The NHL announced the first tranche of its 2020-21 award winners from Sept. 6-13. We still have to wait until Sept. 21 to find out the rest of the winners, almost a month altogether. If you don’t remember what awards were already announced or who won them, don’t worry. You’re excused. After superbly handling the management of this year’s playoffs in Edmonton and Toronto bubbles, the NHL has made this year’s awards forgettable.
McDavid Not Even Nominated
What’s not forgettable is the disrespect shown to Connor McDavid. Of the multiple awards being given, the acknowledged best hockey player in the world will win none of them. We know this because he wasn’t even in the top three for nominations for any. This, of course, isn’t the NHL’s fault. It’s the Professional Hockey Writers Association’s (PHWA). Some NHL awards — like the Maurice Richard, Art Ross, and William Jennings – for top goal-scorer, top points leader and goalies with the best team goals-against total, respectively, are purely statistical.
Of the awards related to players exclusively – i.e. not executives or coaches — the PHWA does the voting for most. The exceptions are for the Ted Lindsay Award for Most Outstanding Player and the Mark Messier Leadership Award. Those are decided by the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) and Mark Messier himself, respectively.
Historical Bias by Hockey Media
This oversight and lack of respect is not limited to this year. McDavid has been in the NHL since 2015, or five seasons. In that time, he has won the following NHL awards:
2016-17: Art Ross, Hart and Ted Lindsay
2017-18: Art Ross and Ted Lindsay
Do you notice a pattern? Combined with no chance of winning an award this year, only one of the five awards McDavid has won over his career – the Hart, for Most Valuable Player to his team, in 2016-17 — was awarded to him by the media.
No Calder Trophy in 2015
Despite coming into the NHL in 2015 with a reputation as a “phenom,” and a “generational player,” the PHWA has shown McDavid a lack of appreciation and respect from the beginning.
Artemi Panarin won the Calder Trophy for best rookie in a year when it stretched imagination to regard him as a rookie. In 2015, McDavid had just three years of amateur, major-junior hockey in Canada under his belt. He entered the NHL as an 18-year-old and had never played professional hockey before. Panarin, 24 years old, had already played nine years of professional hockey in the European and Asian-based Kontinental Hockey League, generally considered the top league in the world outside of the NHL.
In 2015-16, the seasoned pro, Panarin, scored 77 points in 80 games as a “rookie” with the Chicago Blackhawks. McDavid, never having played professional hockey, scored 48 points in an injury-shortened, 45-game season. Panarin won. McDavid came in third.
Letter vs. Spirit of the Law
By the NHL’s definition of “rookie,” Panarin was eligible to win the award:
To be considered a rookie, a player must not have played in more than 25 NHL games in any preceding seasons, nor in six or more NHL games in each of any two preceding seasons. Any player at least 26 years of age (by September 15th of that season) is not considered a rookie.The NHL’s current definition of rookie
The NHL has tweaked its definition of rookie, however, six times since the league was formed in 1917. The reason for this has been to ensure fairness, that players without substantial professional playing experience didn’t unfairly compete against other, seasoned players.
The 1991 changes for the definition of “rookie” came about after Russian superstar and Hall of Famer Sergei Makarov won the Calder playing for the Calgary Flames at the age of 31 after playing 13 professional seasons, and years of elite international competitions. He clearly wasn’t a rookie by the general understanding of the term.
Panarin, with nine years of pro experience, comparable to Makharov’s 13, is also the second-oldest winner in the years since the age limit was changed in 1991. Of the 28 winners in that time period, two were 25 years old (both goalies), one was 23 (another goalie), three were 22, four were 21, and the rest were all 20 or under. By giving the Calder to Panarin, with his substantial pro experience at the age of 24, the PHWA was within the letter of the rules, but many observers thought it stretched the spirit of the award.
History Repeats Itself
Many scholars have observed that history repeats itself. Karl Marx added the caveat, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” The reasons some members of the PHWA have given for not honouring McDavid’s accomplishments go beyond disrespect to the farcical.
McDavid, the argument goes, didn’t deserve to win the Hart Trophy in seasons 2017-18 or 2018-19 because he wasn’t good enough to help the Oilers make the playoffs. Those years, he placed fifth and third in Hart voting, with Taylor Hall and Nikita Kucherov winning, respectively.
Is the 2019-20 season somehow different than those years? When the NHL shut down on March 11, the Oilers were in a playoff position. The New York Rangers weren’t. McDavid had 97 points in 64 games at that point. Panarin had only 95 points in 69 games. Read that again. Panarin scored two fewer points than McDavid did in five more games. McDavid’s team was in a playoff position. Panarin’s wasn’t.
The Hart Trophy is based solely on performance in the regular season. Hart voting should have been based only on what happened up to the end of the abbreviated season. By the PHWA’s own previous reckoning, Panarin should have been penalized for not being good enough to take his team into the playoffs, like McDavid had been the previous two seasons.
COVID-19 changed many things and the Stanley Cup playoffs were one of them. The NHL decided to change their playoff format and add a qualifying round, making 24 teams eligible for the postseason instead of 16. The Rangers were suddenly no longer out of the playoffs and were promoted to the qualifying round. The Oilers were just as suddenly demoted from being playoff eligible to the qualifying round. To illustrate how unfair this was, consider that the Oilers had more points when league play stopped than the Stanley Cup-finalist Dallas Stars did. Both the Oilers and Rangers lost in the qualifying round, and neither team officially made the 2020 playoffs.
Somehow, the PHWA’s “we-have-to-penalise-players-on-non-playoff-teams” reasoning changed this season. Their members gave enough votes to the non-playoff Panarin to put him in the final three nominees for this year’s Hart Trophy, but not McDavid.
Some writers are justifying their votes by saying that they already placed fellow Oiler Leon Draisaitl high on their ballot and couldn’t vote for two players on the same team for the Hart. Why not?
The Hart Memorial Trophy is given “to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.” There is nothing in the letter of the eligibility rules prohibiting two players from the same team reaching the top three in nominations. Indeed, in the 2000-01 season, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr did just that (Joe Sakic won it).
2019-20 is another year when two of the most valuable players played on the same team. Consider that Draisaitl and McDavid had the league’s two best points per game averages, 1.55 and 1.52, respectively. Panarin averaged only 1.38. Both Draisaitl (10) and McDavid (6) had more game-winning goals than Panarin (4). Both averaged more time on ice per game – a clear indication of which players coaches value most – than Panarin did.
2019-20 Nominations McDavid Should Be Higher In
What awards should the PWHA have voted McDavid higher for in this year? As shown, you can certainly make a case for the Hart. If you honestly feel you can’t place him higher on the ballot because you already put Draisaitl there, then McDavid (only 28 total penalty minutes) should have been in the top three for the “consolation” Lady Byng for gentlemanly conduct. That’s what the PHWA did by awarding it to Nathan MacKinnon. Why not have McDavid at least third in nominations for the Lady Byng also then?
But the main award the PHWA should have given McDavid more consideration for this year was the Masterton Trophy. Not to slight any of the three finalists for this year’s award won by Bobby Ryan, but how can you not consider McDavid in the top three given the devastating and debilitating injury he suffered in the last game of the 2018-19 season? No one who watched the NHL’s documentary “Whatever It Takes” can possibly doubt he fully demonstrated all three of “perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication” in spades over the offseason to make it back in time for the first game of 2019-20. All he did after that was immediately perform as well as if not better than he did before the injury.
Does McDavid Himself Feel Disrespected?
Ever the gentleman, he’ll never say so, but one only has to read between the lines from the comments he made regarding his teammate Draisaitl’s chances of winning the Hart and Ted Lindsay awards this year to know how McDavid feels:
“I don’t have a lot of faith in the media voting so I don’t know who’s going to win, but it should be Leon,” McDavid said, according to TSN. “I think the players will get it right and vote Leon [the Ted Lindsay], but you never know about the media [the Hart].”