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We Picked The NHL’s Best And Worst Players Of 2021

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neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): With roughly two weeks left in the NHL regular season, each player is making his closing arguments in the races for the league’s various pretty trophies. So for this week’s hockey chat, we wanted to handicap those award battles — plus hand out some fictional “anti-awards” to some of the worst players in the league, just for fun.

Let’s start with the Hart Trophy race for MVP honors … which, frankly, doesn’t look like much of a battle according to our goals above replacement metric:

The best NHL skaters of 2021

Most valuable skaters of the 2020-21 NHL season according to goals above replacement, prorated to 82 team games (through April 28)

Player Team G A Pts PPG +/- Rel. Corsi Adj. GAR
Connor McDavid EDM 28 56 84 1.79 +20 +4.16 34.4
Leon Draisaitl EDM 24 43 67 1.43 +28 2.22 28.0
Brad Marchand BOS 26 32 58 1.26 +23 8.75 26.0
Auston Matthews TOR 35 24 59 1.31 +17 1.77 25.6
Nathan MacKinnon COL 19 42 61 1.42 +22 6.83 24.2
Mikko Rantanen COL 26 26 52 1.21 +24 6.00 23.5
Shea Theodore* VEG 7 34 41 0.91 +29 2.23 23.1
Mark Stone VEG 19 37 56 1.19 +27 2.26 22.6
Adam Fox* NYR 5 42 47 0.96 +23 3.50 21.9
Max Pacioretty VEG 24 26 50 1.09 +20 1.15 21.7

*Player is a defenseman.

Relative Corsi adjusts a player’s on-ice Corsi percentage at 5-on-5 for team, position and rate of shifts started in the offensive or defensive zone.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

We already crowned Edmonton’s Connor McDavid as hockey’s best player in our NHL March Madness bracket. Is there any argument that he isn’t its most valuable as well?

gfoster (Geoff Foster, contributor): I think the only question is whether he will be unanimous, right? He should be.

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terrence.doyle (Terrence Doyle, contributor): I would say so, yes.

emily (Emily Scherer, designer): Yeah, this one isn’t even close.

terrence.doyle: I like the “player is a defenseman” asterisk in the table.

neil: LOL. Just trying to account for the classic pro-forward bias in MVP.

BTW, the fact that we’re even speculating about McDavid getting 100 points … in a 56-game season? Wow.

gfoster: If I were forced to make a theoretical argument against McDavid, it would be, “Of course you score 100 points when you get to play Ottawa every other night.”

terrence.doyle: Come on, Ottawa’s got … checks notes … the third-worst goaltending in the league.

gfoster: But for the record, I’m not making that argument.

emily: Where’s the East Coast bias asterisk, Neil?

neil: “* – player plays for a team nobody stays up to watch”

terrence.doyle: LOL

neil: This seems like one of those seasons when the other big debate is simply where it ranks all time, although McDavid has had a few of those already.

terrence.doyle: Agree, Neil. McDavid is putting up video game numbers (or at least 1980s numbers). It’s kind of hard to comprehend at this point.

gfoster: It’s interesting that McDavid will have the same number of Hart Trophies as Sidney Crosby when this season is over. It’s been a crazy consistent stretch, too — he hasn’t finished outside the top five in voting since his rookie season.

neil: Same as Crosby’s whole career … by the end of his age-24 season. 🤯 

terrence.doyle: That legendary start we wrote about back in 2017 continues apace.

gfoster: Alex Ovechkin actually had a more similar career arc to McDavid despite their different styles. He had two Harts by the end of his age-23 season and then a runner-up the following year.

Runner-up to … wait for it … Henrik Sedin.

terrence.doyle: Remember those guys?

neil: It was fun how the Sedin twins at their peak could have practically been co-MVPs, too. Daniel won the NHLPA MVP (and was 2nd in Hart voting) the year after his brother won the Hart! 

terrence.doyle: I want a peek at the alternate timeline where they play for different franchises, get into a fight, and then have to face each other at dinner at their parents’ house in the offseason.

The Sedin Rip.

emily: The world did not need more split jerseys.

neil: Haha. Player moms unite.

OK, I mentioned anti-awards. For the Anti-MVP, instead of picking the absolute worst player (who’s probably some anonymous fourth-line scrub), I thought we might pick the worst player relative to expectations. And according to GAR, the skater who most undershot his established level of performance is none other than Buffalo’s Jack Eichel — who followed up last year’s 20.3 adjusted GAR effort with just 2.8 this season. (He also hasn’t played since March 7 and is out for the season with a neck injury.) But who is your pick for most disappointing player of the year?

gfoster: I was looking at Eichel, too — it feels like it has to be someone on Buffalo. Eichel also started the season with the seventh-shortest odds to win the Hart. 15-1! What a terrible bet that was for anyone who took it.

terrence.doyle: Jack is a great candidate for the Hockey Razzie for Least Valuable Player, for sure. A month ago I also would have put Taylor Hall toward the top of that list, but he’s been choice for the B’s so far.

neil: Hockey Razzies, lol. Love it!

gfoster: Staying in Buffalo, you can make a case for Jeff Skinner, who is making $9 million a year. And has SIX goals.

He’s only 28 and is just two years removed from a 40-goal season.

terrence.doyle: I might suggest Patrik Laine, too. Guy’s quickly gone from someone who scores a goal every other game to someone who scores a goal every fourth game.

TBF … Torts.

gfoster: Travis Konecny has also been terrible and is a reason Philly might be the most disappointing team this year. There’s another reason, but I’m sure we will get there when we do the Vezina Razzies.

neil: Funny you should mention that… 

So yeah, let’s talk goalies. First, the good ones in the Vezina Trophy race. By GAR, Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is in solid shape to win his second Vezina in the last three seasons:

The best NHL goalies of 2021

Most valuable goalies of the 2020-21 NHL season according to goals above replacement, prorated to 82 team games (through April 28)

Player Team Games Save % Adj. GAR
Andrei Vasilevskiy TBL 38 92.7% 36.2
Juuse Saros NSH 32 92.6 28.8
Marc-Andre Fleury VEG 32 92.7 28.7
Semyon Varlamov NYI 31 92.6 26.1
Cam Talbot MIN 28 92.4 24.6
Mike Smith EDM 26 92.3 21.6
Alex Nedeljkovic CAR 20 93.2 21.2
Igor Shesterkin NYR 31 92.2 21.0
Philipp Grubauer COL 34 92.0 20.0
Connor Hellebuyck WPG 40 91.3 17.2

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

Do you agree with that assessment, or should another netminder be in the mix?

gfoster: I think it will be Vas. But I could make a case for Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s 36, and statistically this is his best season. Granted, this could be the product of Vegas just being solid, but if they wanted a sentimental choice, that would be it.

emily: Fleury was going to be my suggestion as well.

terrence.doyle: As someone who can get a little sentimental, I’d love it to be Fleury. Probably last chance saloon for him (in terms of playing to this excellent level), and he’s also a lovely man, by all accounts.

gfoster: It doesn’t help his case that Robin Lehner has been almost as good.

terrence.doyle: True 👆

emily: Yep. That takes away a couple of games where he could close that gap.

terrence.doyle: Vegas doesn’t give up a lot of high-danger scoring chances, which speaks to Geoff’s point about them being very solid overall on defense. So that surely helps the goalies.

gfoster: Fleury never finished higher than seventh in Vezina voting in all those years in Pittsburgh. In Vegas, he’s finished fifth and fourth and presumably will finish second this year.

terrence.doyle: People’s Choice Award goes to Fleury. But I imagine the real thing goes to the big guy in Tampa.

neil: I was expecting some Juuse Saros love from you, Emily! (As our resident Preds fan.) He’s been amazing this year as well.

emily: Neil! If anything, I’d go rogue and all in on the NHL’s current leading goaltender (in terms of GAA and save percentage), the young Swayman.

Has he only played seven games? Maybe!

terrence.doyle: LOL

neil: Haha. But that .946 save percentage am I right!!!

terrence.doyle: The group chat is calling him Swagman now, fwiw

emily: Dig it.

neil: Meanwhile, I think we might not need to make a distinction between “worst” and “most disappointing” for our Vezina Razzie. According to GAR, Philadelphia’s Carter Hart has met both criteria this season, with a league-worst 22.4 adjusted goals below replacement (one of the worst seasons ever). I know Hart is now shut down for the season with a knee injury, but it’s hard to think of who else might be in the running for this anti-award.

terrence.doyle: Ignominious little season from Carter.

gfoster: Yeah, it has to be Hart. This season has been a nightmare from start to finish. And it finished early.

terrence.doyle: [insert comic book guy] Worst. Season. Ever.

emily: Carter Hart and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Season.

terrence.doyle: What were Philly’s preseason playoff odds, Neil?

neil: In our model, they were 67 percent. Now they’re a big ZERO.

gfoster: It’s hilarious how many people were talking before the season how “Philadelphia has finally found its goalie.”

This team is destined to just never have consistent goaltending.

terrence.doyle: I have no sympathy for Philly fans. All I feel is joy. Kinda feel bad for Claude Giroux, fwiw.

emily: Terrence, don’t let Gritty hear you.

terrence.doyle: Say Gritty three times while looking into a mirror in a dark bathroom.

gfoster: Bruce Boudreau thinks Hart will bounce back, so he’s probably going to be fine … right?

neil: The fun thing about goalies is they can actually realistically come back from even the worst of seasons. So I guess we’ll get a nice experiment in that from Hart.

gfoster: I mean, Fleury looked left for dead not that long ago, and now we are talking Vezina.

terrence.doyle: [flash to March 23, 2022: Neil sits at his desk, shaking his head, writing the lede for “Why Carter Hart Didn’t Bounce back, and Why This Is Actually the Worst Ever Season for a Goalie”]

neil: LOL. We’ll see.

Let’s move on to cover the rookie of the year race, the battle for the Calder Trophy. Statistically, the top rookie skater by GAR has been Minnesota’s dynamic young left wing Kirill Kaprizov:

The best NHL rookies of 2021

Most valuable rookies of the 2020-21 NHL season according to goals above replacement, prorated to 82 team games (through April 28)

Adj. GAR
Skaters Team Pos Offense Defense Goalie Total
Kirill Kaprizov MIN F 13.0 2.8 0.0 15.9
Jason Robertson DAL F 11.0 4.2 0.0 15.2
Joshua Norris OTT F 7.7 1.5 0.0 9.2
Ty Smith NJD D 4.9 1.8 0.0 6.7
Nils Hoglander VAN F 4.0 2.2 0.0 6.2
Adj. GAR
Goalies Team Pos Offense Defense Goalie Total
Alex Nedeljkovic CAR G 0.0 0.0 21.2 21.2
Igor Shesterkin NYR G 0.0 0.0 21.0 21.0
Jeremy Swayman BOS G 0.0 0.0 12.1 12.1
Jake Oettinger DAL G 0.0 0.0 10.8 10.8
Kevin Lankinen CHI G 0.0 0.0 10.7 10.7

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

A few goalies have been better — headlined by Carolina’s Alex Nedeljkovic– but the Calder is another one of those skater-biased awards. (They haven’t given it to a netminder since Steve Mason in 2009.) So is this Kaprizov’s award to win?

gfoster: OK, here’s where I have issues. And it’s not a knock on Kaprizov as a player:

This guy is not a rookie. He played more than 300 games in the KHL across multiple seasons.

terrence.doyle: 🗣 Agree.

For one of the best teams in the KHL. And he was one of its four or five best players.

gfoster: He won a gold medal for Russia in 2018, not like that matters, but it shows how long he’s been around.

emily: He was in the 2016 KHL All-Star Game!

gfoster: Granted, there is precedent for this. Sergei Makarov won the Calder at 31 for the Flames in 1990.

neil: Should the NHL count foreign pro league experience against Calder eligibility then?

terrence.doyle: I think six years of KHL play, yes.

It is clearly the second best league in the world, right? Feels like a big difference between Kaprizov being one of the best players in the second best league in the world and Cale Makar (last year’s winner) playing for UMass, LOL. 

gfoster: Makarov had obviously been with CSKA Moscow (the “Red Army” team)for all those years. But look at some of the players and their ages, he took the award from: Mike Modano (19), Jeremy Roenick (20), Rod Brind’Amour (19), Mark Recchi (21).

terrence.doyle: I also don’t care that much, either. I don’t see them changing anything, and Kaprizov is an amazing player, so I’m fine with it.

neil: Well, you care in the sense that clearly if we disqualify Kaprizov, this opens a door for the Swagman.

emily: Are we running with “Dolla Dolla Bill Kirill” or “Kirill the Thrill”?

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gfoster: What about Jason Robertson on Dallas? He’s been coming on strong lately, and actually only has 2 fewer points than Kirill The Thrill.

emily: (Swagman beats both of those, strictly nickname speaking.)

terrence.doyle: lolol, I’M A SWAGS PROPAGANDIST

neil: On that note, I want to say that personally, I’m not going to be mean and hand out a Calder Razzie — they’re just kids! — but idk if y’all had any particular bone to pick with any rookies (other than Kirill the Thrill) this season.

terrence.doyle: Nah, the kids are all right!

gfoster: Yeah, agreed. Unless there are some new KHL transfers who are underperforming that we can pick on? The door swings both ways.

Alexis Lafrenière has been better, too, and he really shouldn’t be at this level at his age.

neil: Yeah, too many people wrote him off way too soon early this season.

Anyway, moving on to the Norris Trophy for best defenseman, I think this is a really interesting race. Vegas’s Shea Theodore leads all blueliners in GAR, but it’s by no means a slam dunk:

The NHL’s best D-men of 2021

Most valuable defensemen of the 2020-21 NHL season according to goals above replacement, prorated to 82 team games (through April 28)

Player Team G A Pts PPG +/- Rel. Corsi Adj. GAR
Shea Theodore VEG 7 34 41 0.91 +29 +2.23 23.1
Adam Fox NYR 5 42 47 0.96 +23 3.50 21.9
Darnell Nurse EDM 14 16 30 0.64 +25 1.25 21.2
Dougie Hamilton CAR 8 31 39 0.80 +19 3.95 20.6
Victor Hedman TBL 9 35 44 0.90 +6 0.06 19.4
Tyson Barrie EDM 7 34 41 0.87 +6 0.26 19.2
Jakob Chychrun ARI 16 20 36 0.72 -4 -1.09 18.7
Kris Letang PIT 7 33 40 0.82 +16 -0.99 17.6
Alec Martinez VEG 7 20 27 0.57 +28 1.25 17.1
Jeff Petry MTL 11 23 34 0.71 +4 4.31 16.5

Relative Corsi adjusts a player’s on-ice Corsi percentage at 5-on-5 for team, position and rate of shifts started in the offensive or defensive zone.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

There are a lot of other guys you could make a strong case for as well; our friend Charlie McAvoy would be up there in a ranking based purely on possession metrics, for instance. So who do you think has been the best defenseman of the season?

terrence.doyle: Shea has been incredible pretty much since he got to Vegas (and a big part of that incredibly solid defensive core). I wouldn’t be upset if he won it.

I think it will end up being Victor Hedman based on reputation, but it should probably be Adam Fox or Theodore based on the numbers.

emily: If any award falls to sentimentality, it’s probably the Norris, since there’s no easy, lazy metric to look at.

terrence.doyle: Excellent point, Emily. And in line with why I think it goes to Hedman, meh.

gfoster: Rangers fans are desperately trying to make Adam Fox-for-Norris a thing. It would give them one small victory on the season.

“Look at his +/-!!!!! His +/-!!!!”

neil: LOL

terrence.doyle: LOLOL

Geoff, I really appreciate the NYR hate.

emily: Stop trying to make +/- happen!

terrence.doyle: Seconded.

neil: To be fair, his Corsi is also good.

gfoster: I think Hedman will win it again. But my vote, if I had one, would go to Shea. It’s funny that he’s the player Vegas thought they were getting when they got Alex Pietrangelo.

AKA, a guy who finishes in the top-five in Norris voting.

terrence.doyle: Dom Luszczyszyn from The Athletic had a good tweet about the Norris race: 

neil: As for the Razzie Norris: Based purely on disappointment relative to statistical expectations, Tony DeAngelo of the Rangers deserves the award for producing -1.1 adjusted GAR and being booted off New York’s active roster less than a month into the season despite a $4.8 million cap hit. Who would you pick for this anti-honor?

gfoster: I think the Razzie Norris needs to be called the DeAngelo Award. 

terrence.doyle: The things I wanna say about Tony right now. None very nice, but all very much deserved.

gfoster: Is now a good time to talk about P.K. Subban? He has to be in the running for most disappointing d-men (not counting racist morons who are kicked off their teams). 

terrence.doyle: P.K. has definitely nosedived from being, imo, the best defenseman in the league.

neil: Unfortunately, I’m not sure he’s even in the Most Disappointing convo anymore at this point, just based on how much lower he’s set expectations recently. 

gfoster: He’s scored 12 goals as a Devil in 112 games.

emily: It’s a shame he’s sort of fading out before he inevitably takes a couple big media gigs.

gfoster: The Devils are a fiery inferno of ineptitude, so you cant fault him too much. But he was third in Norris voting in 2018, not that long ago!

gfoster: He is going to make so much money in the broadcast booth.

emily: Cannot wait to see his broadcast fits.

terrence.doyle: He’s gonna be amazing in the booth. And he’ll always be one of my favorite players, his status as a Norris candidate notwithstanding.

And I’m a B’s fan, remember?!?!

neil: Truly saying something, that.

gfoster: It occurs to me that the DeAngelo Award should also be the name of the Lady Byng Razzie, for anti-gentlemen.

neil: Sadly, no Razzie Byng this time around, Geoff.

gfoster: Can we lightning-round through the rest? Jack Adams: I would say Joel Quenneville in Florida or Brind’Amour in Carolina. Both those teams have exceeded expectations. Selke? I don’t know. Don’t they just always give it to Patrice Bergeron and call it a day? I’ve heard Mark Stone getting some buzz. The rest of the awards are dumb.

emily: Geoff, don’t you dare talk bad about the Mark Messier Leadership Award as selected by Mark Messier.

neil: Haha. Truly the finest of all awards.

And Razzie Adams? Definitely John Tortorella, right? (Even in a world where Ralph Krueger coached a team.)

gfoster: Oh, without a doubt, Torts has been coaching like he’s trying to get fired.

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Source: We Picked The NHL’s Best And Worst Players Of 2021

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