Sports

Handing out 10 NHL awards, from most underrated player to game of the year

With the NHL regular season all but over, it’s time to hand out some awards. But not the typical NHL awards you would think of. Ten points as per usual, featuring 10 honors that unfortunately don’t get an actual trophy.

Best trade of the offseason

First, a reminder of the parameters on what qualifies. The NHL has an official trade tracker for the 2022-2023 season on their website, so the trade has to have happened from the start of the tracker up until the first game of the season.

This is not about a trade where both teams benefitted, but if that happens, then great! We love a good hockey trade that benefits both teams, but that is rare. We also acknowledge trades where a team knowingly pays up a huge price to add a player while recognizing that is exactly how trades generally work. This is about at least one team netting out big value relative to what they parted with on the deal.

There were a ton of options to sort through for this one.

The number of value trades was astonishing to look back on. There were a few trades that netted good players on huge value, namely the Oilers getting Klim Kostin for Dmitri Samorukov, the Devils acquiring John Marino for Ty Smith and the Kraken adding Oliver Bjorkstrand for a third and a fourth.

The Carolina Hurricanes acquired Brent Burns (and Lane Pederson) from San Jose Sharks in exchange for forward Steven Lorentz, goalie Eetu Makiniemi and conditional third-round pick in 2023 NHL Draft. Burns has 16 goals and nearly 60 points this season! He has come as advertised and is clearly rejuvenated playing on a contender.

But the winner really does seem obvious here. Florida swung big in the summer and hit a grand slam. Matthew Tkachuk for Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, Cole Schwindt and a Round 1 pick in the 2025 draft. The trade was a blockbuster from day one but it became more lopsided as the season went on. Jonathan Huberdeau is about to turn 30, had just 15 goals and 55 points in 79 games and his eight-year, $84 million contract hasn’t even kicked in yet. Weegar had a reasonably solid season and is a legitimate top-four defenseman, even if his ice time and production both dipped from his past two seasons in Florida. Schwindt had a decent AHL season and there’s still a first round pick to come, but boy, the Panthers have to be feeling great about this.

Best trade of the season? Best free agent signing? Biggest hit of the year? Here are the NHL awards you didn't know you needed. (Getty Images)

Best trade of the season? Best free agent signing? Biggest hit of the year? Here are the NHL awards you didn’t know you needed. (Getty Images)

They avoided paying Huberdeau and Weegar, two players that are hitting their 30s shortly, and they acquired a legitimate superstar. It is a franchise altering move. Some wondered if his production was slightly inflated last season, playing alongside Johnny Gaudreau on arguably the best line in the league last season. He produced more overall this season, hitting 109 points. That’s good enough to tie for fifth in league scoring. Since Jan. 1, only Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Leon Draisaitl produced more as the Panthers rallied to make the playoffs.

At just 25 years old, he’s locked in through his prime at $9.5 million per season, which is somehow less than what Huberdeau is about to make starting his contract at 30 years old.

Best free agent signing

To be the best free agent signing, you have to outplay your contract. That means a good player who signed in the summer for big dollars, like Columbus with Johnny Gaudreau, is not going to win this award. I also find it difficult to give this award to veterans who sign for a discount — think Mark Giordano with Toronto or Joe Pavelski with Dallas. Usually, it’s the bargain bin signings that take off that win because the value is just too good to overlook.

Because of the nature of free agency — an open market that drives up prices — sometimes it can be difficult to squeeze out value. There were some solid signings like Colin Miller with Dallas, and I’d even argue David Perron is worth more than the $4.75 million the Red Wings are paying him. Erik Gustafsson was great value on a poor Washington team for $800,000. As was Max Domi with Chicago.

Surprisingly, Claude Giroux might have a strong case. He had a career-high 35 goals and helped bring along their young talent. He was a legitimate leader and difference maker. But the Senators fell short of making the playoffs and that contract has two more years to go for the now 35-year-old Giroux, so there’s a lot to go.

The Leafs — with the signing of Michael Bunting — won this award last season… and I’m having a hard time seeing how they didn’t win it again. This time with the signing of Ilya Samsonov. He took over the net as the Leafs starter and ended up playing 42 games, posting a career-high .919 save percentage. He did miss a little time with an injury but otherwise has been solid and dependable for a Leafs team that had a good roster on paper but needed the goaltending to hold up alongside it. Samsonov did that on a contract that pays him just $1.8 million and he’s a restricted free agent after the season to boot. The value and restricted status makes this a no-doubter.

Most improved player

The cutoff for this one is players who had played at least 200 games in the league entering the season. It is, of course, a subjective cutoff, but we can’t just give this award to a young player simply developing as one would generally expect them to. So a player like Owen Tippett, who clearly took a huge step forward this season, isn’t even in the conversation.

There are some players who have had some lights-out seasons that are difficult to sort through. Clayton Keller took a step. Brock Nelson had a career year leading the Islanders to a playoff spot. Jared McCann had 40 goals!

Elias Pettersson, who was always viewed as a superstar in the making, truly became one this season. He has always been really good but this season was a whole new level, passing 100 points for the first time, killing penalties, and showing that he can be a true franchise centre. It was only a few years ago that people were questioning him during the Covid-shortened season.

In Florida, Brandon Montour finally put it all together with a monster 73-point season playing over 24 minutes per game. It was very difficult not to give him this award. His previous career-high was 37 points. He finished tied for third among defensemen in scoring. Montour led all Panthers in time on ice per game.

Ultimately, though, I couldn’t get past Vince Dunn. Unlike Montour, he doesn’t have a superstars up front to play with. Dunn was claimed in the expansion draft after a season in which it was very clear the Blues wanted to move on. He could have been had for very little. Instead, Seattle claimed him for free and he’s a massive reason they are in the playoffs in their second ever season. He finished second on the team in scoring and formed a very good pairing alongside Adam Larsson, controlling play and outscoring opponents 80-59 at 5-on-5. Going into the season, his career-high in points was 35. He had 64 this season. His 23:41 per game was three minutes higher than his previous career high. Turning 27 later this year, he came into his own this season and was a legit star.

Most underrated player

Last season, Gustav Forsling won this one, to give you an idea of the types of players we are talking about here. That is to say, an All-Star caliber player that really doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, and usually on a winning team to boot. If anything, I am weary of players who have good seasons on really bad teams — someone has to get ice time and the number of players we have seen get traded from a bad team only to go to a good team and play a depth role is countless.

Ultimately, we want to recognize those who are contributing to winning and not getting their share of the credit. Part of that credit is media attention, but part of it is also league attention. So a player like Adam Pelech, for example, who doesn’t get a ton of love on the playoff-bound Islanders, is making $5.75 million per year on a long-term contract — you can’t be that underrated on that type of contract. Same goes for Jared McCann, who did have a massive season but has also been paid handsomely and has been a good goalscorer for a few seasons now.

It is more difficult for legit forwards to fly under the radar because they usually produce and get attention. This award is really made for defensemen in this day and age of high-flying scoring.

It came down to three players for me. The first is Jani Hakanpaa of the Dallas Stars, who took a long road to the NHL and went through three teams in three seasons before finally finding a home in Dallas, who has had an excellent season and has had Hakanpaa in their top four and a staple on their penalty kill, which is one of the best in the league. He’s not particularly graceful, but he’s frustrating to play against due to his size and reach and does well to close out games for Dallas. He is making just $1.5 million this season.

Then there is Brayden McNabb, who does have some decent name value and has played the third most per game of any Golden Knight and was a steady, reliable presence in all 82 games (which is nothing to sneeze at). He makes just $2.85 million per season and is signed for two more years.

Finally, there is Jonas Siegenthaler in New Jersey. Technically, he did sign a five-year contract extension, but it is worth just $17 million. He has been a staple on New Jersey’s top pairing alongside Dougie Hamilton, acting as the defensive defenseman on the pairing as Hamilton has had a massive season offensively. Siegenthaler was acquired by New Jersey in 2021 for just a conditional third-round pick and has been a bit of an analytics darling. While he has had good seasons before (see New Jersey committing to him for five years), the Devils took a huge leap this season and he played on their top pairing making $3.4 million. There is a difference between being a good analytics player on a bad team and being a good player on an actual good team. This season he was a good player on a good team. Legit top pairing defensemen make way more than that and he’s a legit top pairing defenseman at this point in his career.

Best journeyman

Journeymen are one of my favourite parts of the game. These are players that have persevered, bouncing from team to team, and eventually seizing an opportunity to stick in the NHL. For this one, the player has to have played at least 200 AHL games.

Some other players like Alex Lyon and Darren Raddysh had interesting cases, but neither played in 20 NHL games this season, thus missing the cut.

Stefan Noesen is an interesting one as he had a great season with Carolina and played all of last season in the AHL, but he has played full seasons in the NHL before.

Hudson Fasching was drafted in the fourth round by the LA Kings in 2013. The next year, he was traded in a deal that brought the Kings Brayden McNabb, which meant Fasching was off to Buffalo. He had a good college career, signed and played with the Sabres immediately at the end of the season, then played primarily in the AHL the next two years, getting a few looks in the NHL here and there. The two seasons after that, he played exclusively in the AHL, his career season being 19 goals and 35 points in 57 games. In 2020-2021, he played all of seven professional games. Last season was spent primarily in the AHL and then in the summer he signed with the Islanders, where he started in the minors. But injuries, particularly to Anthony Beauvillier, opened the door to get in the lineup, and when Matthew Barzal got injured, he took the opportunity and ran with it.

From March 1 through the end of the season, he was fourth on the Islanders in scoring as they rallied and made the playoffs. He didn’t just show he can play in the league, he had big time goals and moments that result in a playoff appearance, including scoring in their final game that cemented their postseason berth.

Best contract year

To confirm: this is for pending unrestricted free agents only. Restricted free agents need new contracts but they are quite limited in negotiation in most cases, a completely different dynamic altogether.

The upcoming free agent class has big names, but those big names didn’t exactly have big seasons. Players like Ryan O’Reilly, Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jonathan Toews and Jordan Staal all had fine campaigns, to some degree, but nothing that was lights-out or suggested they should be earn big bucks over term. In fairness, all those players are concluding their big-money, big-term contracts this summer. They have little left to prove.

The leading point-getter among all pending UFAs is actually… Alex Killorn. He had a career-high 62 points and tied a career-high with 26 goals. It was a solid season, to be sure, but he’s been around that mark before — last season he had 59 points, for example. He’s also turning 34 in September and teams are well aware of who he is at this point. His stock, unfortunately for him, likely did not go up too much despite having the best season of his career.

Same goes for Max Domi, who is having a nice productive season, but he has been productive before and teams will still likely view him the same way they did last summer when he was also a UFA; an offensive forward that struggles defensively.

There are some players in that mushy middle who likely upped their value — shootout specialist Frederik Gaudreau had 17 goals. Nick Bjugstad also scored 17. Scott Mayfield has been waiting to get paid for a few years now, and he will this summer.

But this award really comes down to two guys.

JT Compher is having a career season with Colorado. He is on the top power play unit due to injury and has cashed in. His career high going into this season was 33 points — he has 52 this season. He’s always been an effective player that you can move around your lineup and can chip in all sorts of ways. This season, he had the offensive production that suggests he can be a legitimate top-six contributor.

But I think the winner already signed an extension. I don’t think that’s a cop out — he was a pending UFA, had a huge season, got traded, and cashed in. Bo Horvat had a career year — 38 goals and 70 points. His previous career highs were 31 and 61 respectively. But at the time he extended, he had 31 goals and 54 points in 49 games. He was off to a massive start and he cashed in, to the tune of $8.5 million per year over eight years. That is definitely higher than I thought he would get going into the season, and a big reason why is because of a productive contract year.

Game of the year

This is one the hardest awards to give out. There are so many games and so many good ones in any given season. The key thing is that both teams have to play well. There is a difference between a good comeback and a good game.

This season, though, I don’t think we need to overthink it. The Rangers vs. Flames clash in February had everything. Big goals, big hits, emotions running high, and an overtime clincher.

Goal of the season

Last season’s nicest goal award was a relative layup as Trevor Zegras flipped a puck over the net and Sonny Milano batted it in. This season? Not so easy.

There were lots of nice goals, but qualifying one as the nicest is difficult.

How about Charlie McAvoy going end-to-end?

Or John Tavares turning back the clock?

Or Brayden Point singlehandedly torching the Kraken’s top pairing?

Ultimately, I couldn’t find anything that was nicer than this Kent Johnson goal. I’m not even a fan of the Michigan, but everything about it was awesome. The stick lift to get the puck back, the fake shot and toe drag, then the actual play itself. And, it was against a quality team.

Biggest hit of the season

This is such a tough category to sort through. I feel like I watched every single piece of contact even remotely resembling a hit over this past week to figure this one out. There were some great hits, as you would expect.

Nikita Zadorov is always in the conversation and laid a number of good, clean, crushing hits. Like this one against Nick Paul.

Ryan Reaves laid a massive hit on Filip Hronek, which he later said was clean.

But in my mind, there was one hit that I instinctively compared every other hit to and ultimately nothing came close. Jacob Trouba is arguably the best hitter in the league and he absolutely steamrolled Nazem Kadri this season with a perfectly-timed, monstrous hit.

Best shootout of the season

This might be unpopular, but sometimes the shootout does have a time and place. In this award, I want to recognize a shootout that had big goals and saves. There were some real doozies this year. The Bruins and Kings had a great seven-round battle in Boston. The Rangers always seem to be part of a few good ones for some reason. The Wild alone were in 13 this season!

Down the stretch, the Flames got eliminated in a shootout that had drama all over the place. The Sabres also suffered a big loss to the Habs in the shootout in their push for a playoff spot.

Ultimately, the Canadiens take the cake for the most entertaining shootout, but they did not win. Montreal is a great spot for a shootout, with the fans following on the edge of their seats. Their epic against Carolina this season had a bit of everything. Some beautiful goals — especially by Nick Suzuki — a big save to keep Carolina in it, followed by a big goal to send it to extra shooters. Some big saves when they went shooter for shooter, followed by the drama of having Jesperi Kotkaniemi shoot in the sixth round to win the game, with heavy boos pouring down, and scoring a beauty to ice it. Great shootout.

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