Focusing on future: Handicapping NHL awards


Whether or not you bet on sports, attempting to predict which players will win awards at the end of the season is a fun exercise. However, if you’re handicapping the awards with the hope of making a few bucks, it’s important to develop some criteria. This will help you determine which players even have a shot. I have looked to the past to craft a checklist to aid me in making my selections. Hopefully this will help you make sharper bets in these markets going forward.

There’s one general rule of thumb to follow when looking for player futures to bet on. Resist the urge to back favorites (15-1 is my arbitrary cutoff) and look for long shots that are being overlooked. It’s also a little late to be saying this, but it’s important to get to these markets early. Player futures typically come with very low limits, but I have been able to get some fantastic numbers this year (and in the past) being one of the first to market. These are very tough markets to price for bookmakers — and for bettors — but it’s all about being prepared.

Hart Trophy (Most Valuable Player)


* Since its inception, the Hart Trophy has been awarded to a winger only 25 times out of 96. Compare that with the 50 times it was won by a center. However, the award has been pretty evenly disturbed between the positions over the last 20 years, going to a winger eight times and a center on nine occasions.

* A player doesn’t always need the most points to be voted Most Valuable Player, but the award has gone to the points leader in 10 of the last 15 seasons. In other words, handicapping the Art Ross Trophy race is as simple as projecting individual points; this is more than that.


* Defenders have been awarded the Hart Trophy a total of only 13 times, with three of those going to Bobby Orr in the 1970s. Two more were won by Orr’s predecessor, Eddie Shore, in the 1930s.

* In 1999-2000, Chris Pronger became the first defenseman to win the Hart Trophy since Orr in 1971-72. No defenseman has won it since Pronger.


* The Hart has been awarded to a goaltender only eight times. However, it has happened four times in the modern era. Dominik Hasek won in back-to-back seasons, 1996-97 and 1997-1998. Jose Theodore won it in 2001-02 and Carey Price did it in 2014-15.

* Before Hasek’s dominance, it had been almost 40 years since a goaltender was named the league’s most valuable player.

* Price, Theodore and Hasek all posted a .930 save percentage or better. Only about a half a dozen goalies have hit that mark since 2007-08.

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What else is important?

A team’s regular-season points can be helpful. Since 2010-11, the MVP’s team has posted an average regular-season point total of 94.5. That tells us that while almost every team has a player capable of an MVP-caliber season, the team has to be able to pull its weight. 

In the last decade, only Taylor Hall has accomplished the feat with a team (the Devils) that was not expected to have a shot at the playoffs. The player you pick to win the Hart has to come from a team that has a chance to make the playoffs. Throughout history, a very small percentage of finalists belong to teams that did not qualify for the playoffs.

Each team will play only 56 games in 2020-21, and if we adjust for that, we’re looking for players on teams with a regular-season point total of about 64.5, and we should be focusing on forwards.

A lot of shops have been offering odds on who will win awards like the Hart Trophy, but I’ll be referencing DraftKings here. Shop around as there can be some big differences from book to book. 

Seeing players such as Connor McDavid (+ 450), Leon Draisaitl (+ 1,000) and Nathan MacKinnon (+ 550) atop the field should come as no shock. They all play for teams that likely will make the playoffs (Colorado more so than Edmonton). The same goes for Auston Matthews (+ 800), who will likely lead the Maple Leafs to a North Division title. Artemi Panarin (+ 1,100) and the Rangers’ playoff chances aren’t nearly as good. Including Panarin at the top of the odds board is justified, though, because the Rangers’ only hope for the playoffs is if Panarin drags them there.

I have a sweet spot for Elias Pettersson of the Canucks, and I was lucky enough to bet him 50-1 to lead the league in points in 2021. Because of that, I don’t want any part of him at 18-1 to win the MVP. I project that he will be a top-10 scorer this year, and since the Canucks have about a 50% chance of making the playoffs, he might be an OK choice at the current odds. But it would be nice if the Canucks had a better chance of finishing ahead of four other Canadian teams than they do. Pettersson likely will be a favorite for years to come. 

However, Steven Stamkos at 27-1 is a better bet to win the Hart. Sure, he’s coming back from an injury, and the Lightning will be without Nikita Kucherov, one of their best wingers, for the regular season, but that’s just it. The writers who vote on these awards love a good narrative, and Stamkos’ contributions to the Lightning are going to be more important now that they’re short-handed. He’s a good bet to be among the top-10 point producers and with a little luck he could find himself in the running. Oh, and the Lightning are a lock to make the playoffs, and I don’t use that word lightly.

Don’t forget about Evgeni Malkin at 25-1. He was 14th in points in 2019-20 while being pretty much the only member of the Penguins’ core not to miss a considerable amount of time. With healthy wingers, and good health himself, Malkin could find himself in the running for his second MVP award. I consider the Penguins the third-best team in the East Division.

Aleksander Barkov and Johnny Gaudreau are probably underpriced at 50-1 and 70-1, respectively. Barkov was a top-30 scorer in 2019-20 but was among the top 10 producers a season before. He’s only 25 and will be leaned on heavily in Florida this year. The Panthers are in a weak division with only two real contenders, giving them a chance to make the playoffs. 

Gaudreau had a down year in 2019-20, but he is a bounce-back candidate. Like Barkov, Gaudreau finished among the top 10 in points in 2018-19. He finished 18th the season before. It was most unexpected when he almost fell out of the top 50 in 2019-20 (48). At 27, Johnny Hockey is a high-end player who should find himself with the league leaders again this season, and the Flames should find themselves in the playoffs.

Vezina Trophy (Best Goaltender)

* Since 2010-11, the Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender has started approximately 73% of his team’s games. So, we’re only looking at starters. We might consider a goaltender who’s going to challenge for a starting role if his odds are long enough. A goaltender just won’t get first-place votes unless he starts enough games. However, there could be a little leeway in a condensed 56-game season.

* The last time a goaltender won the award with a sub-.920 save percentage was 2003-04     when Martin Brodeur won the award with 38 wins and a .917 save percentage. The goaltender you pick has to have hit .920 before or have the potential to hit it. Whether that’s because of pedigree or the team in front of him, or both, doesn’t matter. We just need him to get there.

* Since 2010-11, the average regular-season point total of the Vezina winner’s team has been 97.5 which indicates that in order to be considered for the award, a goaltender must be on a team capable of making the playoffs. Sergei Bobrovsky won it twice with the Blue Jackets, and he is responsible for bringing the average wins total down. He won in 2012-13 (79.5) and 2016-17 (84.5).

So, there we have it. We’re looking for goaltenders who are capable of starting enough games — about 40 out of 56 — and they have to have the potential to post a .920 save percentage en route to the playoffs. Zero in on teams with win totals around the 66.5 mark. Let’s say 60 points is our low end as that represents about a 40% chance of making the playoffs. Unless, of course, we’re talking about an elite talent at ridiculously long odds on a team with little to no chance outside of the one he provides.

At the top of the odds board we see last year’s winner, Connor Hellebuyck, of the Jets at + 800. However, he is not the favorite as Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy sits at + 650. The Ducks are not a playoff team, but John Gibson gives them a chance, which is why his odds are + 1,000. There are a few others, but you know the drill. We’re looking for long shots. 

Jacob Markstrom is a player I like to get consideration for the award in 2021. The Flames are a much more responsible team defensively than the Canucks, Markstrom’s previous team, and they have a good chance of making the playoffs. There’s also a bit of a revenge narrative here too, as he’ll have 10 chances to beat the team that let him walk. However, I’m holding 25-1 and 18-1 from a few weeks ago, and Markstrom is 14-1 at DraftKings and BetMGM. That falls below my cutoff of 15-1. Shop around.

Another player I backed to win the award is Carey Price at 16-1 and 15-1. He’s going to get some rest this season with Jake Allen as his backup in Montreal. Price was forced to make 58 appearances in the 2019-20 regular season, which is more than 80% of the total team games. Price hasn’t hit the .920 mark in a few seasons, but he has been the one constant on a team that has seen a lot of turnover. He was dialed in when the Canadiens were inside the bubble, and now he’s going to get a little more rest between starts.

Tristan Jarry of the Penguins is another goaltender I bet to win the Vezina at 33-1. The price at DraftKings (20-1) does meet my threshold, but I would recommend shopping for a better price. Jarry is an unproven goaltender who had a breakout 2019-20, posting a .921 save percentage in 33 games. The 25-year-old has been with the Penguins organization for a while, and they’ve finally handed him the keys. The Pens have a good chance of making the playoffs and should provide Jarry with solid support. 

Juuse Saros of the Predators is the last goaltender I grabbed a piece of at 50-1. He assumed the starting role in 2019-20, posting a .914 save percentage, and should take more of the load this season from 38-year-old Pekka Rinne. I’m not high on the Predators, but they have a little better than a 50% chance to make the playoffs and Saros has an opportunity to be a big reason why. The Predators don’t score a lot of goals and the 25-year-old has a .918 save percentage in 119 games with Nashville. 

Norris Trophy (Best Defenseman)

* Over the last 10 seasons, Norris Trophy winners have averaged about 65 points. The defenseman with the most points doesn’t always win the award, but it’s safe to say that a player must put up 60 points or better to win the award. In a 56-game season, that’s about 45 points, so we’re looking for at least 40 out of our pick. Since 2000, the award has gone to a player with fewer than 60 points only four times.

* Since 2010-11, the average regular-season point total of the winner’s team has been 95.5, which indicates that in order to be considered for the award, a defenseman must be on a team capable of making the playoffs. Erik Karlsson is responsible for bringing that average down, however, as he carried the Senators to the playoffs during both of his Norris Trophy-winning seasons. So, once again, we’re looking to pick players from teams that have a legitimate chance at making the playoffs.

I have two bets, but I was only able to make these particular bets because I was one of the first people to arrive at an untouched offering at a global sportsbook. First, I placed a wager on Charlie McAvoy of the Bruins to win the award at 66-1. Torey Krug is gone, so McAvoy likely will assume his role as the power-play quarterback. He has produced points at a rate of 0.5 per game, and this promotion should put him on track to hit 40 points in 56 games. However, McAvoy is 20-1 at DraftKings and BetMGM. I wouldn’t want to recommend him at that price knowing that you would be getting the worst of it. Shop around.

I also was able to grab Dougie Hamilton to win the trophy at 20-1 as he is on a Hurricanes team that is pretty much a lock to make the playoffs, and he will play a big role at even strength and on special teams. He’s also projected to be one of the highest-scoring defensemen again. He has the third-highest odds at DraftKings, though, and rightfully so. Look past Hamilton at + 650. 

Golden Knights teammates Alex Pietrangelo (+ 1,150) and Shea Theodore (+ 2,500) both eat up big minutes on the power play, so I’m worried about the latter losing some of his to coach Peter Deboer’s shiny new toy, Pietrangelo. Therefore, I stayed away from Theodore despite his potential. The player I think is worth considering at long odds is Ryan Pulock of the Islanders. Hopefully he’ll get more power-play time now that Devon Toews is gone, and he’s an elite player on defense who is very gifted offensively. He just needs a little luck to get there.

Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy (Most Goals)

This is Alexander Ovechkin’s trophy. The award for most goals has been awarded since 1999, and Ovechkin has won it nine times since he entered the league in 2005-06. At 35, he’s a favorite again at + 600. After all, he won it last season. Auston Matthews of the Maple Leafs is the favorite at + 450. A pair of Oilers superstars, Connor McDavid + 900 and Leon Draisaitl + 800, are among the most likely to score the most goals, and so is Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon.

My only bet in this market is on Mika Zibanejad of the Rangers at 22-1 as he should be keeping pace as a top-10 scorer while also possibly sniffing the top five. While it takes a lot of skill to score goals, it’s still an aspect of the game that is heavily influenced by luck, and Zibanejad has a better chance than quite a few of the players ahead of him on the board. With that being said, he’s 17-1 at DraftKings and BetMGM, so you might want to look elsewhere.

There aren’t a lot of players I like here. I think we can cross the Bruins’ David Pastrnak off the list as he is likely going to miss too much time. The people who set these odds put him where they did for people who don’t pay attention to news; otherwise he’d be higher on the board. I wouldn’t consider the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane at 22-1 or even Dominik Kubalik at 60-1, as the team’s two top-line centers are out for what looks to be most of the season. 

Art Ross Trophy (Most Points)

Just like the Rocket Richard Trophy, handicapping the Art Ross Trophy race is as simple as projecting points for the top players. Since 2015-16, the winner has averaged about 110 points, equates to about 75 over a 56-game season. Connor McDavid, a two-time winner, is the favorite at + 350. His Oilers teammate Leon Draisaitl, who won last season, is right behind him at + 650. The Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon, who finished fifth in scoring with 93, is at + 500.

My only bet to win this award is Elias Pettersson of the Canucks at 50-1. At DraftKings and BetMGM, however, Pettersson is 35-1. I don’t like him at that price as I estimate 50-1 to offer just enough value to justify a bet. At 20-1 you have Steven Stamkos of the Lightning and Evgeny Malkin of the Penguins. Both should be in the running all season, and their stock could improve should any of the players in front of them miss time. Johnny Gaudreau of the Flames at 70-1 might need a prayer, but he should be a little higher given what he’s done in the past. 

Jack Adams Award (Best Coach)

This is a fun award to bet. It’s too bad DraftKings and BetMGM aren’t offering it. I did back some coaches to win the award, however, and you might be able to find the market yourself, so here are some tips to help you make your selection.

* Winning this award typically involves taking a team with low expectations (i.e., a team that has less than a 50% chance of making the playoffs) to top of the standings or at least to  the postseason. 

* Seven of the last nine winners have coached teams that had regular-season point totals of 91.5 or below. On average, the regular-season point total of winning coaches has been 87.5 since 2010-11. In other words, look at coaches with win totals around the 60 mark in 2021.

* Coaches who win the Jack Adams Award have good goaltending, saving roughly 92.5% of the shots they face overall. That doesn’t necessarily mean the coach has to have a great goaltender; he just has to have good tandem and some luck.

The coaches I bet to win the Jack Adams are Claude Julien of the Canadiens and John Tortorella of the Blue Jackets, both at 25-1, and Dallas Eakins of the Ducks at 50-1. 

Julien has a great team, and while the Canadiens are not exactly on the outside looking in, they have a better chance of winning the division than people think. Julien also had a heart attack during the playoffs in the fall and had to leave the team, so he has a great story. He has a solid starting goaltender with a good backup, and he has won the award before and is well-liked in the hockey world.

Tortorella is a very good coach who also has won the Jack Adams Award. His team has a 50-50 chance of making the playoffs, and he might have an elite goaltender in Elvis Merzlikins. As long as people keep counting the Blue Jackets out, Tortorella will keep getting consideration. He was a finalist for the award in 2020 despite the fact that his team would have missed the playoffs by percentage points.

Eakins obviously is a long shot, but I think he has a path to the award, especially in a shortened season when his team might get some help from lady luck. By my estimation, there’s a better than 50% chance that a California team will make the playoffs. I know, it sounds crazy. Dallas Eakins and the Ducks have the best goaltender of the bunch, and while they aren’t ahead by much, they have the best chance of the bunch. Eakins was fired after only 18 months as coach of the Oilers back in 2014, his first job in the NHL. If the Ducks make it, and I give them a 22% chance, Eakins definitely will be considered.

Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year)

It should be no surprise that Igor Shesterkin and Alexis Lafreniere of the Rangers are at the top of the odds board to win the Calder Trophy. Shesterkin, the 5-2 favorite at BetMGM, has a solid resume dating to his time in Russia and is primed to take over the Rangers’ crease after getting his feet wet by going 10-2 in a dozen games last season. Lafreniere, the 3-1 second choice, was the Rangers’ first overall pick in 2020 and looks like the real deal. Fans of the team should be optimistic that both players will get consideration for the award, barring injury, as they both deserve to be favorites.

From a betting perspective, however, Lafreniere and Shesterkin are not good picks. There are so many things that could derail a season, and it’s extremely tough to estimate the true chances a particular player will win an award in the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. It is possible to find value in these markets, but you have to resist the urge to back favorites and commit to only bet on long shots that are being overlooked.

Several shops, including BetMGM and DraftKings in New Jersey, are offering the Islanders’ Ilya Sorokin at 27-1 and have made a mistake doing so. Sorokin is projected to assert himself as the Islanders’ starting goaltender in 2021 and beyond, and his pedigree is very similar to that of Shesterkin. The only difference is that the latter has 12 games of NHL experience and is more of a known commodity.

If Shesterkin is a favorite, it’s only logical that oddsmakers should at least give Sorokin an outside chance. As far as Lafreniere goes, only five No. 1 overall picks have won the Calder Trophy since 2000. It has been awarded to a goaltender three times in that same span.

Although Shesterkin projects to get more starts, Sorokin very well could end up starting more games than veteran Semyon Varlamov. The KHL season is 62 games, and Sorokin averaged nearly 40 games per season since 2017-18. It’s a very similar workload to the one he could see in this upcoming 56-game NHL season, so bettors should be confident he will be up to the task. Sorokin is my only Calder pick.

Here’s a breakdown of past Calder Trophy winners by position:

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