By Owen Swanson and Charlie Goodwin
Artemi Panarin is in the perfect position to win the Hart this year, as he set career-highs in points and assists with 82 and 55 last season, respectively. Through the first 7 games of this season, he has already netted three goals and 6 assists for 9 points. Panarin’s production has improved every year he has played thus far and entering his prime at age 27, I expect Panarin’s numbers to be impossible to ignore by the end of the season. The talented winger is simply too fast and skilled to not be in the Hart Trophy conversation as he impresses potential suitors before his impending free agency this offseason.
Charlie: Auston Matthews (TOR)
Auston Matthews has already established himself as a leader, perennial all-star, and the face of the Toronto Maple Leafs for years to come. And here’s the kicker -- he’s only 21. Matthews has quickly turned the Leafs around in his short time as a professional hockey player. In his two seasons, they’ve made the playoffs both years, losing close series to established and experienced teams. His point total last season was 6 short of what it was his rookie year (in which he brought home the Calder Trophy). But get this -- he played twenty fewer games last season. Matthews is already showing how quickly he can tally points with 10 goals in as many games this season. And now with a weapon like John Tavares to dish the puck to, there’s no limit to what Matthews can accomplish this season. Don’t be surprised if he’s hauling home Lord Stanley and the Conn Smythe along with the MVP come June.
Connor Hellebuyck had an extremely impressive breakout season with Winnipeg during their 2017-18 campaign, one that ended with a loss at the hands of Marc-Andre Fleury and the red-hot Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Finals. The Commerce, Michigan native started 67 games and won 44 of them in his second season as the Jets’ starting netminder. His stellar .924 Save Percentage and 2.36 Goals Against Average were enough for Hellebuyck to finish second in voting for the Vezina, and this season will show that it wasn’t a fluke. Two years of sustained success and better numbers this year will ensure that Hellebuyck takes home the Vezina this summer.
Charlie: John Gibson (ANA)
John Gibson had a career year last season for the Anaheim Ducks. The young goalie posted a record of 31-18-7 with the 5th best save percentage for goalies who started at least 30 games. Gibson also has the highest career save percentage among any goalie to appear in at least 150 NHL games since 1955–56. Though the season ended in a disappointing first-round loss at the hands of the San Jose Sharks, Gibson certainly had a good summer, as he signed an 8 year, $51.2 million extension with the Ducks. It’s only a matter of time before the 25-year-old netminder adds a Vezina Trophy to his shelf.
Today’s NHL places a premium on offensive defensemen, and now more than ever D-men are generating offense for their squads. While the Norris is awarded to the Defenseman who displays the best overall ability at the position, it’s a safe bet these days to go with one of the blue line’s best scorers. Of course, defense will be a huge factor in voting for the trophy, but I think those who vote for the Norris winner are beginning to recognize that excellent puck movement is as important, if not more, than staunch defense. For that reason, John Klingberg is my pick to win the Norris this year. Last season he finished second for defensemen in points with 67 and averaged 24:04 TOI, even posting a respectable +10 +/-. Those numbers were good enough for Klingberg to finish 6th in Norris Trophy voting, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he elevates his play under a more fast-paced style of play encouraged by Jim Montgomery.
Charlie: Erik Karlsson (SJS)
Erik Karlsson is an elite defenseman in the National Hockey League. That’s a fact. There’s no way to dispute it. He is also one of the more offensive defensemen in the league. Even with Karlsson having a down year this past season, he was 4th in assists among defensemen and 6th among defensemen in points. Karlsson was also surrounded by little to no talent for the majority of his tenure with the Ottawa Senators. That immediately changes in San Jose, as he now shares the blue line with another top 5 defenseman in Brent Burns, as well as a few other established offensive threats. Karlsson’s change of scenery should allow him to tally up more points this year, along with giving him a realistic shot at capturing that elusive Stanley Cup victory he’s been yearning for. Karlsson could be due for more than just his 3rd Norris Trophy.
Canucks fans haven’t had much to cheer for recently, but with Brock Boeser scoring 55 points at age 20 last season and rookie Elias Pettersson making his NHL debut this year, the future has the potential to be bright in Vancouver. Before being sidelined due to a concussion, the 19-year old Swede had 8 points through his first five NHL games. After being selected 5th overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Pettersson posted 56 points in 44 games played for the SHL’s Växjö Lakers. He has proven to be extremely productive and fun to watch. If Pettersson keeps it up one can be almost certain he takes home hardware at the NHL awards.
Charlie: Rasmus Dahlin (BUF)
Rasmus Dahlin immediately stands out as a frontrunner for the Calder Trophy, as he was the number one overall pick in this year’s draft. The Swedish defenseman is only 18 years old (the same age as me), and has already represented his country in the Winter Olympics more times than most NHL players ever will. Though Dahlin only has 3 points and a plus-minus of -1 through his first 9 games as a Sabre, you have to remember how young he is and the fact that most first overall picks are not selected by great teams. Expect Dahlin to acclimate to the NHL after his first month or so, and quickly build his case for the Calder.
Jack Adams Award
The Dallas Stars made the smartest hire of the offseason when they chose Jim Montgomery from the ranks of collegiate hockey to lead their talented roster. The former Denver University coach is known for a modern approach to the game and his extremely successful teams. In five seasons on the Pioneer’s bench, Montgomery went 125–57–26 with two NCHC tournament wins, an NCHC regular season title, two consecutive Frozen Four appearances, and a National Championship. Ken Hitchcock’s slow, heavy style of hockey got the Stars nowhere last season, despite the abundance of talent up and down the depth chart. A team boasting Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, and Ben Bishop shouldn’t miss the playoffs. So the Stars scrapped the methods of Hitchcock’s old-time hockey and turned to a coach who has already pulled his goaltender with more than 7 minutes remaining this season, just one of the analytically-minded approaches he will employ this year. Montgomery’s modern approach will bring Dallas back to the playoffs and secure the Jack Adams Award for the first-year head coach.
Charlie: Bob Boughner (FLA)
Bob Boughner and the Florida Panthers surprised many people with their late-season playoff push last year. However, their 96 points were just one shy of the playoffs and tied the record for most points by a team that missed the playoffs. While that’s an impressive campaign for a young, first-year head coach, nothing was going to beat Gerard Gallant and the magical Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural season. Boughner will come back this season looking to show that last year was no fluke, and his team is for real. He is relatively young and is out to make a name for himself. The Panthers are a very under-the-radar team, and if they’re making a lot of noise come playoff time, Boughner could be running away with the Jack Adams Award.