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Hughes and Pettersson deserve consideration for major NHL awards

Could Quinn Hughes win the Norris? Where does Elias Pettersson land in the Hart or Selke race?
Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes stop for a chat during a Vancouver Canucks practice.

As a team, the Vancouver Canucks have disappointed this season but they have had some incredible individual performances.

The Canucks’ two young stars, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, have stepped forward this season as franchise players and leaders. Hughes has broken his own franchise record for scoring by a Canucks defenceman, while Pettersson is likely to be the first Canuck since the Sedins to crack 100 points in a season.

Pettersson and Hughes are shoo-ins for the Canucks’ team awards, with Pettersson the presumptive winner of the Cyclone Taylor Trophy as the team’s most valuable player and Hughes the obvious choice for the Babe Pratt Trophy for best defenceman.

But do they deserve consideration for more than just team awards? Can a case be made for both of them to, if not win, at least be a finalist for a couple of major NHL awards?

Quinn Hughes has had a Norris-caliber season

Let’s start with Quinn Hughes, who has a clear case for the Norris Trophy, which is to be awarded to the defenceman “who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.” 

There are a couple of key points in that description of the award that ought to make Hughes a contender.

The first is “all-round ability.” With 73 points in 72 games, Hughes is second among NHL defencemen in scoring. Admittedly, he’s a distant second, 22 points behind the league-leading Erik Karlsson. With a stunning 95 points so far this season, Karlsson has a chance to become the first defenceman in over 30 years to score more than 100 points in a season.

With that kind of point production, Karlsson is the odds-on favourite to win the Norris Trophy for the third time in his career. Where Hughes has the advantage over Karlsson, however, is in defensive play. 

Despite a whopping 70 even-strength points, Karlsson has still been out-scored at even-strength. He has a minus-14 in plus/minus, a statistic that a lot of awards voters still put stock in. Hughes, on the other hand, is plus-16 even though he plays for a Canucks team that has been significantly out-scored at even-strength.

We can look at more advanced metrics too, such as Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) statistic. The even-strength defence portion of that statistic has Hughes well ahead. Hughes has a 4.1 GAR for even-strength defence; Karlsson has a -5.6, taking a significant chunk out of the value he provides offensively.

As a result, Hughes has the NHL’s best GAR among defencemen this season at 21.4 goals above replacement, while Karlsson is fourth at 18.2.

Hughes has done all this while primarily paired with Luke Schenn, who is currently a healthy scratch for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and while spending a significant amount of time with AHL defenceman Noah Juulsen. 

The other aspect of the Norris where Hughes has an advantage is the phrase “throughout the season.” Like Hughes, Cale Makar has combined his scoring with better defensive play than Karlsson, but Hughes has the advantage of playing the whole season, while Makar has missed 15 games to injury.

Perhaps that shouldn’t matter but it typically has for awards voters. The only defenceman to ever win the Norris since the Original Six era while playing fewer than 70 games in a full NHL season was Bobby Orr. 

There will be tough competition for the Norris this season — Adam Fox, Miro Heiskanen, Dougie Hamilton, Josh Morrisey, and Rasmus Dahlin are all in the mix — so it’s not likely to be Hughes’ year. Still, there’s a strong case that he ought to be one of the three finalists. 

Elias Pettersson has been the Canucks' MVP

If the Canucks made the playoffs, Elias Pettersson would undoubtedly be getting buzz for the Hart Trophy as the “player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.” 

Pettersson has 96 points, 20 more than the next-best Canuck, J.T. Miller. He’s been a beast on both sides of the puck as not just the team’s leading scorer but also their best defensive forward. He plays in all situations, leading all Canucks forwards in shorthanded ice time as one of their go-to penalty killers and he’s tied with J.T. Miller for the NHL lead in shorthanded points.

Unfortunately, the Canucks won’t be making the playoffs and it’s extremely rare for anyone to win the Hart while missing the playoffs. Leon Draisaitl did it in 2020, but that was a unique situation in a COVID-shortened season with a play-in series that the Edmonton Oilers lost. 

You have to go back to the 1987-88 season for the last time it happened legitimately, when Mario Lemieux won the Hart despite the Pittsburgh Penguins missing the playoffs. But Lemieux had 70 goals and 168 points in 77 games that season, leading the NHL in both categories by wide margins. Pettersson won’t be doing that this season.

Still, there’s a case to be made that Pettersson deserves Hart votes, even if the obvious Hart winner is Connor McDavid and his absurd 62 goals and 146 points in 77 games. 

For instance, Pettersson is third in the NHL this season in GAR behind McDavid and Matthew Tkachuk. His 24.7 GAR is fueled by both his offence and his defence, as well as his knack for drawing penalties while steering clear of the penalty box himself. He’s taken just six penalties all season while drawing 36, giving him a league-leading plus-30 penalty differential.

Could Elias Pettersson be up for the Selke or Lady Byng?

Perhaps Pettersson could instead be up for the Selke as the NHL’s best defensive forward.

The Selke has long been an odd award, generally given out by reputation more than any stellar defensive play in a particular season. Often, the winner is whichever forward with a reputation for good defence scored the most that season.

For Pettersson to win the award in the future, then, he has to establish that reputation now. Leading all Canucks forward in shorthanded ice time and leading the NHL in shorthanded points is a good start and he’s popping up in other defensive metrics. 

Pettersson’s even-strength defence is worth 5.3 goals above a replacement player according to Evolving-Hockey. That’s the seventh-best GAR in that situation among all NHL forwards. 

Let’s be realistic: no one is dethroning Patrice Bergeron this season and there are too many other strong competitors for the Selke for Pettersson to have a real shot of even being a finalist. He’ll likely have to improve his 44.27% faceoff percentage to get some serious consideration as well — voters for the Selke care about that sort of thing.

There’s one other award, however, that Pettersson has a real shot at: the Lady Byng, awarded to the “player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

Typically, this comes out to, “Which player had a lot of points and few penalty minutes?” Pettersson fits the bill with just 12 penalty minutes to go with his 96 points. Other competitors include Jack Hughes (90 points, 6 penalty minutes), Brayden Point (89 points, 7 penalty minutes), and Nico Hischier (73 points, 8 penalty minutes).

But Pettersson also has a gentlemanly aspect to his play. He has tried to wave off penalties that he doesn’t feel he earned. He checks on injured opponents to make sure they’re okay and even helped Connor Brown to the bench after he injured his knee. 

Pettersson exemplifies so many aspects of sportsmanship beyond just taking very few penalties. There’s a strong case to be made that Pettersson shouldn’t just be a finalist for the Lady Byng but should win the award.