The Penguins season is now 75% complete and has left than one month in the regular season. As such and with a few days off here, it’s probably not too early to take stock in the NHL’s landscape for the awards.
No Pittsburgh player has won a major league-wide award since 2017, when Sidney Crosby won the Conn Smythe for playoff MVP and Rocket Richard trophy for scoring the most goals.
Awards won’t come from the scoring races — Crosby is over 20 points behind Connor McDavid, and Jake Guentzel is 12 goals back of Auston Matthews. However, there could be some cases on the fringe for consideration. So let’s consider!
Kris Letang - Norris
After an unsteady first few weeks of the season, Kris Letang has exploded into a dominant point-producing defenseman. Letang’s 34 points ranks fifth among NHL defensemen this season. The Norris trophy is often a glamorous trophy for the offensive defenseman, so this high point total will put Letang’s name at least in the periphery for consideration. Letang has a NHL high for defenseman with 11 multi-point games this season, when he’s been on, no one has been more impactful for his team’s offense.
Letang has received Norris votes in seven seasons in his career, finishing as high as third in 2013. He has placed in the 4th-6th range like a few times in his career and that is probably where he’ll end up again. It doesn’t seem likely Letang has a lot of momentum to stake a claim as THE league’s top defenseman, but his play and production will have him somewhat in the conversation.
Sidney Crosby - Selke
While Crosby won’t win the Art Ross or other individual offensive awards this year, he actually does have a decent case for the Selke due to his impact on the Pens’ defense while on the ice at even strength.
One other interesting little tidbit, Crosby has taken 942 faceoffs this season, the most in the league. Pittsburgh leans on Crosby in this area, and he’s performed well winning 54.5% of them.
The major item working against Crosby is that he doesn’t kill penalties, with only 7:30 spent on the PK all season. Crosby has been one of the best defensive forwards in the league, but the team doesn’t have him in an overly defensive role, which hurts for this award. Crosby can only play so many minutes, and his impact while 4v5 isn’t an optimal use of saving his lungs and energy to play more at 5v5 and create offense.
Can a non-traditional PKer win the award for the best defensive forward in the league? It’s going to be an uphill battle, and perhaps rightfully so. But Crosby is gaining some traction in the minds of the voters and getting attention for his play — he finished 4th in the Selke vote in 2018-19 under similar conditions. And back then his season wasn’t as good defensively as what he is doing right now.
Crosby probably will make a push for a Selke at some point in the latter years of his career, could it be this year? He has the metrics for being a reasonable finalist, at the very least.
Mike Sullivan - Jack Adams
Now we get to the final entry of the article, and probably the most deserving candidate that Pittsburgh has. Mike Sullivan has cobbled together lineups at time with 3-4-5 NHL defensemen injured early this season. Later on he’s dealt with 4-5 of his top-nine forwards being hurt. Despite all of this, the Pens are one of the few teams in the league without a three+ game losing streak, and they’re well on course for another playoff berth.
That the Pens are near the top of the division and the even just a few points back in the Presidents Trophy race is a testament to the steadiness of Sullivan’s message and his work behind the bench. Sullivan has done a great job, and like most coach of the year candidates, he’s received quality goaltending for most of the season. But he’s also built a system that stresses a team concept of defense to help the goalies. And the Pens are 5th best in the league at suppressing scoring chances at 5v5.
Unfortunately for Sullivan’s chances, the Jack Adams award tends to be an odd vote — usually a team that has out-performed preseason expectations and/or has a really good goalie ends up winning the award. Last month nhl.com did a preview and Florida’s Joel Quenneville was the runaway leader at that time. Quenneville fits the category of “surprise team that has out-performed expectations” to a tee. Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour was second. Sullivan barely recorded a ripple, placing 12th in this vote. That’s not the final vote by any means, but it goes to show that league-wide that Sullivan doesn’t have a lot of momentum for what usually is a popularity contest and which narrative is hitting the high notes.
Sullivan deserves heavy consideration for his work this season, and probably more than it seems he is getting across the league. But it remains to be seen if he will get a lot of attention. Should he steer the Pens to a division title that will garner a lot for his Jack Adams campaign and help kick it into gear.
After taking a survey, it doesn’t look like the Penguins will be in contention for many individual awards this year, just like the past few years. It’s a far cry from 1988-2001 when Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr combined to win 11 out of 14 Art Ross trophies and a host of other MVP’s and Rocket Richard’s. Surely coming away empty handed for individual accolades would be more than OK with them if they can win a host of the team trophies that they are fighting for.