Making the Case for Four Flyers to Win an NHL Award
Last week, I wrote my predictions for who would bring home each of the six awards the Flyers themselves present every season. While each year's winners are certainly happy for the accolade, there is far greater hardware up for grabs.
The Stanley Cup is usually what comes to mind when you mention hockey and hardware in the same sentence. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is uncertain when or if the trophy will be awarded. However, even if the 2019-20 season is already over, the league could still present the individual trophies usually handed out at the NHL awards. While the ceremony itself has been postponed, there's no reason to think the league won't eventually have the PWHA vote with so much of the regular season already completed.
It has been a long time since a Flyer has won one of the major awards. You have to go all the way back to the 2010-11 season, when Ian Laperriere won the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication to hockey, to find the last Flyer to bring home some hardware. A few players have come close. Claude Giroux was nominated for the Hart Trophy in 2014, finishing 3rd (and 4th in 2018). Sean Couturier came the closest with a runner-up finish to Anze Kopitar for the Selke in 2018.
After looking at this year's field and the descriptions of the 13 awards handed out at least year's ceremony, there are four awards that have a reasonable chance of being brought home by a Flyer. Here's who's in the running, why they deserve the award, and who else around the league has a shot at taking them down.
The Award: The Selke Trophy, which is awarded to the league's best defensive forward (though best two-way forward is probably a more telling description).
Previous Finishes: 6th in 2019, 2nd in 2018, 47th in 2017, 56th in 2016, 30th in 2015, 9th in 2014
Mid-Season Standing: The Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA) voted Couturier as the midseason favorite for the Selke.
Previous Flyers Winners: Dave Poulin (86-87), Bobby Clarke (82-83)
The Case For: Couturier has come close each of the last two years, and this season seems like the year he will get over the top. Coots was the mid-season pick to win the award, and didn't slow down during the second half.
Couturier played against top competition on a night-in, night-out basis. His 19:50 time-on-ice led the Flyers. He plays center, which is the most defensive of the three center positions (a winger hasn't won the award since Jeri Lehtinen in 2001). He also leads Flyers forwards in short-handed ice-time. Despite all these hardships, Couturier has churned out outstanding advanced stats (Corsi: 56.25%, +5.23% Relative to Teammates; xGF: 55.54%, +4.9% Rel). His 59 points were second on Philly to only Travis Konecny. And he drew more penalties than he took. It's hard to find a hole in Couturier's resume. He's an elite two-way forward.
If Not Him, Then Who?
Ryan O'Reilly (STL): Last year's winner put up another strong season by just about every metric that Couturier grades out well in. His penalty differential is positive, he faces top competition, kills penalties, and scores a lot. Couturier does have him beat in points per 60 (2.13 to 2.41), but overall, O'Reilly is Couturier's biggest challenger.
Patrice Bergeron (BOS): Bergeron has a reputation of being the best defensive forward in the league. But Coots has him beat in a lot of areas this year. Bergeron missed about a dozen games to injury, had a negative penalty differential, and had a 2.03 points per 60, well below Coots' 2.41.
Anthony Cirelli (TB): Winning the Selke usually requires building up a reputation. One stellar season often isn't enough to earn the award. You can see it with Couturier; nominated four straight years before actually becoming a serious contender. That and the fact he's buried a line behind Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point down the middle will probably keep Cirelli from winning in 2020. He's one of the NHL's best-kept secrets; don't be surprised if you see him holding this trophy in a few years.
The Verdict: This seems like it should be Couturier's year. He's checked every box that a Selke winner needs to accomplish. The fact that he won the mid-season vote makes him the most likely Flyer to bring home some hardware.
The Award: The Jack Adams, which is awarded to the coach who has contributed the most to their team's success.
Previous Finishes: Won in 2007 (VAN)
Mid-Season Standing: Did not make top three.
Previous Flyers Winners: Fred Shero (73-74), Pat Quinn (79-80), Mike Keenan (84-85), Bill Barber (00-01)
The Case For: Last season, the Dave Hakstol/Scott Gordon coached Flyers put up 82 points. Though they did make some additions in the offseason, the Flyers were far from a playoff lock when the season began. There was also some doubt surrounding Vigneault after a tumultuous ending to his tenure with the New York Rangers, specifically when it came to overplaying useless veterans and not trusting talented youth.
Right now, however, there is no doubt that the Flyers are a good team, and that Vigneault is a good coach. The Flyers have been a great team at 5-on-5 (9th in Corsi, 15th in Expected Goals), which is where most of Vigneault's work shows. That's despite having just the 22nd 5-on-5 save percentage in the NHL. The Flyers have dealt with a plethora of injuries, both long-term and to key players like Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick. Carter Hart has had a solid sophomore season under his watch (Elliott and Alex Lyon drag that team save percentage down a little). His line combinations have made sense, and other than Shayne Gostisbehere, every Flyer has either treaded water or taken a step up under Vigneault's reign.
If Not Him, Then Who?
Mike Sullivan (PIT): It looked like the Penguins were on the downfall after being swept in Round 1 last year. But Sullivan lead them through a bevy of injuries that had an even greater effect than the Flyers'. The Pens lost Crosby, Malkin, Guentzel, and more for extended periods of time, and Matt Murray has struggled, and the Penguins are still a great team. He's a worthy candidate.
Jared Bednar (COL): After squeaking into the playoffs with eight fewer points than the nine seed in the East (Montreal), the Avs have surged to a regular season juggernaut and a legit Cup contender. That's despite trading one of their top offensive defensemen (Tyson Barrie). Bednar has overseen all of that, and deserves credit from turning the Avs around this quickly - just three seasons ago, they put up a dismal 47 points, the worst of any team in the salary cap era.
Paul Maurice (WPG)/John Tortorella (CBJ): The Jets lost three of their top-four defensemen to a trade, free agency, and whatever Dustin Byfuglien is up to. And yet they're still in the hunt for a playoff spot, which is the main argument for Maurice. However, they're not currently in a spot (by points percentage or the 68-game rollback idea), and a lot of their success is due to Vezina-favorite Connor Hellebuyck, dragging the Jets to relevancy despite poor advanced stats. Tortorella fits in the same bin. The Jackets lost three game-changers during the offseason, but remained a solid team thanks to Torts' work and great young goaltending. Injuries probably would've taken them down if the season finished, and they're also not in a playoff spot, but Tortorella has a legitimate chance.
Dave Tippett (EDM): The Oilers hadn't come very close to the playoffs each of the last two years. But Tippett got the Oilers off to an incredible start (7-1-0) and they never fully let up, despite still lacking scoring depth and any game-changers on defense or between the pipes. However, Edmonton's success might speak more to the incompetency of Tippett's predecessors more than his genius work.
Travis Green (VAN): If the current standings hold, the longest playoff-less drought broken this season would be Vancouver's five-year slide. After coming close but not close enough in the Sedin era, the Canucks rebuilt and found themselves on the right, with Travis Green guiding his young club to first in the Pacific at multiple points this season. However, goalie Jacob Markstrom might be the biggest difference maker for the Canucks this year, and they are far from a lock to hold on to their spot.
Geoff Ward (CGY)/Rick Bowness (DAL)/Sheldon Keefe (TOR): I'll group all three of these coaches together since they fit in the same archetype. All three took over mid-season and have their teams currently in a playoff spot. Ward's Flames looked like they were on the verge of falling apart under Bill Peters before he righted the ship. Bowness' Stars have about held even under his watch. Keefe's Leafs had a brief surge but remained as inconsistent as ever. All three deserve a mention, but probably not more than that.
The Verdict: A Metro coach is probably winning this award. Torts and Sullivan are both very deserving coaches, even if the former is probably DQed since the Jackets are technically on the outside looking in. AV is right in the running for this, though. He should at least be a finalist, and maybe win it all.
The Award: The Jim Gregory GM of the Year Award, which goes to the league's top general manager.
Previous Finishes: No Wins
Mid-Season Standing: Did not make top three.
Previous Flyers Winners: None
The Case For: If Vigneault is up for the Jack Adams, the guy who hired him deserves a lot of credit, no? Fletcher was brought in to take the Flyers to the next level, and he has done just that. Fletcher also hired Mike Yeo, who has brought the Flyers penalty kill back to relevance at then some with an 81.8% penalty kill and six short-handed goals (T-8th in the NHL). He also brought in Michel Therrien, and after a frustrating first-half, Therrien brought the top unit back to their normal form and has the Flyers PP in the top-half of the league.
From a players perspective, Fletcher couldn't have done a better job. The Kevin Hayes contract is steep, but the Flyers might not even be a playoff team without him filling the void at 2nd-line center, his amazing PK instincts (his four shorties are tied for the league lead), and comic relief. Matt Niskanen has been the ying to Ivan Provorov's yang almost all season. Justin Braun has solidified the right-side and penalty kill. Tyler Pitlick has been an amazing fourth-liner. Those are all of Fletcher's offseason additions - none have been disappointments. What else could you ask for?
If Not Him, Then Who?
Joe Sakic (COL): Like Bednar, Sakic has built the Avs up from bottom-feeders to Cup contenders in just a few years. He shrewdly snagged Cale Makar at number four overall, allowing him to trade Tyson Barrie for the second-line center he needed in Nazem Kadri. Joonas Donskoi has been a great addition to their middle-six, and (former Flyer) Pierre Eduoard-Bellemare has been solid as well. The Philip Grubauer trade worked out for them, as Sakic weaponized his cap space to acquire a starting goalie for just a 2nd round pick and Brooks Orpik's soon-to-be bought out deal. There's a lot to like on his resume.
The Verdict: I feel like Fletcher is going to be snubbed here. Sakic has done incredible work, but I don't think any GM made a greater positive impact on their team over the last 12 months than Fletcher. There's a lot more hype surrounding Sakic, the PHWA's mid-season pick.
The Award: The Bill Masterton Trophy, which goes to the player who most exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.
Previous Finishes: None
Mid-Season Standing: This award is not voted on by the PHWA mid-season.
Previous Flyers Winners: Ian Laperriere (10-11)
The Case For: Lindblom had an amazing start to the 19-20 campaign. After an under-the-radar 18-19 campaign, Lindblom had 18 points and a tied for team-leading 12 goals in mid-December. He was also a strong penalty killer and had great underlying numbers. Oskar was becoming a key contributor for an up and coming Flyers team.
Then tragedy struck when Lindblom was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma, a form of cancer. The disease may have ended Lindblom's season on the ice, but he has not left the Flyers. The team still sets up his locker before every game. Lindblom has been to the Wells Fargo Center twice since his diagnosis, and has been met with hugs, smiles, and a standing ovation. The Flyers and the entire NHL continue standing with Oskar during his fight, evident by the dozens of opposing players sporting Oskar Strong t-shirts under their sweaters.
If Not Him, Then Who?
Colby Cave (EDM): The 25-year old center tragically passed away after suffering a brain bleed earlier in the week, his wife Emily announced Saturday morning. Cave split time this year between the Oilers and Bruins. My thoughts and prayers go to his family, friends, and teammates during this difficult time. May he rest in peace.
Zdeno Chara (BOS): This is the old nomination that isn't based on pure sadness. Rather, it's a celebration of Chara's amazing career. The tallest player in NHL history (6'9'') played 1,553 games for the Islanders, Senators, and Bruins, captaining Boston to a Stanley Cup in 2011 and winning the Norris in 2009. He has had an outstanding hockey career that could very well be recognized with this award. It's incredible he's still going strong at 42.
Shea Theodore (VGK): The Vegas defenseman was diagnosed with testicular cancer after a drug test at the World Championships last spring. Theodore successfully overcame the disease and didn't miss a game for the Knights this year, scoring a career-high 46 points despite Vegas' season ending with 11 games left on the schedule.
The Verdict: I don't see how the league can't give this to Cave. Lindblom will hopefully be a prime candidate for the award next year when he recovers and the league returns. But this is the first time an active NHLer has passed away since Derek Boogaard in 2011, and Cave's death was a complete out-of-the-blue medical issue to a perfectly healthy professional athlete in his mid-20s. Maybe the league shares the award between Lindblom and Cave as a nod to Oskar's fight, but awarding this to Cave is a great thing the NHL can, and should do, to honor his legacy. #RIPColby