We’re a few games shy of the halfway mark of the 2021 season, so let’s take a look the trophies in which Blackhawks players might vie – specifically, the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year and the Hart Trophy for most valuable player.
Most Likely Blackhawks: Kevin Lankinen, Pius Suter
The competition: Kirill Kaprizov (Wild), Tim Stützle (Senators), and Ty Smith (Devils)
Honorable mentions: Josh Norris (Senators), Nils Hoglander (Canucks), Philipp Kurashev (Blackhawks), Igor Shesterkin (Rangers)
For the first five weeks of the season, Lankinen wasn’t just good, he was Vezina quality good. Since then, he’s come down to earth slightly but he’s still near the top of the league in many categories: tied for fifth in save percentage (.924), third in save percentage at 5-on-5 (.940), fourth for goals saved above average (8.34), and fourth for goals saved above expected (5.8) among goalies who have played at least 10 games. Wins tend to weigh heavily in voters minds — despite that being a team stat — so Lankinen being ninth in that category may put him outside the Vezina Trophy discussion for now, but the others do illustrate that Lankinen has performed extremely well compared to the league’s best, not just rookies.
Speaking of rookies: among those who have played at least 10 games, Lankinen ranks first in wins (9), save percentage (overall and at 5-on-5), and saves per game (31.8). Lankinen has also faced the most shots (33.77 per 60) and high danger shots (8.64 per 60) while maintaining the best high-danger save percentage (.848) among rookies.
Despite the preference towards skaters, Lankinen has the best chance among Blackhawks hopefuls of snagging this Rookie of the Year award. He’s not only been one of the top goalies this season, he’s getting much deserved accolades for helping propel a low-expectation Blackhawks team into the playoff picture.
I think we have a front-runner for the Vezina Trophy pic.twitter.com/S7ouBYBMW2— The Point (@ThePointHockey) March 5, 2021
Suter has been another European free agent that has thrived with the Blackhawks. Suter is fourth in points (10) and his goal scoring that is his strongest attribute among rookies– he’s actually first in actual goals per 60 (1.13) and third in expected goals per 60 (0.74).
However, one of the knocks against Suter is that his contributions to goals that are scored by his teammates aren’t showing up on the scoresheet enough. His individual points percentage — which shows how frequently a player was awarded a point when his team scored a goal while that player was on the ice — is only 46.67 at 5-on-5, a far cry from the other top rookies this season. This is primarily because his linemates (Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane) are pretty monogamous when it comes to production.
Suter is still producing at 5-on-5 and his 1.28 points per 60 rate is top six on the Blackhawks, but it’s still a tier below a few of the other players in this rookie class. Unless Suter steps up his production in the latter half of the season, he’s a long shot to be a nominee, much less a winner.
A game he'll never forget Relive Pius Suter's first NHL hat trick!@Enterprise | #Blackhawks pic.twitter.com/GiZPOUz5KE— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) January 24, 2021
Kaprizov leads all rookies in points per game (0.90), points per 60 at 5-on-5 (3.39), and even-strength goals above replacement (4.9). The 23-year-old winger also leads the Wild in points (19) and individual point percentage (88.89) at 5-on-5. The Wild have been waiting for what feels like decades for a dynamic offensive player of Kaprizov’s caliber, and he’s more than living up to the expectations. His ability to skate circles around even the best of teams is mesmerizing.
Since the Calder voters tend to favor both skaters and offense, Kaprizov is the current front-runner for the award.
Absolutely fantastic skating sequence from Kaprizov pic.twitter.com/5xTxbcqtsQ— CJ Fogler #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) February 25, 2021
Stützle has come on strong recently to take over second place for rookie scoring with eight points in his last 10 games. Among rookies who have played 150 minutes, he is currently second in points per game (.61) and points per 60 (2.19) at 5-on-5. Stützle isn’t quite as high up on the Senators’ food chain as Kaprizov on the Wild’s, but he’s fourth in points per game while playing in a top six role. Stützle was also named rookie of the month for February.
The fact that Stützle is the youngest player on this list at 19 and plays on one of the worst teams in the league while still maintaining a high level of play could factor into voters’ minds when evaluating rookies.
Go behind the scenes as Tim Stützle learns that he has been named NHL Rookie of the Month for February.#GoSensGo | Breakaway presented by @Bell pic.twitter.com/Ag8B3QyUQt— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) March 2, 2021
Smith has been a revelation for the Devil’s blueline, moving up their depth chart to solidify their top four. Smith is on the ice for the third-lowest shot attempt against per 60 rate (44.32) with the second highest shot attempt percentage (55.81) among defensemen on the Devils. Smith’s points per game (0.58) among rookies and individual points percentage 5-on-5 (77.8) is also fourth among rookies who have played at least 200 minutes, which is even more impressive considering he’s the only defensemen in the top 10.
Even though Smith is a standout among rookie defensemen for 2020-21, he’s not quite as strong as some previous defenseman rookie, including last year’s Calder winner Cale Makar or runner-up Quinn Hughes. People like to say it’s an evaluation of this season only, but the comparisons have already been brought up as a knock against Smith, however unfair that may be.
This entire sequence was extremely impressive from Jack Hughes and Ty Smith. pic.twitter.com/mu6JxEaSwy— Duck Duck Gusev (@DuckDuckGusev) January 16, 2021
Most Likely Blackhawk(s): Patrick Kane
The competition: Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers), Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs)
Honorable mentions: David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins), Anze Kopitar (Los Angeles Kings), Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg Jets), Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida Panthers)
Kane is having another ridiculously strong offensive season, ranking second in points per game (1.48) and primary assists per 60 (2.05) as well as first in 5-on-5 points (21) and even-strength offense goals above average (6.4). His individual points percentage (80.43) is best on the Blackhawks, and he’s also factored in 48.1 percent of the Blackhawks goals this season — a larger contribution share than in his Art Ross season. Kane continues to dazzle practically every game, and the consistency in which he produces is impressive given his supporting cast.
So if you’re really talking about “player judged most valuable to his team,” then you have to acknowledge that the situation with the current Blackhawks and Kane. The Blackhawks were not expected to be the good this season, due to the primary focus on developing young players, the giant question mark in net, and the loss of their top two centers of Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach prior to the season opening. The Blackhawks suit up 11-13 players that are 25 or younger every night, and nine of those are only in their first or second year in the NHL. And yet, the Blackhawks are currently in a playoff position based on points percentage, and outside of goaltending, Kane is the offensive catalyst for the winning success of the Blackhawks.
Kane may not be the most well-rounded of candidates for the Hart, but he might be the one carrying the largest load with the smallest support – outside of his new hockey soulmate DeBrincat, of course.
The 4th Blackhawk in franchise history to record 400 career goals: Patrick Kane.#ThatsHockeyBaby pic.twitter.com/aRrC0g7iCI— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) March 1, 2021
McDavid is the best hockey player in the NHL and leads the league in points (40), points per game (1.6), and goals above replacement (9.7) and he’s in the 98th percentile or better in goals and assists per 60, including high danger passes per 60. The only real knock on him is that only 42.5% of his points (17) have come at 5-on-5, but his individual point percentage of 80.95 is still the top for the Oilers and he’s factored into 50 percent of Oilers goals.
You could go on and on about all the statistical categories that McDavid excels and then have the largest selection of highlight reel worthy plays to drool over. He’s just that good.
Connor McDavid (@cmcdavid97) is at it... AGAIN.— NHL (@NHL) January 31, 2021
What's your all-time favorite goal of his? GIFs will work just fine. ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/kpDFilybiY
Matthews went on a torrential goal-scoring blitz to start the season and leads the league in goals per per 60 (2.26), which is especially impressive considering he apparently was playing through a wrist injury. He’s also fourth in points per game (1.41). He has the most points per game (1.91) in the month of February, including an absurd goals rate of 1.09. However, Matthews’ contribution to Leafs goals is only 35 percent, significantly lower than his two comparables.
Matthews has also been playing better defensively this season, but be wary of the sudden clamoring for him to be a Selke finalist - Matthews spends 85 percent of his 5-on-5 time with Mitch Marner, and quite a few stats seem to indicate that Marner is driving their lines’ defensive numbers. Still, any improvement in that area is just icing
Auston Matthews (@AM34) doing Auston Matthews things. pic.twitter.com/do8EIuspgE— NHL (@NHL) February 7, 2021
The Calder voters have more often than not favored skaters, so it seems like a longshot for Lankinen to win, and he’s the only Blackhawks really still in the discussion. He’s been excellent in net, even with a few rough games as of late, but — much like his predecessor Corey Crawford — he’s doesn’t churn out the highlight-reel saves all that often. This will unfairly hurt his chances given that the voters are team-specific journalists who don’t get to see much more than highlights from other teams. Kaprizov is captivating and getting much deserved attention at the highest levels, so it seems like it’s his race to lose at this point.
As for the Hart, well, we’re all probably tired of this semantic debate but, to me, the Hart does not automatically equate with the best player in the league. There’s already an award for that — the Ted Lindsay — but it feels like the Hart conversation should be much more nuanced, especially in terms of factoring in context of team situation. And if you’re looking at that, Kane should maybe be leading the conversation instead of being an afterthought. Barring any huge production shift, the Hart winner will likely be McDavid because again, he really is the best player, but it’s definitely not the two-horse race that Canadian media tried to paint it just a couple of weeks ago.
Stats from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving-Hockey, and NHLN’s Mike Kelly via Sportlogiq.