Chris Haddad The Hockey Writers
Avalanche Have a Long History of NHL Award Winners
Within the past couple weeks, the NHL has trickled out its nominees for several of its prestigious regular season awards, most of which are voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA). Colorado Avalanche players are finalists for three awards this season: Nathan MacKinnon for the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP, as voted on by the PHWA) and the Ted Lindsay Award (MVP as voted on by the players), and Cale Makar for the Calder Memorial Trophy (best rookie, PHWA). Let’s look at the Avalanche’s most recent winners for all the prestigious awards and forecast whether more hardware is in the team’s future.
Calder Memorial Trophy (Best Rookie)
Voted on by the PHWA
Awarded to the league’s most outstanding rookie player since 1936-37
Most recent Avalanche winner: Nathan MacKinnon, 2013-14
MacKinnon ran away with the Calder Trophy in 2013-14, receiving 130 of the 137 1st place votes. The youngest Calder Trophy winner in league history, he was the favorite throughout the season as he led all rookies in scoring. He finished the season with the highest rookie totals in goals (24), assists (39), points (63), and Offensive Point Shares (5.7, which measures how many team points in the standings a player’s offense contributes).
MacKinnon was 4th in team scoring during the regular season but tied for the team-lead in playoff points with Paul Stastny with 10 points in 7 games. The Avalanche finished 2013-14 atop the Central Division with 112 points and had high hopes for another lengthy postseason run. Five players scored 60 points or more in the regular season and its netminder, Sergei Varlamov, was the Vezina Trophy runner-up. However, they lost in overtime at home in Game 7 of the 1st round to the Minnesota Wild.
Related: 5 Greatest Rookie Seasons in Whalers/Hurricanes History
For the 2019-20 award, a recent survey of 18 NHL.com writers found that Avs defenseman Makar deserves the 2019-20 Calder Trophy:
The fact that Makar is a leading candidate for the Calder after an injury-riddled season is a testament to his incredible performance drive. Despite missing 14 games, he finished the regular season 1st in points per game (0.88), 2nd in total points (50), 2nd in assists (38), 6th in goals (12), and 7th in plus-minus (+12). Clearly these writers recognize Makar’s worthiness.
Conn Smythe Trophy (Playoff MVP)
Voted on by the PHWA
Awarded to the most valuable player of the playoffs since 1964-65
Most recent Avalanche winner: Patrick Roy 2000-01
Only in rare cases does a player who is not a Stanley Cup champion win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP. It’s only occurred five times in NHL history, the most recent happening in 2003 when netminder Jean-Sebastian Giguere of the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim won the award. Since the Avs haven’t won the Cup or made the Cup Final since the 2000-01 season, it’s unsurprising that the organization is nearing a twenty season drought for the Conn Smythe.
Quizzically, Patrick Roy didn’t have an exceptional 2000-01 regular season. He didn’t place in the NHL top 10 in era-adjusted Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA), adjusted Goals Against (GA), Goalie Points Shares (GPS), or Total Point Shares (PS). It was the first time since 1986-87 that he wasn’t top 10 in GSAA. He had been top 8 in GPS every season since 1987-88.
Heading into the 2000-01 playoffs, Roy was not playing his best hockey. From February to April 2001, Roy posted monthly save percentages of 0.898, 0.896, and 0.920 (3 starts), respectively. Even in the 1st round of the playoffs when the Avalanche swept the Vancouver Canucks 4-0, Roy’s save percentage was sub-.900. But since the Avs were either tied or leading during all four games except for 11:20 total minutes, there was less pressure on Roy and the defense.
It was during the Conference Semifinals against the Kings that Roy turned into a brick wall in net. The Avs outscored the Kings 21-10 but needed seven games to knock them out. Roy put up a sparkling 0.943 save percentage, 1.32 GAA, and had two shutouts, helping to send the Avs to the Western Conference Final against their division rival, the St. Louis Blues. Again, Roy shined with a 0.939 save percentage and a 1.98 GAA and the Avs beat the Blues in 5 games, propelling the club to the 2000-01 Stanley Cup Final against the New Jersey Devils.
The Devils led the NHL in regular-season scoring (295 goals) and placed 5th in goals against (195). None of that mattered to Roy as he shut down the high flying Devils offense, limiting them to 11 goals on 178 shots in seven games. In total, Roy led all playoff goalies with a 0.934 save percentage, 1.70 GAA, and four shutouts and won the Conn Smythe Trophy for his efforts.
The road to the Stanley Cup Final is long and arduous, and players may surprise with unexpected play. That was certainly the case in 2000-01 with Patrick Roy. With the NHL in uncharted territory designing the playoffs with its coronavirus protocols, I would expect more exciting uncertainty with who shines during its team’s run for the Cup.
Hart Memorial Trophy (Regular Season MVP)
Voted on by the PHWA
Awarded to the most valuable player to his team since 1923-24
Most recent Avalanche winner: Peter Forsberg, 2002-03
Despite only winning the regular-season scoring title by two points, Forsberg won the Hart Memorial Trophy as NHL MVP with nearly 82% of the total voting points. Forsberg missed seven games for injury yet he paced the NHL in assists (77), total points (106), and tied for 1st in plus-minus (+52) with teammate Milan Hejduk. Having missed the entire 2001-02 regular season, the fact that Forsberg led the NHL in scoring in 2002-03 demonstrated why he was one of the best players in league history.
But Forsberg paid dearly for that nearly full season of 75 games. After 2002-03, he would never play more than 60 games in any one season again. He skated in just 167 games before retiring in 2011. “Peter the Great” reigned as one of the strongest skating NHL power forwards during his injury-plagued career.
Over 13 seasons, Forsberg played in 75 games or more just twice, in 1995-96 and 2002-03, scoring 116 and 106 regular-season points, respectively. His career was riddled with injuries and they essentially ended his NHL career after the 2007-08 season. He made a comeback in 2010-11 but only played in two games before officially retiring.
Ted Lindsay Award (MVP as Voted By the NHLPA)
Voted on by the NHL Players’ Association
Awarded to the most outstanding player since 1970-71
Most recent Avalanche winner: Joe Sakic 2000-01
Formerly the Lester B. Pearson Award, the Ted Lindsay Award does not have the history that the Hart Trophy does, but some players place more importance on it because its winners are voted on by their peers. Boston Bruins’ alternate captain Patrice Bergeron contributed his thoughts on the award in a 2019 NHLPA.com article:
It’s pretty amazing to be voted by your peers, to be honest. They’re the ones that play the game and against you…It’s an amazing award, it’s the most important one to me.
In 2000-01, Joe Sakic won both the Hart Trophy and the then-Pearson Award. He led the NHL in Total Point Shares (15.9), which is still the highest mark by a center since 1996-97. The only other major categories in which he led the NHL were game-winning goals (12) and plus-minus (+45). But he was top 5 in so many others: 2nd in goals (54), 5th in assists (64), 2nd in points (118), 3rd in even-strength goals (32), 3rd in power-play goals (19), and 3rd in average per game ice-time by a center (23:01).
Additionally, Sakic captained the Avs to the West’s best regular-season record and was the highest-scoring player on the conference’s highest-scoring team. At the 30,000′ view, it’s easier to see why both the national media and NHL players voted Sakic as their MVP.
Avalanche Absent from a Few Awards
Despite a fabled history of elite players, no Avalanche player has ever been named the NHL’s best regular-season defenseman, goalie, or defensive forward. To look at the reasons why, I split Avalanche history into three periods: the Sakic-Forsberg Era (1995-2008), the Middle Ages (2008-2013), and the MacKinnon Era (2013-current).
James Norris Trophy (Best Defenseman)
Studying Avalanche team history, it’s easy to see why the Avs have no Norris recipient(s). During the Sakic-Forsberg era, the Avs only had three defenders who were good enough for serious Norris Trophy consideration: Sandis Ozolinsh, Rob Blake and Ray Bourque. Blake was the last to leave Colorado at the end of the 2005-06 season. After that season, Francois Beauchemin was the only Avalanche player to receive any vote points through to 2018-19, getting 1 in 2015-16.
Related: The Best NHL Defensemen Ever
In sum, the Avs never appropriately allocated resources to building their blue line so it’s not surprising that no Avs player has won the Norris. However, with a retooled defense, I expect at least one player from the Makar, Sami Girard, Ryan Graves, and Bowen Byram group to receive considerable annual Norris attention over the next decade.
Vezina Trophy (Best Goalie)
As mentioned earlier, Varlamov was the Vezina Trophy runner-up in 2013-14. So far, he’s been the only netminder in the MacKinnon Era to have received any Norris vote points. For the most part, Varlamov was closer to league average during his Colorado career than he was the NHL top 10. He never surpassed 12.0 GSAA after 2013-14, and there were five seasons during which his GSAA was negative, or below league average.
In between when Roy retired at the end of the 2002-03 season and Varlamov began his tenure in 2011-12, only one Avs goalie got any Norris votes (Craig Anderson finished tied for 4th in 2009-10 during the Middle Ages). Peter Budaj played over 30 games in net for five of the six seasons he spent with the Avs from 2005-11. Before passing the torch to Varlamov, Budaj finished his time with the Avs with one of the worst starting netminder GSAA career totals in NHL history (-39.98).
The current Avs netminders flashed a lot of promise this season, the team’s first without Varlamov since 2010-11. Philip Grubauer and Pavel Francouz finished 2019-20 ranked 21st and 6th respectively in GSAA. Having too much postseason goalie depth is never a bad thing, and both have shown potential to annually place among the best goalies in the NHL.
Frank J. Selke Trophy (Best Defensive Forward)
The next time an Avalanche player wins the Selke Trophy will be the first because the organization has not rostered many quality two-way forwards throughout its history. Forsberg was a perennial challenger for the Selke, placing in the top eight four times during 1996-2003.
I think that he deserved it in 1996-97 when he finished runner-up to Michael Peca, but I suspect that the PHWA rewarded Peca for playing close to a full season (79 games), as Forsberg missed 17 games to injury. Sakic finished in the top 10 three straight times, from 1999-2002, and most recently, Ryan O’Reilly placed 6th in 2013-14.
Related: Ray Bourque – A Long Way to the Stanley Cup
This is not to say that the club hasn’t had good defensive forwards. Current players Gabe Landeskog, Matt Calvert, and Valeri Nichushkin are solid contributors in the Avs’ own zone. It’s more that the NHL awards for skaters tend to favor those with high offensive output regardless of the award criteria.
Solid checking-line and other bottom-six forwards may play pivotal roles on their teams, but they’re unlikely to garner enough ice time in scoring situations to produce the offense necessary to garner strong consideration for even a trophy that goes to the best defensive forward.
Recapping Avalanche Award History
The future of the Avalanche organization looks bright. The team has a solid core of young and promising players in MacKinnon, Makar, Mikko Rantanen, and Sam Girard. It’s a reasonable expectation that the Avalanche are well-represented on NHL Award Night over the foreseeable future. Makar and MacKinnon are finalists for three awards this season. Barring injuries similar to this season in size and scope, several Avs will challenge and win multiple awards over the next few seasons.
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