Monday, May 05, 2014

Time For An NHL Awards Overhaul

With the regular season in the rear view mirror, the NHL has officially announced the nominees for the major awards to be handed out to some of hockey's best talents next month in Las Vegas. 

The NHL Awards always cause controversy.  Everyone has their own idea of who they think should be nominated and who should win or lose.  And with so many players deserving of recognition each year, there is bound to be some disagreement.

But it seems to me that in recent years it has become especially apparent that the process is in need of an overhaul.  Or maybe the process has always been flawed and only now that I'm increasingly knowledgeable about the game have I noticed some serious flaws to the whole thing.  Whatever the case, it seems to me that something just isn't right.

Last year serves as a good example, among others.  Look no further than when Alex Ovechkin was voted by the Professional Hockey Writers Association as both a first-team right-winger and a second-team left-winger.  The NHL supposedly notified the PHWA that Ovechkin was only to be voted for as a right-winger, but apparently that still wasn't enough to avoid the mistake.

P.K. Subban also serves as an interesting case.  While not as many might agree that Subban was undeserving of winning the Norris Trophy last season as best defenseman, there are a few things that work against his favor.  For one, he faced the second toughest competition amongst Montreal Canadiens defense pairings, with him and Josh Gorges playing behind the Habs' first pair of Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin.  Another thing to take note of is that Subban's 23:14 ice-time (per game average) was the lowest of any Norris Trophy winner since the NHL began tracking ice-time in 1998.  Subban didn't even have the highest points per game among defensemen, being beaten out by fellow nominee Kris Letang.  No doubt he had an impressive year, but was he the best defenseman in the league?  Probably not.

These two examples, however, serve more as a scathing criticism of the PHWA than anything else.  Should the GMs or coaches be the ones voting for not just some of the awards, but all of them?  Or is there something else going on here?  Does criteria need to be redefined to help make the right decisions?  Do standardized methods of talent evaluation need to be used?

Take the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy as an example.  Awarded to "the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability", the award has essentially become a high point totals, low penalty totals award.  Since the 2005-2006 season, the most PIMs that a winner has had has been 22, and the fewest point totals by a winning forward in a season has been 87 (both Datsyuk).  This isn't necessarily the worst thing, as the award specifically states it is to be awarded to a gentlemanly player with a high standard of playing ability.  The three winners since 05-06 (Pavel Datsyuk, Martin St. Louis, and Brian Campbell) certainly all meet this criteria.

But is the award really being handed out to the player who best meets this criteria?

Take guys like Niklas Lidstrom and Teemu Selanne as an example.  Neither ever won the award, yet aren't these guys the epitome of both a high standard of playing ability and gentlemanly conduct?  It seems to me like too high a premium has been set on skilled player with low penalty minute totals.  Sure this does a good job to eliminate the obvious (I don't think guys like David Backes or Corey Perry will be winning this award anytime soon), but again, do Selanne's 50 penalty minutes in 2011-2012 make him a bad guy?  Absolutely not.

Other awards could be subject to equal amounts of criticism.  For example, how does Mike Smith, who faced 292 more shots in only five more appearances than Henrik Lundqvist, while matching his save percentage, not win the Vezina Trophy in 2012?  Or maybe the better question is, how does he not even get nominated?  This is the first award I've mentioned not voted on by the PHWA.  Sorry NHL G.M.s, this one is on you.

And perhaps more controversially, how about the Hart Trophy for regular season MVP?  There isn't too much to argue about as far as the Hart Trophy winners go the last few years.  Every winner has had an exceptional season.  Yet, the award is supposed to be given to "the player judged most valuable to his team".  This is an interesting one.  For example, nobody is doubting the value of Corey Perry's 98 points and all-situation usage in 2011.  Yet was he really more valuable to the Ducks than any other player was to their respective team that year?  After all, that team had a heck of a supporting cast in Jonas Hiller, Ryan Getzlaf, Teemu Selanne, Bobby Ryan, Lubomir Visnovsky, Cam Fowler, and Francois Beauchemin.  What about a guy like Dan Boyle, who absolutely anchored San Jose's blueline that year playing 26:14 a game while putting up 50 points?  With him out of the picture, does San Jose even make the playoffs let alone the Western Conference Finals with younger and less efficient installations of Jason Demers and Marc-Edouard Vlasic carrying the load?  My guess would be no.

And while some of you are probably shaking your head at the thought of Dan Boyle winning a Hart Trophy, was he not more valuable to San Jose than Corey Perry was to Anaheim that year?  Again, Perry was fantastic that year and certainly deserved to be in the conversation.  But did he deserve to win it?  And why did Dan Boyle never even get a sniff at that award?

I suppose the issue with a lot of these awards is there has been a certain standard set, a certain pedestal that players have to be on to be considered for a specific award.  The need for a player with low penalty totals has already been mentioned in relation to the Lady Byng.  Other examples are that only twice since 1969 has a defenseman won the Norris without having at least 50 points (save for shortened seasons, both Rod Langway).  This isn't a huge issue, but it does put certain players like Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber, and Ryan Suter out of the conversation in some years.  Perhaps a bigger issue is that no player has ever won the Norris Trophy without having been on a playoff team the year they won it.  That sort of prerequisite completely eliminates a guy like Mark Giordano from the conversation, who should arguably win the award this season.

So what realistically can be done?  Probably nothing.

It's tough to imagine a scenario where the NHL eliminates the PHWA from the voting process.  And if they were to at least step in and set some sort of criteria for each award, how effective would that really be given, say, the Ovechkin blunder from last year?  Further to that, I don't think the NHL really even sees it as an issue.  There's always going to be some form of disagreement about awards, especially when so many candidates are deserving from year to year, but it doesn't seem even near the point where intervention should really be made.  After all, the awards only exist for the purpose of entertainment.

And yet as little stock as someone like me even puts into the NHL Awards, I can't help feel like something just isn't right about the whole thing.  After all, guys often get voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame for the amount of specific awards that they won.  Let me put it this way: every two-time Norris Trophy winner is in the HHOF.  That means that if P.K. Subban were to win one more Norris, he's likely in the Hall of Fame.  Now I'm not saying its impossible Subban could actually deserve that honor when his career is all said and done, but it would be tough to stomach if it happened partly because he got lucky in a lockout-shortened season.

It's a strange situation.  It's something that at the end of the day is almost completely irrelevant, and yet it is something that is an issue nonetheless.  Whether the NHL were to rely more heavily on the opinions of G.M.s and coaches as opposed to writers, or whether they were to reenforce the criteria of given awards, or whether new awards were to be introduced altogether (would a Most Outstanding Player award help to honor those not necessarily deserving of the Hart Trophy?), surely something can be done to get over some of the blatant award blunders that have plagued the league for such a long time.

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