Handicapping the Flames’ awards chances

Updated: January 30, 2017 at 2:00 pm by Ryan Pike

The National Hockey League’s All-Star Break is upon us and as we wait patiently for meaningful hockey to return, we turn our attention to other things. While we’ve dug into the numbers on a few other things, today we’re going to take a quick look at something where numbers may or may not matter: the races for NHL year-end trophies.

More specifically, the three trophies voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association that Calgary Flames players have shots at winning this season.

Lady Byng Memorial Trophy

Awarded to the player deemed to best combine a high level of play with gentlemanly conduct and voted on by the PHWA, historically this award goes to the leading point-getter that has a low number of penalty minutes.

Johnny Gaudreau is likely a leading contender, given a few factors. He has zero penalty minutes through 42 games and is considered one of the NHL’s premiere skill players. If you look at the other players with zero penalties taken, Gaudreau is the top scorer. If you ratchet the acceptable penalty number up a little bit, he’s at worst 10th in scoring – and that’s if you allow up to eight penalty minutes.

It’s worth noting that the voters seem to really like Gaudreau. He was 17th for the Byng as a rookie and finished fourth in voting last season. His growing reputation as somebody that complains to referees might hurt him, but considering that he gets hacked and slashed a lot and has yet to be tagged with a retaliatory penalty… maybe it won’t?

If Gaudreau can keep his penalties low for the remainder of the season, he’s easily one of the leading Lady Byng contenders.

Calder Memorial Trophy

This trophy is awarded to the player judged to be most proficient in their first year of play. In short? It’s for the league’s best rookie, voted on by the PHWA. Flames freshman Matthew Tkachuk has stacked up pretty well against his counterparts, particularly when you bring possession stats and usage in the discussion.

Patrik Laine, WPG 44 22 18 40 +7 47.4 54.6
Auston Matthews, TOR 47 23 16 39 +2 51.9 58.7
Mitch Marner, TOR 47 11 28 39 -5 49.3 55.1
William Nylander, TOR 46 10 21 31 -2 52.4 49.6
Matthew Tkachuk, CGY 48 9 22 31 +7 57.7 35.3
Zach Werenski, CBJ 48 8 21 29 +12 53.0 55.8
Sebastian Aho, CAR 48 12 14 26 -5 53.3 54.4
Anthony Mantha, DET 34 11 11 22 +7 53.5 52.6
Travis Konecny, PHI 49 7 15 22 -2 52.0 57.6
Ivan Provorov, PHI 50 4 18 22 -6 49.9 50.6

As you can see, Tkachuk is tied for fourth in points. His Corsi percentage is easily the best of the top 10 rookie scorers. His deployment is easily the most buried of all the top 10 scorers. He is playing, to be blunt, “old man hockey,” in the sense that his usage makes it seem like he’s earned the trust of his coaches (he has) and this scoring and possession stats suggest that he’s good enough that his deployment doesn’t matter.

So we’ve established that Tkachuk is legit. He’s definitely entrenched in the Calder conversation. But can he win? Two items may factor in, and they’re both related to geography. Two questions are dug into my mind regarding the Calder vote:

  1. Has Tkachuk been better against the West than against the East?
  2. Will multiple strong candidates from the Leafs cause vote-splitting?

The answer to the first question is “statistically, yes.” Tkachuk has amassed 22 points in 30 games against Western Conference opponents (versus nine points in 18 games against the East), meaning that on average potential Calder voters from the West will have seen him play more often and play better in those games than potential Eastern voters. Most of those Western voters won’t have seen the Toronto boys more than twice live. They’ll have seen Tkachuk being a consistent poop-disturber for significantly more games. That will probably play into the voting process in some way, particularly in Tkachuk’s defensive zone starts and his offensive prowess showcasing that he’s firmly in the meat of the games he plays in.

I’m not sure what will happen out East in terms of voting, in the sense that maybe Eastern voters won’t want to have three Leafs on their ballot. The PHWAers that vote have to choose five rookies, in order. Everyone will have Matthews and Laine, in some order. But how many Leafs will be on those ballots? For two recent examples, Mike Hoffman was on far fewer ballots than Ottawa teammate Mark Stone in 2014-15 and Tyler Johnson was on far fewer ballots than Ondrej Palat in 2013-14.

I think there will be some vote-splitting. If there’s a lack of clear separation between Tkachuk and the guys that aren’t Laine and Matthews, I think Tkachuk’s Western location might actually help him because I can foresee the prospective Western voters having strong feelings about Tkachuk and the Eastern voters not wanting to paint their ballots completely blue.

Frank J. Selke Trophy

Awarded to the forward judged to be excelling at the defensive aspects of the game, the Selke is another award voted on by the PHWA. Calgary’s primary contender, as detailed a couple weeks back by our pal Pat, is first line center and leading scorer Mikael Backlund.

Voters are creatures of habit, folks. My theory is that the voting base in the PHWA doesn’t change significantly from year to year and that the general voting block has a strong definition in their heads as to what “excelling at the defensive aspects of the game” means. Typically, it means a guy that scores a good amount but is used to shut down the opposition’s top guns.

For reference, the top five vote getters from the past five seasons are: Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Kesler, Jonathan Toews, Joe Thornton, David Backes, Pavel Datsyuk, Ryan Callahan and Marian Hossa. Datsyuk isn’t in the NHL anymore, so we can drop him out. (Hossa IS in the league, and is now included.) How does Backlund stack up against the remaining guys?

Ryan Kesler, ANA 51 18 21 39 +11 51.8 33.2
Mikael Backlund, CGY 52
Joe Thornton, SJ 50 3 28 31 +2 52.8 53.5
Marian Hossa 45 18 12 30 +9 51.0 57.9
Jonathan Toews, CHI 42 9 19 28 E 51.8 55.9
Anze Kopitar, LA 43 5 22 27 +2 57.6 51.1
Patrice Bergeron, BOS 49 11 13 24 +3 62.7 56.9
David Backes, BOS 44 11 11 22 -7 55.1 52.6
Ryan Callahan, TB 18 2 2 4 -4 45.8 44.1

As Pat (among others) has touched on, I think the single biggest thing that will help get Backlund into the conversation and keep him there is his renewed offensive production and prominence on the Flames during a year when so many of the usual Selke suspects are struggling. 

I can’t help but imagine hockey writers around the league looking at the scoring totals for various teams and coming to Calgary and exclaiming “Wait, Backlund is leading them in scoring?” He has a reputation in hockey circles as a hidden gem, an unsung hero. One can’t help but think that if he keeps this up over a full 82 game schedule that a good chunk of the PHWA will put him on the ballot over one of the boring old usual names.