The seasons are changing. Summer is officially over and the crisp fall weather bestows upon us. The NHL continues its postseason with the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning battling for the Stanley Cup. But perhaps a more important season, as Moira Schitt would tell you herself, is Awards season.
The Emmys, the 2020 NHL Awards, it all happened so fast. To do a partial recap of the NHL awards I decided to look into the major trophies that are voted for by the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA):
- The Bill Masteron Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey”
- The Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded to the forward “who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game,”
- The Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, 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 Calder Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player “selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the NHL,”
- The James Norris Trophy, awarded to the defenceman “who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position,” and
- The Hart Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player “judged to be the most valuable to his team.”
With the exception of the Masterton Trophy, the other five trophies are awarded using a five-ballot format, where writers submit their top five choices, awarding each nominated player with 10, 7, 5, 3, or 1 points based on the ranking. The player with the most votes wins the respective trophy.
The Hart was awarded to Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers and the Norris went to Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators. Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche beat out the rest of the rookie class to win the Calder.
The Selke was awarded to Sean Couturier of the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Avalanche had another winner in their group as Nathan MacKinnon earned the Byng. All five winners as well as Bobby Ryan, who won the Masteron trophy, were first-time winners.
Fun fact: In the 2018-19 season, the winners of the six PHWA-awarded trophies also featured entirely first-time winners. Prior to that it last happened in 2015-16, as Patrice Bergeron won his fourth Selke in 2016-17 and Anze Kopitar won his second Selke in 2017-18.
The last time a player earned his second Hart was Sidney Crosby back in 2013-14, whereas Erik Karlsson won his second Norris in 2014-15. For the last repeat winner of the Byng, you have to go back to 2012-13 won it for the third time.
For the 2020 awards, a total of 170 writer ballots were counted towards the five major PHWA-voted NHL Awards which ultimately determined the winners of the five awards. As a part of their mission to become more transparent, the PHWA released their ballots, which shows how every writer voted for each respective award.
Visualising the votes
To take a look at how the votes for each of the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke, and Byng trophies were distributed, I created a data visualisation to see the breakdown of the number of players who received votes for each trophy, and how the votes are dispersed for each trophy.
The Masterton trophy was excluded due to its aforementioned different voting format. The ballot breakdowns for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke, and Byng trophies are arranged around a circle as a way to compare the voting distributions across the five trophies.
Each bar represents a player, and every bar is broken up into the different ballots a player received. By arranging all five awards around the same circle, we can get a quick sense of how many players were nominated for each respective award as well.
The chart was created using R and the “tidyverse” package, with code guidance from the R Graph Gallery by Yan Holtz (@R_Graph_Gallery), and edited using Adobe Illustrator. The colour palette was adapted from Carto. Ballot data was sourced by myself and can be downloaded here:
From the data visualisation, several trends and comparisons are revealed. Let’s take a look at some intriguing observations from the results.
- The Hart, Norris, and Calder trophies have shorter lists of nominated players. While the short list for the Calder is a given due to the smaller number of phenomenal rookies, the sense behind the Hart and Norris is that the top players in those categories mostly standout with a stronger consensus among the voters.
- In contrast, the Selke and Byng trophy nominations span across many more players, particularly the Byng, where the list of nominated players more than doubles the lists for the Hart and Norris trophies.
- For all five awards, there was a clear favourite based on the merits of the winning player tallying significantly more first-place votes than the runner-up, the starkest difference coming from Selke voting.
- Draisaitl and MacKinnon appeared on 168 Hart ballots, Artemi Panarin followed behind with 163 appearances.
- Josi appeared on all 170 ballots for his Norris, the only defenceman to do so. John Carlson was close behind, appearing on 169 ballots, while Victor Hedman was on 164 and Alex Pietrangelo on 160.
- Makar and Quinn Hughes both made it onto all 170 ballots for the Calder, with Dominik Kubalik a distant third with 146.
- The Selke voting was more spread out, with Couturier showing up on 163 ballots, Ryan O’Reilly on 157, and Bergergon on 151
- The Byng was the most contested award with the most total nominees. MacKinnon earned the trophy after showing up on 132 ballots, still a significant margin higher than O’Reilly’s 109 and Auston Matthews‘ 107 ballot appearances. Jaccob Slavin had the second-most first-place votes but came in fourth overall.
My Thoughts on the votes
On the Hart
The Hart voting has sparked a lot of discussion and debate, especially due to Draisaitl and MacKinnon being left off of two ballots entirely. Dom Luszczyszyn (@domluszczyszyn) and Rob Rossi (@Real_RobRossi) of The Athletic left Draisaitl off of their ballots.
Luszczyszyn cited his voting across all trophies was heavily decided based on defensive play. In Draisaitl’s case, his lack of defensive upside was reason enough to not be deemed as a top-five most valuable player in the league.
Jonathan Willis (@JonathanWillis) of The Athletic and Matt Vensel (@mattvensel) of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette both left MacKinnon off their ballots. Willis explained that he had a tight top-eight and it came down to a tough final decision, whereas Vensel said that it was an oversight on his part to leave MacKinnon off his ballot.
I personally think the reasoning behind any writer’s vote is entirely up to them. While they may accept feedback or criticism for their ballots, who they choose to vote is their prerogative—it’s interesting to see which writers defend their voting and explain their thoughts as Luszczyszyn did.
However, criticisms can arise from more than just selecting a player who underperforms or omitting a popular-vote player for less common reasons. Some criticisms transcend on-ice performances. More on this later once we get to the Byng section.
As the PHWA grows and different trains of thought come together to vote, there will be differences. That in itself makes voting for awards a lot more interesting. As the NHL advances their tracking of events, different methodologies of evaluating a player’s on-ice impact will definitely arise. It’ll be much greater for the NHL if the Hart winners weren’t clear-cut favourites ever year.
Being the most valuable on a team shouldn’t mean scoring the most points. If we see the evolution of Hart voting change over time where different players are selected for different contributions, that would make for much better discussion and learning of advanced stats for hockey executives, writers, and fans alike.
On the Norris
In contrast to the Hart, Josi won the Norris while being the only defenceman to appear on all 170 ballots. Does that signify that he was the most worthy? It definitely holds some weight if every single voter believed he was a top five defenceman in the league.
However, the award description quite vague. For the “greatest all-round ability in the position,” there’s a lot of room for interpretation. Does that mean a defence that is good at generating offence? Or good at shutting down their opponents? Can one be a Norris winner if they are only good at one of the two or do they have to definitively be at the top for both?
These are the lines of thinking that likely influenced the writers as they cast their ballots. And similar to the Hart, the collective voting of the PHWA should leave room for mystery in determining the league’s best defenceman. Talking about, breaking down, and comparing voting philosophies should be welcomed. It can only bring more thoughtfulness into the voting process.
On the Calder and Selke
It’s interesting to see Makar and Couturier both walk away with such a large fraction of first-place votes for their trophies.
Given that Makar and Hughes also earned votes for the Norris, there is no surprise that they finished top two for the Calder. Makar even finished ninth overall in Norris voting, besting the likes of Charlie McAvoy, Esa Lindell, Miro Heiskanen, and Seth Jones.
As mentioned earlier, Couturier completely ran away with first-place votes for the Selke. He had 117 compared to Bergeron’s runner-up tally of 21. Ignoring all other Selke nominees, I’m not sure Couturier was better at playing defence than Bergeron.
As per Natural Stat Trick, Bergeron had better numbers when it came to expected goals against per 60 minutes of play at 5v5. He also had less individual giveaways, more takeaways, and more blocks per 60 minutes than Couturier. This is just a brief comparison between the two players, but it’s interesting to see such a contrasting result in votes given the on-ice numbers of these two.
On the Byng
In many ways, voting for the Byng ends up being a proxy for players with the least penalty minutes while still playing heavy minutes and finding ways to score. One time it was even awarded to the player with the least number of shoes.
Trying to vote for the league’s top five players who demonstrate sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct is by no means a science. Yet, so often writers will default to the stats and vote exactly as described as above: if you have low penalties and scored lots of points, you’re on a ballot.
However, this year’s Byng finalists raised an alarming issue with how voting for the award is conducted. It particular, it had to do with an offseason incident involving Auston Matthews. Brought to light by Melissa Geschwind (@MGeschwind), she noticed and called out the 21 voters who placed Matthews first overall on their Byng ballots.
Recall that in May 2019, Matthews was involved in an incident that included drunken and aggressive behaviour towards a woman minding her own business inside her own car in Scottsdale, Arizona. Matthews was ultimately charged for disorderly conduct and the charge was dismissed after a settlement was reached.
For him to be first on the ballot for 21 different people who seemingly overlooked his lack of gentlemanly conduct, it further mars the legitimacy of an award that’s already considered fluffy by many.
Ultimately, Geschwind’s public call-out was noticed and reflected upon by most of the writers. Many admitted that they were caught up with their voting process of looking only at the stats and recognised that perhaps voting for the Byng shouldn’t be based on only on-ice numbers.
I think the Byng voting outcome offers itself as a learning opportunity for many of the PHWA writers. The NHL needs to make hockey a safer space for women, as well as for other underrepresented folks. For a player to go from being charged with disorderly conduct and end up a finalist for an award celebrating gentlemanly conduct within one season’s cycle is a glaring issue with how NHL Awards are inherently voted for.
With the COVID-19 pause cutting the regular season short and the Black Lives Matter movement coming to light within the NHL community, there could have been an opportunity to change the way the Byng is voted for.
The players leading the way for social justice arguably show much more sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct than the players who don’t see much time in the penalty box. But as long as most PHWA writers adhere to their philosophies of looking at just the stats, such a change might not come to fruition at all.
All that remains to close out the 2019-20 season is the Stanley Cup. The 2020 NHL Awards came and went, and the league’s best players added some deserved hardware to their resumes.
A lot can be learned by looking at how a writer presents their ballot for the NHL Awards, as some will vote with traditional lines of thinking while others try to break the mold and present new methodologies. Some voters will consider only on-ice performances and others consider the bigger picture.
The PHWA represents a large portion of hockey writers. Together they bring different perspectives and opinions, and together they determine which players takes home some of NHL’s biggest individual awards.
Their strength comes from their numbers. Their differences and disagreements makes for much discussion throughout a season, and come time to cast their ballots for awards, it makes for varied voting distributions that can spark even bigger discussions.
As the PHWA hopefully continues to publish their ballots for the foreseeable future, we can dive deeper into the ballots, and the data visualisation is just one way to do it. Congratulations to the 2020 NHL Award winners! Best wishes, warmest regards.