With COVID-19 canceling games at a near nightly basis, it’s a bit of a challenge to truly judge everyone equally. Some teams have missed about five games so far, while others have had key players put on the COVID-19 protocol list for extended periods of time.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to over-analyze early season play.
We’ve hit the quarter-season mark for many NHL teams this season, giving us a good look at which teams are the real deal and which players were ready to dominate the shortened season. There hasn’t been a ton of surprises early on, and the action has been great, but a few players I wouldn’t have bet on to be top performers have found their way near the top of their respective stats categories.
Each season, the NHL announces its first and second all-star teams, indicating the best players at each of the respective decisions. The quality of star power between the two teams rarely differentiates and the awards are essentially meaningless, but, hey, sports are meaningless anyways. But it’s fun, and that’s why I’m going to look at the early season award winners for the 2021 NHL season:
C- Connor McDavid
Gee, who could have seen this coming? A motivated McDavid has had a blast obliterating the rest of the North Division (although the Oilers as a group are not) with nine goals and 28 points in 16 games – giving him a 99-point rate through 56 games.
McDavid doesn’t need to be an advanced stats darling to be effective. A high-event shooter with incredible speed and skill, McDavid is seen as the NHL’s best player for a reason. He’s so hard to stop, and when he’s on his game, you can always expect a highlight-reel play or two to keep you entertained. If you’re putting money down on a league MVP, McDavid is as safe as it gets.
LW – James van Riemsdyk
What a nice surprise JVR has been in Philadelphia. It’s not that we didn’t think he could be any good – he has a few 60-point seasons to his credit. But with 18 points in 13 games – and currently on an eight-game point streak – van Riemsdyk has been Philadelphia’s best player and a big reason why the team is a top contender so far this year.
At one point in time, JVR actually saw some playing time with a pair of players mentioned below. But his contributions to the Flyers has been so significant, even after starting the season lower than usual in the lineup. JVR was a healthy scratch during some playoff games last year but he looks strong, confident and ready to contribute on a nightly basis. As long as van Riemsdyk keeps producing, the Flyers are in good shape.
RW – Mark Stone
With 15 points and 11 games, Stone probably would be higher in the scoring charts had the Golden Knights not had to deal with postponements. Why’s that? Stone currently sits third in the league with an assist-per-60 rating of 2.95 and his 4.21 points-per-60 average is second behind van Riemsdyk (4.47) for the league lead. Simply put, Stone’s been magic with the puck this season.
Last month, Stone hit a unique milestone by becoming just the fourth NHLer ever to get a point on each of his team’s game-winning goals in a perfect 4-0-0 start to the season. It’s quite random, yes, but it’s a sign of just how impactful he’s been in Vegas’ success. If we’re going by points percentage, Vegas sits fifth in the league with a .773 rating and Stone has a point in all but one of the team’s wins this season – so, yeah, Stone has been important.
D – Victor Hedman
Hedman was the pre-season favorite for the Norris Trophy and he’s definitely lived up to the expectation early on. With a 52.94 goals-for percentage, a 52.03 Corsi-for rating and an impressive .81 goals-per-60, Hedman’s title as Mr. Reliable continues with 14 points in 12 games.
Over the past three years, Victor Hedman’s wins-above-replacement rating of 4.94 puts him near the top of the league’s most elite defensemen, which isn’t a surprise given he’s been a finalist for the Norris over the past four seasons, winning it in 2018. In a shortened season, Hedman looks ready for another trophy to add to his case.
D – Cale Makar
The reigning Calder Trophy winner quickly emerged last year as one of the league’s top young defensemen and he has thrust that narrative into a whole other gear in 2021. Makar has points in his past five games and in eight of his 11 contests with 12 total – good for a three-way tie for fourth despite playing fewer games than all his counterparts.
Makar’s 61.11 Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 is by large a step ahead of the second place defender with at least 10 games played, Charlie McAvoy (58.29). Makar’s goals-for percentage of 72.22 is fourth among defensemen with at least 16:00 of 5-on-5 ice time per game (more or less top-four defenders). What does this mean? When Makar is on the ice, the Avs are typically the ones challenging for goals and they’re doing a fantastic job of converting on it – that’s where his offensive output shines. He’s had fantastic results at both ends of the ice, forcing himself into the early Norris Trophy conversation as a sophomore.
G – Andrei Vasilevskiy
Yeah, I get it. The Lightning have a stacked team and are fresh off a Stanley Cup. Even without Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay is still a favorite to win another trophy this season.
But just crediting Vasilevskiy’s play to the hot team in front of him is doing the star netminder a disservice as he continues his dominating performance between the pipes. The 2019 Vezina Trophy winner has led the league in scoring the past three season and sits one behind Toronto’s Frederik Andersen for the lead this season in two fewer games.
Vasilevskiy’s 8-1-1 record is aided by a .951 save percentage at 5-on-5 (first among goalies with at least six starts), a 7.66 goals-saved-above-average (first), and a .907 high-danger save percentage (the only goalie above .900 with at least 10 games played). He’s still missing a shutout to his credit, but you still need some magnificent performances to put up the numbers he has, even if the team in front of you is quite strong.
C – Auston Matthews
Sorry, Oilers fans. I know you want Leon Draisaitl in this spot and he’s fully deserving of it.
I’m giving Matthews the edge here solely because of how important he needs to be to the Leafs – if Matthews has an off night, the Leafs struggle. If Draisaitl has an off night, the Oilers still have the best player in the world in McDavid. This is not a knock on Draisaitl – Draisaitl is still a top candidate for the MVP. We just have a situation where three of the league’s top players this season happen to play the same position.
According to hockey stats guru Patrick Bacon, Matthews spends 30.2 percent of his even-strength ice time playing against “quality competition” – that’s good for sixth in the league. It’s not like Matthews’ 11 goals and 16 points are coming against bottom-line players – he’s beating the best in the division and is one of the league’s best goal-scorers as a result.
LW – Brad Marchand
David Pastrnak has stolen the spotlight in Boston since returning from injury but we have to give Marchand a bit of credit, too. Without his elite goal-scoring winger by his side,
Marchand had 10 points in seven games and has at least one in 11 of his 12 contests overall. That’s exactly the type of consistency we’re used to from Marchand, who has made a living as one of the NHL’s most dynamic forwards.
Marchand’s 64.47 Corsi-for percentage is tops among all players and while the rest of his advanced stats aren’t blowing anyone away, he’s still good in all other notable categories. Nikolaj Ehlers is just as deserving to be in this spot, but I’m giving Marchand the advantage for his play when the Bruins were struggling early on and because we have enough North Division players battling for awards as it is.
RW – Mitch Marner
We knew Marner was set for a big season in a division that didn’t put a premium on high-quality defense and he has been exactly as advertised. Despite playing fewer games than his closest two opponents, Marner leads all right-wingers with 21 assists, even-strength points with 14 and is in a tie for first in power-play points with seven.
Playing with a superstar in Auston Matthews helps, but don’t for a second think Marner has been anything but spectacular. Marner needs to continue creating those chances for his line because he’s a tremendous play-maker that can also finish off Matthews’ plays.
D – Jeff Petry
If you’ve followed the Canadiens at any point this year, you know just how good Petry’s been. Petry sits three points behind Hughes for the league lead by defensemen and is tied with Edmonton’s Darnell Nurse for the most goals by a blueliner with six. Nearly half (six) of Petry’s points (14) has been with the man advantage, but he’s still playing some of the best hockey of his career and made the Habs a threat out of the gate.
The Canadiens have struggled in recent matches and while Petry has been good, he hasn’t exactly been the Norris Trophy-favorite we saw early on. Still, we’re talking about one of the best defensemen in the league this season and, for Montreal’s sake, he better stay that way.
D – Quinn Hughes
The leading scorer among defensemen holds a point-per-game average through 17 games and has five multi-point efforts to his credit thus far. But what keeps him off the top team is simply because whether you like it or not, Hughes’ defensive game simply hasn’t been to the level that Makar and Hedman have played.
At 5-on-5, Hughes’ Corsi-for percentage of 47.25 puts him 132nd among defensemen with at least 100 minutes of 5-on-5 play and his 36.11 goals-for percentage places him 153rd. Top-pairing defensemen are bound to have slightly lower numbers if they’re always playing against top lines, but that’s WELL above the league average and it’s not even close. Those are not great results in the slightest, but he deserves a nod here because he’s doing so much for an under-performing team and is truly one of the only bright spots in an otherwise challenging year for the Canucks.
G – Semyon Varlamov
I think I was in the minority in wanting Varlamov to get the bulk of the starts on the Island this season. Sure, Ilya Sorokin is one of the best young goalies in the game today, but Varlamov is a cagey veteran that put up some great starts during the playoffs last year and could act as a mentor for his fellow Russian teammate.
Varlamov is 10th in the league in wins, but with a 5-2-2- record, Varlamov has held his own for a team that isn’t known for high-scoring affairs. Varlamov leads the league with three shutouts – a 33 percent rate through nine games – and he’s around the top-five mark in all major goalie categories. He’s not at the top, but it’s the fact that he’s doing so much for a team that sits 30th in goals-for (28) matters.