Handing out 10 NHL awards, from most improved player to biggest hit

·16 min read

Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every Thursday, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines, and general musings around the NHL, and perhaps at times, the greater hockey world.

With the season all but over, it’s time to hand out some awards. But not the awards you usually think of. Ten points as per usual, featuring 10 rewards that don’t get a trophy.

1. Best trade of the offseason

First, let’s set some parameters on what qualifies. The NHL has an official trade tracker for the 2021-22 season on their website, so it has to have happened within that time. For what it’s worth, the only trade that would be added would be Viktor Arvidsson moving to Los Angeles for draft picks which, while a good trade, would not have been the winner here, though arguably an honourable mention. In terms of what qualifies as best, this was tougher to map out.

I’m not looking for a trade where both teams benefited, but that would be a bonus if it happened. I’m looking for a trade from one team’s perspective that netted them a big return for little cost. If you pay up to make a good move that helps your team, that is kind of how it should work. So, points for recognition but that’s not the full package. If you pay less than market value to help your team move the needle, that’s a huge win.

The winner here is a no-brainer. That would be the St. Louis Blues acquiring Pavel Buchnevich for Sammy Blais and a second-round draft pick in 2022. Blais is a nice enough bottom-six forward and a second-round pick is nothing to sneeze at, but Buchnevich is 27 and just put up a career high 30 goals and 76 points. He never even hit 50 points until this season, although in fairness that's primarily due to not playing enough, as his point per game rates have been strong for a few seasons now.

The only player who has been traded since last offseason with more points is Sam Reinhart and he cost a first plus highly-touted prospect Devon Levi. It’s not close. Buchnevich has helped the Blues become a top-10 team after finishing 15th overall last year with a negative goal differential and getting swept by Colorado in the first round. He is third among Blues forwards in time on ice per game and is a staple on the power play and penalty kill. This trade was larceny the second it was made, and it has gotten substantially more lopsided since.

Honorable mentions: Florida acquiring Sam Reinhart for a first and Levi. The Panthers obviously love this right now but it’s too early to compare the value exchanged. You could argue Darcy Kuemper for Conor Timmins, a first-rounder and conditional third-rounder if the Avalanche go on to win the Cup, and I gave some legitimate debate to Ethan Bear for Warren Foegele.

Moritz Seider, Johnny Gaudreau and Ryan Hartman are among those who deserve some recognition for their contributions to a wildly entertaining NHL season. (Getty Images)
Moritz Seider, Johnny Gaudreau and Ryan Hartman are among those who deserve some recognition for their contributions to a wildly entertaining NHL season. (Getty Images)

2. Best free agent signing

There were a number of good free agent signings that essentially came as advertised: Brandon Saad, Zach Hyman, Blake Coleman, Corey Perry and Mike Reilly have all been good and about what you’d expect. Mikael Granlund has had a big season for Nashville on a cap hit that’s below his market value at the moment. Phillip Danault was given a ton of money, but he has delivered with a 27-goal, 51-point season to go along with his usual strong defense. He has anchored a very good second line, giving L.A. a legitimate unit behind Anze Kopitar for the first time in years.

But this one is also pretty easy. The clear winner is Michael Bunting and there’s no debate to really be had. He is making less than a million dollars for this season and next. He has 23 goals and 63 points. Bunting leads all free agents in points this season and he is signed well below market value. He has rounded out the Leafs top line, allowing them to use good players on other lines to create some much-needed depth. The value on his contract is honestly laughable at this point. I don’t think this one is even up for debate.

3. Most improved player

This went from fun award that the NBA does to insanely tough to quantify and judge in a hurry. I wanted players who had played at least 200 games in the league. It’s a subjective cut off to be sure, but rewarding a young guy who is simply developing is against the spirit of this exercise. Unfortunately, that knocks Tage Thompson out of the running, but he’s 24 and hadn’t even played two full seasons in the league before this one. He obviously improved and broke out, but at that age with that little experience, that’s just how this is going to go.

There are a few different layers to sort through here. The first is the "guys who went nuclear" category. J.T. Miller has 97 points this season after his previous career high was 72. He has been a first liner for years now, but he had superstar production this season. Roman Josi is similar with an absurd 93-point season, nearly 30 points above his previous career high. But again, he has been a top pairing defenseman for years. Johnny Gaudreau, Jonathan Huberdeau, Kyle Connor. All in similar categories of "already good and went insane."

Then there is the second tier of player – guys who were already good, at minimum top six forwards or top four defensemen who found a new level. Nazem Kadri, Rasmus Andersson and Devon Toews stand out here. But to me it came down to two guys who took massive leaps: Jesper Bratt and Ryan Hartman, who improved leaps and bounds. Bratt is still 23 but has already played over 300 games in the league. His previous career high in points per game was 0.65, which went up to .96 this year. He’s playing nearly 18 minutes per game and while a bit sheltered, does help control play with his speed, tenacity and skill. He has taken a full-on leap into being a legitimate top-line forward.

Hartman is on his fourth team as he has bounced around as a bit of a physical energy guy who can sometimes cross the line. He had 19 goals in his rookie season and then never put up more than 12 in the four seasons that followed. This season he has 34. His 63 points is more than double his previous career high. Yes, he benefits from playing with Kirill Kaprizov (who wouldn’t), but Minnesota has a really good team and he is the first-line center and producing at a first-line rate. He plays every situation for the Wild and is fourth among their forwards in average ice time per game. Joel Eriksson-Ek rates slightly ahead overall, but Hartman plays more per game at even strength. He essentially went from a third-liner who can chip in offense and score to a first-line center of a team with 109 points, and he is doing more than enough to justify that spot in the lineup. Hartman is my pick.

4. Most underrated player

This is one of the most controversial titles, as most stars are generally recognized in the league. So, years ago when we heard that, say, Aleksander Barkov or John Klingberg were underrated, it was pretty obvious to most that they were very good and not at all underrated. At best they maybe didn’t receive enough attention given how good they were at the time. You’re only underrated as a star if people don’t even realize you’re a star.

I think the level under that is guys who are very good but not great and basically get no attention at all. I think this shades more towards defensemen. A forward I don’t think gets enough attention is Teuvo Teravainen. He only played 21 games in last year's shortened season, but if you throw that one out he has put up 60-plus points in each of his last four seasons. He played to a pace above that last year, too. He is a good penalty killer. He has generally been a strong play driver, though some numbers this year have not been as great. In general, he's a complete player who scores like a first-liner but is generally considered a second-liner.

Another former Blackhawk, Nick Schmaltz, is also having a great season fall under the radar at nearly a point per game on that Arizona team. But he’s shooting nearly 20 percent, so make of that what you will. It’s likely an outlier but in terms of underrated for this season, he’s not going to get much attention because of where he plays. Similarly, Vladislav Gavrikov won’t ever get much love in Columbus but he’s capably playing 22-plus minutes per night and has been outscored by only four at even strength on a team that has a minus-40 goal differential at even strength. A big, strong defenseman who can do a bit of everything, Gavrikov is also productive with 33 points on the season. Any team would love to have him.

Then there are the underrated players on good teams. Erik Cernak never seems to get much love. He has averaged roughly 20 minutes per game in each of Tampa’s two Stanley Cup runs, he capably handles tough matchups and he can even produce a little. The Cup runs have given him some attention, though.

I’m giving this one to Gustav Forsling. Only MacKenzie Weegar and Aaron Ekblad play more on the top-ranked Panthers. He is steady defensively and skilled enough to drive play offensively. He has 10 goals this season and nearly 40 points. Only Weegar is playing more since Ekblad has gone down, and he has stepped it up with 13 points in those 19 games. Forsling is just 25 and having a very good season on a very good Panthers team. I don’t think this is a case of a player being propped up by being on a good team. He is one of the reasons they have been so good. But on a team with so many big names, his name is rarely being thrown out there.

Gustav Forsling quietly had a stellar campaign for the Panthers. (Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Gustav Forsling quietly had a stellar campaign for the Panthers. (Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

5. Best journeyman

I love a good journeyman and a good story. A player that toiled from organization to organization until they finally got a shot or extended look and stuck in the league. I wanted to look for guys who seemed destined to be career AHLers and found a way to become NHLers this season. That’s why I wouldn’t include Bunting here, although he probably would have won it last season. I wanted to look for guys who were not going to get that opportunity but found a way anyways, and who have played at least 300 games in the AHL.

Blue Jackets winger Justin Danforth didn’t play that many AHL games, but that’s because he went AHL-ECHL-SM-Liiga-KHL-AHL-NHL. He played on Canada’s world championship squad last year (in large part due to COVID restrictions) and started this season in the AHL. He was called up mid-October and has played 43 games in his first NHL season at the age of 29. In March, he was rewarded with a two-year contract extension with a total value of $1.95 million.

The Habs and Yotes had a number of potential candidates due to how bad they were. They gave a number of players looks that most other organizations would not have. Laurent Dauphin came to mind as a consideration.

But ultimately, this goes to Sam Carrick. Carrick was the captain of the San Diego Gulls – usually a sign you’re bound to be a career AHLer, especially in your late 20s. He did not make the team out of camp and was only called up to due to injuries to Mason McTavish and Max Jones. Now, 64 games, 11 goals and 19 points later, he just signed a two-year, one-way contract extension to stay on as a depth player for the Ducks. We’ve written about him before and how he’s a handy player. He persevered for a long time and made good on his opportunity this season.

6. Best contract year

The specs here are simple: The selection pool is the group of unrestricted free agents. I’m not including restricted free agents, as they are younger and primed to get paid based on arbitration rights. This is about players going to the free market, who are usually in their late 20s.

There is a collection of good but not great players who have had really good years that will see them get paid. Valeri Nichushkin stands out with 25 goals and 52 points in 61 games after never putting up more than 34. Ilya Mikheyev had his first 20-goal season. Since being traded, Nick Paul has 14 points in 19 games. He is a good playoff away from being a solid 20-point depth forward to really getting paid. Andrew Copp is over a point per game with the Rangers and has his first 50-point season (53). Bryan Rust is at 58 points in 59 games. There is another group of good players who were always going to get paid. Fillip Forsberg, Klingberg, Andre Burakovsky, Vincent Trocheck are a few guys that come to mind.

But this award really comes down to two guys.

For the first half of the season, Nazem Kadri was running away with this. He was leading the league in scoring at one point. And while he’s slightly cooled down, he’s still a center who can play defense, has some jam and is throwing up 85 points this year. He needs to actually play in the playoffs this year, but he’s going to get paid either way. The clear winner, though, is Johnny Gaudreau. He is third in league scoring, and is the anchor of one of, if not the best lines in hockey. In the two seasons prior to this one, Gaudreau produced at roughly a .85 points per game rate. This season? 1.41. And Calgary is really good. Sometimes it is really as simple as looking at the top. Just an incredible season by Gaudreau, and a great time for him to have it.

7. Game of the year

This is such a tough one to quantify. At the end of the day, you want a bit of everything that makes the game great. Big goals. Skill on display. Emotion. Intensity. Physicality. A roaring crowd. There have been a number of doozies, but how does one even begin to quantify that?

The Lightning had a crazy comeback against the Red Wings early in the season, winning 7-6 after being down 6-3. The Panthers had a wild 7-6 game against the Devils as well. Jack Eichel returning to Buffalo was wild. The Rick Jeanneret ceremony and ensuing game was awesome as well. So was the game Steven Stamkos became the Lightning's all-time points leader and the game Auston Matthews hit 60.

But in terms of an actual hockey game, we had a late winner and I don’t think it’s particularly close. Less than a week before likely playing each other in the playoffs, Nashville and Calgary had an absolute barn burner. It ended 5-4 in overtime, which is enough scoring to be entertaining but not so much that it’s sloppy hockey. There were multiple fights, one of the hits of the season, a buzzer-beater to send it to OT, the amazing Nashville crowd. The overtime winner was a little lame but before that went in, the overtime was full value. I can’t think of anything more you could expect from a regular season hockey game. It was a playoff game before the playoffs and nothing beats playoff hockey.

8. Nicest goal of the season

Some years this is easier than others, and I think this is one of those years. Connor McDavid walking through the Jets was incredible, same when he did it against the Rangers two weeks prior, or when Miller did it against Ottawa. I loved the Vladimir Tarasenko goal against the Kings, and the Dylan Strome-Alex DeBrincat mid-air connection. But Sonny Milano batting in Trevor Zegras's flip pass is the clear winner. The timing and coordination required to pull this off in the NHL between teammates. The skill. Every year we’ll see guys go end-to-end and score some beauties. This season was no different. But this goal is different than anything we’ve ever actually seen pulled off before.

9. Biggest hit of the season

Hitting is part of hockey and if a player lays a good, clean hit, we should recognize that. The physicality is part of what makes hockey so exciting. This is a really tough one to figure out — I watched at least 200 hits to find a winner. Obviously the hit has to be clean for it to count. There are just so many different types of hits.

The Radko Gudas hip check was awesome:

Lucic had an absolute bone crusher:

I loved this Ryan Hartman hit that was clean and perfectly timed:

Tom Wilson had a great hit on Thomas Chabot, Jacob Trouba had a few monster hits this season. The list could go on forever. Ultimately, what I wanted to reward is two players going head to head on a hit, with one winning. There’s something to be said about two guys knowing it’s about to happen, but only one standing after the collision. And for that I’m going with this Moritz Seider hit where he was the one being hunted, but ultimately ended up being the hunter.

10. Best shootout

Originally thought about making this best shootout goal, but goalies are people too and we should recognize that here. Part of what makes a great shootout (which might be an oxymoron to some, but we’re rolling with it), is big saves. There can be tension and drama to it. A shootout that requires double-digit shooters in total. A crowd that’s roaring and into it. Some big goals, including a few to keep it alive. So while Vegas had the drama down pat over the past week, they could not score at all. It was painful to watch. The Lightning and Avalanche had an entertaining shootout which featured a number of elite shooters, some great goaltending and it went beyond the standard six shooters. The Capitals had a few extended ones against the Islanders and Leafs. The Canadiens did as well against the Devils and Kraken.

But for me it’s no contest — it’s the Rangers and Devils. Madison Square Garden. Seven shooters each. Some big saves. A few goals to keep the shootout live. The crowd is roaring and into it. We said this earlier in the season and it rings true: there’s just something about shootouts at MSG.

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