COMMENTARY/ANALYSIS: West Coast players were shut out once again from the major National Hockey League awards, the league’s annual showcase of its best and brightest, just another reminder of how much of an embarrassing joke the NHL awards have been for years.
LOS ANGELES — The 2015 National Hockey League awards have come and gone, and once again, they have proven to be a complete joke.
Year after year after year, the NHL awards turns out to be an embarrassing knock on the league’s credibility, not to mention that of some of the writers who vote for five of the six player awards (having been a voter for these awards in previous seasons, that includes yours truly) because of the blatantly obvious advantage given to players from Eastern Conference teams, primarily due to the fact that they get far greater attention from the media in Eastern time zone cities and in much of Canada.
Eastern Conference teams, as they so often do, dominated the player awards, with only one going to a Western Conference player.
The Eastern Conference also took all six First Team All-Star positions.
To steal a line from Saturday Night Live original cast member Garrett Morris…
“Can you say, ‘East Coast bias?’ I knew that you could!”
A blatant example of this problem was the voting for the James Norris Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to the defenseman demonstrating “…the greatest all-around ability in the position.”
This year’s recipient was Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, a fine defenseman, one of the best in the NHL.
The two other finalists for the Norris Trophy were P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens and Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, and given the seasons both had, Karlsson, despite his obvious talent and skill, should have placed behind Subban and Doughty for the Norris Trophy.
Karlsson probably should have placed behind Chicago’s Duncan Keith and Nashville’s Shea Weber, as well, but that’s for another story.
Although Karlsson’s offensive numbers are slightly better than Subban’s and are considerably better than Doughty’s, his numbers on the other side of the puck pale in comparison. Perhaps most notable is the fact that he was on the ice during shorthanded situations for just 33 seconds all season—the evidence does more than suggest that Senators head coach Dave Cameron does not have much faith in Karlsson’s defensive play.
On the other side of the coin, both Doughty and Subban were relied upon to play critical roles on the penalty-kill for their teams.
As reported earlier, although neither Doughty nor Subban have the offensive numbers that Karlsson has, they weren’t slouches, either. Both played key roles on offense for their teams, whether it was at even strength, or on the power play.
To be sure, the selection of Karlsson for this year’s Norris Trophy flies right in the face of the award’s criteria, “…the greatest all-around ability in the position.” Of course, this would not be the first time the award has been given to a primarily offensive defenseman, so this should not be a surprise to anyone who has followed the NHL for awhile.
Making Karlsson’s choice as the Norris Trophy recipient even more suspect is the fact that Doughty, who placed second in the voting, received 53 first place votes, while Karlsson received 44.
But if you think that’s bad, wait…it gets worse.
Astonishingly, if you do the math, it turns out that Doughty did not even get a vote from 31 voters, while Karlsson received votes on 146 of 157 ballots.
You read that correctly, folks. Drew Doughty was left off 31 ballots completely, and it appears that this is what cost him the Norris Trophy this season.
With the Kings failing to make the playoffs this season, it is not a surprise that Doughty did not win the Norris Trophy this year—not helping lead their teams to the post-season party is often a black mark on a player’s record for many voters, including yours truly. In fact, no player whose team has missed the playoffs has ever won the Norris Trophy. However, that should not be enough to drop a player of Doughty’s caliber, especially given the season he had, completely out of consideration for any voter (each writer has to vote for five players).
This year’s results for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded annually to “…the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game,” are also rather questionable.
Without a doubt, this year’s winner, Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, is one of the best defensive forwards in the game today. He was certainly not a bad selection for his third Selke Trophy. But he was not the best choice.
The other two finalists were Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks and Anze Kopitar of the Kings. Both are also among the very best defensive forwards in the NHL.
Bergeron’s and Toews’ numbers are rather comparable this season. Bergeron played about 30 more minutes on the penalty-kill, but had a paltry +2 plus/minus rating compared to +30 for Toews.
Looking at their respective team statistics, goal scoring does not seem to be a factor in the plus/minus difference between Bergeron and Toews, shining a more focused spotlight on other aspects of their play this season.
As for Kopitar, his -2 plus/minus rating (which comes as a shock, given that he was still good defensively this season) certainly didn’t help his cause.
But when you compare Bergeron, Kopitar and Toews, what stands out most is that one helped lead his team to a playoff berth while the other two did not. When you take that into account, along with their statistics, it makes the selection of Bergeron over Toews rather dubious. To make matters even worse, Bergeron received 24 more first place votes than Toews did.
East Coast/Canadian Bias Rears Its Ugly Head Again
This year’s results for the Norris and Selke Trophies, along with the results for the First All-Star Team, shine a bright light on the tremendous advantage players on teams in Eastern time zone cities and much of Canada, have over players in the West, most notably, those who play for West Coast teams.
Perhaps an even more embarrassing example of the obvious bias in awards voting came last season when Bergeron won the Selke Trophy over Kopitar by a whopping 443-vote advantage, and with 112 of the 137 first place votes.
Toews came in a distant third.
Bergeron and Kopitar ended the 2013-14 season with comparable numbers. But as I reported in this space last year at this time, “…Kopitar’s ability to protect the puck and make strong defensive plays down low, around his own net, is because he has improved his strength and conditioning every year—he has learned to use his 6-4, 224-pound frame to his advantage this season. His size, strength and speed give him an edge over Bergeron and Toews, in terms of what he has been able to do defensive this year.”
The “Grand Canyon” in votes between Bergeron and Kopitar in last season’s Selke voting was a complete travesty—there was no way that Bergeron was worthy of the landslide margin he received in the voting, something I tweeted about at the time:
Don't get me wrong...Bergeron is great. Deserves accolades. But he is not 443 votes better than Kopitar 4 Selke. Total Eastern bias #LAKings—
Frozen Royalty (@frozenroyalty) June 24, 2014
Fixing The Problem
Much criticism has been flung at members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA), who vote for five of the six player awards (the Vezina Trophy is voted on by NHL general managers) and the First and Second All-Star squads.
To be fair, many writers, including many who are based in the Eastern Time Zone, simply do not have time to watch all the Pacific Time Zone games. After all, they do start at 10:30 PM Eastern time, and if you have to be at work at 8:00 AM, staying up past midnight is a lot to ask.
Can they record the games and watch them later? Sure. But whether or not they have time to do that is another question that must be factored into the discussion, especially given the fact that a writers’ job is not done once their story is filed, not with the added demands of promoting their work and interacting with readers on social media, which is pretty much a requirement now.
Further, many hockey writers cover multiple sports for their outlets, forcing them to ignore NHL teams other than the one(s) they cover. As such, the bias in the voting is, at least, somewhat inherent.
Over the years, there have been a number of suggestions for fixing this problem, including taking the voting out of the hands of the writers and having the players themselves do all the voting. But the problem in that possible solution is that while they may be very familiar with players in their own conference, they will generally not be familiar enough with players in the other conference, since they only face them twice a year.
But here’s a thought, one I’m sure someone has probably thought of before, but I’ll throw it out there, anyway…
NHL pro scouts probably watch more games live and on television or on the web than anyone. Why not let them vote for the player awards?
Sure, there would be pitfalls here, too, as scouts do not always get to see all teams each season, and for some, their particular focus may not help them to be well suited to vote for the awards. That said, and without having delved deeply into this idea, it seems to me that pro scouts would be very, very qualified to vote on the player awards, and could be the solution we are all looking for to fix the league’s embarrassing credibility problem with their annual awards.
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