, Toronto's Dave Bolland would be a challenger because, in addition to tough matchups, Bolland has started a lot of shifts in the defensive zone (a product of the Maple Leafs' territorial play). Some others of note early in this season: Vancouver's Chris Higgins, Ottawa's Kyle Turris and Columbus' Brandon Dubinsky.
JACK ADAMS AWARD
Winner: Patrick Roy, Colorado
Runners-up: Dave Tippett, Phoenix; Mike Yeo, Minnesota
Comment: Always a difficult call because there are many great candidates and we don't know how much of a team's performace is necessarily coaching-related, but Roy's start with the Avalanche is too strong to ignore. Fortunately, he's a Hall of Famer goaltender, so no one will be ignoring anything that happens with the Avalanche.
Tippett is in contention every year and even if the Coyotes aren't the buckled-down defensive team that he's favoured in past seasons, they've also lost just four games in regulation through the first 21.
The reason for including Yeo is a nod towards the Wild's change in style of play towards a stronger puck-possession game, going from below average last season to among the league leaders in Fenwick Close, a metric for possession when the game is most closely contested (ie. within one goal in the first two periods and tied in the third period and overtime). For a team to make such a shift has to come, in some manner, from the coaching staff and how they want their team to approach the game. Jon Cooper and Barry Trotz are deserving candidates as well.
For those that have been reading my work for a while, it's no secret that I like digging into the advanced stats at www.behindthenet.ca, www.extraskater.com and stats.hockeyanalysis.com, so here are just a couple of interesting stats leaders/trailers at this point in the season (minimum 12 games played). All of these stats are linked via www.extraskater.com.
First up, penalty differential, from Extra Skater.
And the trailers...
Next, a look at 5-on-5 shot attempt ratio (aka Corsi%). Naturally, it's much better for your team to have more shots at the opponent's goal than on your own, so better to be on the plus side of 50% instead of below. Those Kings aren't bad, not bad at all. From Extra Skater.
And the trailers...
Next up, a measure for quality of competition, via Extra Skater, reveals which players are taking on the toughest matchups.
And the trailers, who are being utilized very strategically, to avoid bad matchups.
Another statistic relevant to a player's output is zone starts. Those that start more shifts in the offensive zone are more likely to generate shots on goal (and points) because of that relatively advantageous location. In some cases, it's merely playing to an individual player's strengths as an offensive or defensive player, but it might also reflect a coach's level of trust in that player since there's greater risk if something goes wrong in the defensive zone. These per Extra Skater.
And the trailers...
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.