It’s time to change the NHL Awards process

Photo: Arnold C./Wikimedia

The Professional Hockey Writers’ Association votes on most of the NHL’s major awards – the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke, Conn Smythe, Lady Byng and Bill Masterton trophies are all decided by hockey’s scribes.

The time has come for the writers to step up and improve transparency.

As It Stands

Right now, three groups of PHWA members vote on league awards. Of the 285 members, roughly 180 vote, with those voters “split as evenly as possible between the two Conferences.”

Voters may disclose who they voted for, but the total list of voters and their ballots is kept anonymous, preventing any outside scrutiny of the process. Systemic biases – for instance, it’s been (reasonably) suggested that many “national” writers are based in places like Toronto, and thus would have an Eastern Conference skew to their voting – may or may not be present; there’s simply no way to know. Certain teams are either over- or under-represented as part of the whole; again there’s no way to tell if this factors into voting because of the way the process unfolds.

As It Should Be

The entire process should be far more open to public scrutiny, with both voting lists and individual ballots publicized.

Beat reporters frequently talk to players during their worst times – after a bad game, after a healthy scratch, during a bad season – and often when that player is not made available to the media it becomes a badge of shame. Look no further than Nail Yakupov being labeled a prima donna after he declined to speak to reporters during this year’s world championships or the continuing reaction to Phil Kessel’s troubles with the media in Toronto. Coming out and speaking to the media may yield little but a few mumbled clichés, but it is seen as a vital part of being accountable as a professional hockey player.

If a professional hockey player needs to be accountable, why should a professional hockey writer be any different? (For that matter, isn’t one of the selling points of the mainstream media as superior to “anonymous bloggers” the fact that they’re willing to put their name to their work?)

I don’t spend a lot of time referencing baseball, but this is one area where the PHWA could take a real lesson from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The BBWAA runs a website where it lists its objectives, includes its constitution, and publishes the ballots of the members voting on each of its awards. The voting process is clear and transparent, and there’s never any question about who voted for Jassen Cullimore as one of the league’s best defencemen.

The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell (laudably, like many other PHWA members) made the decision to publicize his awards ballot, but then argued that the reaction he got was a good argument against making all ballots public:

The problem is that the same rationale works for any opinion; some people will react harshly if I opine that the Oilers need to upgrade their starting goaltender if they want to win, while others will react in the same manner if I say that Devan Dubnyk is good enough to win the Stanley cup in a starting role. I have yet to see a hockey writer who can get through his entire career without making a controversial opinion; Campbell’s argument is an argument in favour of having researched, defensible opinions, not one in favour of using the defence of anonymity to shield opinion-havers from negative feedback. Negative reaction from the internet is still relatively new but it isn’t going away anytime soon for sports writers; those who can’t handle it are probably in the wrong profession.

Puck Daddy editor Greg Wyshynski makes a different argument about anonymous balloting:

It’s a fair point, and it’s not hard to imagine the impact this could have. I certainly thought about fan reaction when I wrote here at Oilers Nation that I’d choose Brodin over Yakupov for rookie of the year. But it’s also worth noting that there is an additional set of pressures: the pressure of not looking like a homer to a national audience. Going back to Jassen Cullimore as an example – under the current system, his biggest fan can write that he feels Cullimore is one of the league’s best defencemen from the shelter of anonymity; is he more or less likely to regret that choice in a world of anonymous voting or one where everyone can see his ballot?

Additionally, this is a challenge reporters already face. When a pivotal penalty call is made against the home side and it’s a call that could have gone either way but they generally agree with, do they curry favour with the home fans by ridiculing the call or stand by their beliefs? The best ones have the courage of their convictions and aren’t afraid to make the unpopular argument that they can back up with fact.

The bottom line is this: reporters and journalists are the public’s champions of transparency. In sports, they ask questions fans aren’t in a position to ask, and reveal information that fans aren’t in a position to know. At their best, they expose, they don’t hide. Why should the awards process be an exception to that rule?


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Recently around the Nation Network

Jeff Veillette, writing on The Faceoff Myth at Leafs Nation, suggests that the hockey world places far too much emphasis on a player’s ability to win a draw:

While faceoff ability is a positive asset, the reality is that the practical difference between a "great" and "poor" drawman is almost insignificant. What you can do after the draw is won or lost becomes much more important.

Click on the link above to read more, or check out some recent pieces here at Oilers Nation:

  • Czar


    What do you think Linus Omark is worth . does he move the Oilers up a few spots up in the 2nd rd? If they exchange picks. Does the combination of 2 second rd picks and Omark move the Oilers up? how much

  • RexLibris

    First of all, there’s no logical reason to allow the writers to vote on awards. What special knowledge do they have that makes their insight more valuable? That they watch a lot of games? Sure for their home team, but I’ll bet you there are fans who watch a lot more games. That the are close to the players to see how they act off-ice? That’s an argument against letting them vote in my view.

    The best thing the NHL could do is form a committee, like the HOF commmittee, made up of current and former players, writers, front office personnel. Id like to give fans a vote somehow, but it would probably turn into a troll-fest. That group changes every few years, and ballots are made public. Its not perfect, but its more balanced than the current voting systems.

  • At this point I’m ready to go one step further.

    As far as I’m concerned the writers shouldnt be voting on the awards at all. Each head coach and each GM should vote on the award with the only rule being that they cannot vote for one of their own players. It will always be balanced, it will always be a qualified hockey person making the vote, it will be easier to track down who voted for whom.

    I think it’s shameful that someone would be allowed to vote on a major award who is not willing to stand by his/her decisions publicly. Taking heat from fans is part of the job when you have an opinion of any kind.

    I run a tiny blog that nobody reads and I still take flak for things I’ve written so I can only imagine that a widely read writer takes exponentially more heat, but that has to be considered “part of the job”. Crying foul because someone thinks your selection of Saad as the Rookie of the Year is ridiculous and ought be reason enough to make sure you arent allowed to vote again.

  • I’d like to actually see the extent of this Eastern bias. Show me how many players from each conference are nominated for awards voted on by the PHWA over the past 10 years.

    There’s enough numbers guys on here that track every other stat imaginable that it shouldn’t take long.

    Show me that this Eastern bias is a real thing and not just sour grapes!

    • I’m in the process of going back over awards voting, but here’s the first thing that jumps out at me. Last year, during Hart voting, Eastern Conference players received 600 total votes; Western Conference players 145.

      The funny thing is that even if you remove all three finalists (Malkin, Stamkos, Lundqvist) the East *still* got more votes than the West by a 211-145 margin.

  • RexLibris

    It would seem that the issues raised here are the result of the two worlds that sports journalism has traditionally occupied. Sports being a (relatively) recent preoccupation in news coverage and the long push to have it recognized as valid journalism.

    Sports journalism is still not taken very seriously and some major services have embraced that image to increase their popularity, while at the same time some of the consumers of that product take the subject matter sometimes too seriously, in the case of award voting demanding as much, arguably even more, transparency and accountability as in a federal election.

    This isn’t to say that the PHWA can’t embrace a more professional approach in the case of award voting, as you suggest. But finding a balance between the two is difficult and as you mention, the passion that sports coverage tends to evoke, as well as the reputation amongst online communities when it comes to unpopular statements, can be a deterrent to further transparency.

  • Spydyr

    One way to get rid of the eastern bias would be to give each team the same amount of votes.Be it four of five votes.Not sure if this is happening now or not.The transparency is nice also.Publish who they all voted for .Make them answer for their choices.

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    “I have yet to see a hockey writer who can get through his entire career without making a controversial opinion”

    More to the point: I have yet to see an opinion journalist sustain a career without making controversial opinions.

    I imagine Ken Campbell’s boss isn’t too happy to hear his employee isn’t agitating his readership.

    A couple of data points on the PHWA:

    1) most of these people are journalists, not analysts

    2) Mark Spector is the Executive VP

    3) their website is straight out of 1994 when it was briefly active and then abandoned by the 14 year old that created it:

  • Rob...

    Hey JW, I definitely wish to know……how is it that many of the writers threw in their ballots prior to season’s end?

    Are not the issue of voting for the players subject to being of the full season and not just 80 to 90% of the season?

    I am in agreement 100% withy those supporting that Brodin should have been entered into the finals as also Yakupov, no matter who would win the award.

    The fact that Yakupov won the rookie scoring proves he should have been in the finals, and although Bordin played alongside Suter, he should have qualified as well.

    The other award I now have issues with is the Hart trophy being with Crosby involved. Brobosky was a better choice in my mind as Crosby missed significant parts of this season and that his team is super loaded with stars.

    What a Crock!!!!

    The other new big issue for me is…. that with this season being that the conferences were kept apart from inter-conference play, why was not the proper fair solution being that two players from each conference would be chosen?

    The fact that most of the players chosen for their individual awards are mainly from the east side shows there is a definite probable bias and incompetency problem here.

    • Concur

      I will be accused of trolling but….
      Check more than just scoring stats when forming an opinion. Example, Saad also killed penalties and did a great job of it. The only other top rookie to kill penalties was Brodin. Gallagher and Saad also bring a physical element that none of the others do. Huberdeau played on an awful team. He was expected to produce because no one else could. Gallagher and Saad as well as Brodin were involved in games that mattered a great deal more as well. Yak, as an example lit it up versus a Canuck team trying to get out of town as quick as possible.

      None of this means that Yak won’t become a good player, perhaps more than that but right now, he is allowed to just be an opportunist with not a great deal of accountability. That being said, maybe what Krueger is doing is right. Why not just let him free flow while the Oilers are not good. It is easier to teach defense than offense.

      • Romulus' Apotheosis

        This is so full of BS it is hard to know where to start.

        Saad was not a key to the CHI PK. he is 8th on the team in TOI/60 4v5 for forwards, or last on the team out of anyone who played 20 games and at least some amount of time 4v5.

        How are Gallagher and Saad more physical than Yakupov?

        The only way we might measure this is PIMs and hits.

        Gallagher 33PIM 44 hits
        Saad 12PIM 41 hits
        Yakupov 24PIM 41

        So, Saad had the same number of hits as Yakupov but less PIMs. Gallagher had 9 more PIM and 3 more hits.

        “Huberdeau played on an awful team”

        so did Yakupov. that’s a saw off. Moreover, you can’t hold it for Hub that he scored on a crappy team and for Gallagher and Saad that they did for a good team and then against Yak… it’s wildly inconsistent.

        “Yak, as an example lit it up versus a Canuck team trying to get out of town as quick as possible.”

        If the season were one game, and this was the game, you may have a point… except it wasn’t and you don’t.

        “None of this means that Yak won’t become a good player”

        what a sleazy, useless sentence.

        “just be an opportunist with not a great deal of accountability”

        This isn’t the case, nor is it terribly relevant. What accountability was given to Gallagher? Is any ever given to Kane for example?

        • Romulus' Apotheosis

          Saad killed penalties as did Brodin. The others didn’t. I really am not super familiar with Brodin so can’t comment on him and I know many feel he got robbed too.As you are obviously quite an expert, you will acknowledge that you were just kidding when you said the only way to judge physicality is through hits delivered and penalty minutes. Saad plays a physical, cycle type game generating offense from the corners much more often than off the rush while Gallagher goes to the greasy areas much like an Abdlekater in Detroit. Their physicality is in their playing style. Yak uses speed and a great release and tries to avoid the tough areas much like a Brett Hull style. Many of these types of players rely on being opportunistic. I can remember many nights playing against Hull and you wondered if he had even dressed, he was so invisible but then in 2 shifts, he had 2 goals. As far as upside goes, I feel that Yak has a much higher ceiling than Gallagher but not greater than Huberdeau who played on a much worse team than Edmonton. The plus minus difference between the 2 teams was something like a goal a game. I also got an opportunity to watch Saad in many games and practices last year and believe he could be an outstanding player. If my acknowledgement that Yak may become a very good player or even more than that is useless and somehow sleazy, I don’t get that. However, you bringing Kane in at the end is useless to this argument.

          • Romulus' Apotheosis

            how many Oiler games did you watch this year compared to Habs games or Hawks games? Physicality IS measured in hits actually. What you are describing is instead a simple difference in playing style. Saad has less talent, so he has to play a physical grinder role. Yak has more talent, and is thus asked to fill the role of a scorer. The difference in play is related to what type of players they are and what the coach wants out of each of them. Saad has 2nd/3rd liner potential most likely, while Yak has 1st liner potential most likely. In no way should that difference be a held as a negative against either player.

            Also, I think you are falling into the typical Russian player stereotype of the soft floater (aka. kovalev). This is absolutely not true for Yakapov. He has never demonstrated that type of play. He goes to every hard area, hes physical, he hits, hes scrappy, and most of his goals came from a few feet in front of the net. On many nights he and hall were the only two players that were noticeable out there.

            I have not seen Saad or Gallagher play much at all, so I am not trashing them. But having watched every Oilers game I must say your assessment of Yakapov is quite untrue. I think he should have at least been nominated for the calder…but I do not think he should have won. When was the last time the rookie goal scoring leader did not at least get nominated? I would love for someone to tell me that.

          • Romulus' Apotheosis

            Some good points but physicality is measured by more than hits. Trust me, we lump puck retrieval, puck battles, taking contact to make a play, etc in with overall physicality as well. I am not saying Yak is not good but many on here seem to think the other guys are not good. Gallagher has 2nd to 3rd liner Burrows type potential imo but did have an impact as a rookie on a playoff team. Saad’s ceiling is at a first line level playing with skilled players. Will he get there? No idea. I have watched Huberdeau a great deal and was very happy when the Oilers did not take him as I am a Flames fan. I watched most Oiler games and I am not anti Russian as I have trained some Russian players and liked all of them. I am coaching one this summer in fact. Perhaps I am being perceived as too hard on Yak or perhaps I am in fact being too hard on him.

          • Romulus' Apotheosis

            yes, puck retrieval is important. I guess depending on your definition of physicality it does apply. However, I would argue that some of the best puck retrievers in the game aren’t necessarily what we would consider as overly physical (i.e. datsyuk). But yes, other factors are important…and they are primarily the outputs of successful physical play (i.e. winning the puck, getting the puck to your team mate etc) rather than the inputs (i.e. just going in hard and being competitive). I would agree that while yak did not shy away from contact or the tough areas, he could absolutely be a lot better in winning those battles. Also, the first half of his season was not at all good in my opinion. In the second half, and especially by the last 10, he looked like a completely different player.

          • Romulus' Apotheosis

            And in fairness, he is only 19. Datsyuk was a great example. We often use him to demo that type of physicality. He loses so few puck battles due to so many factors that can’t be measured, only admired. These types of battles are what we are working on teaching better rather than the big Dion hits that may intimidate but are not as effective.

          • Romulus' Apotheosis

            Saad barely killed penalties. It is a minor factor at best.

            Yes. PIMs and hits are the only objective, albeit flawed, statistical measure we have for something as stupidly intangible as “physicality”


            Unless you are an idiot, you simply can’t rely on the “saw him bad” of some malicious troll, or the “saw him good” of some sycophantic homer.

            You watching someone play and deciding they play physical is a completely useless data point to any serious conversation.

            Especially about something as ridiculous as “physicality.”

            Which is exactly why I didn’t bother mentioning the many hits I saw Yak throw. Because my experience is irrelevant if I can’t offer some external support for it.

            It is sleazy because it is so obviously malicious and passive aggressive and useless because it is so clearly devoid of information.

            “None of this means your child won’t become intelligent…”

            You brought up “accountability” as some rosetta stone of Calder winners. Mentioning purely offensive players who have won, i.e., Kane, seems perfectly relevant to me.

  • Rob...

    So Jonathan, what about incorporating statistics into the award nomination process? Whereby 50% of nomination weighting comes from the statistic most associated with that particular award. This would help to eliminate nonsensical bias, yet ensure that statistics didn’t dictate the winner in those cases where they didn’t tell the ‘whole story’.

  • Citizen David

    The Hart trophy has always been a joke. Giving it to the best player on the best team is not the most valuable player. I really hope Tavares wins it this year although there is a case for Ovechkin. If Crosby wins I’ll laugh, then cry. And I’m one of his biggest fans.

    That face off article is bang on. I’ve never really cared about face off percentage cause it doesn’t make much of a difference. If someone with a 52% face off percentage (really good) takes 20 draws in a game they win 10.4. If someone with 45% (bad) takes 20 draws they win 9. Ooooooooh! Critical difference!

  • Crispy

    I would be interested to see the ratio of award nominations from the east vs west over the past few years. The calder this year is 2/3 eastern and the hart 3/3 eastern. I know Tavares is valuable to the Islanders… But that was a BS nomination. Suter or Patrick Kane would have been better picks from the west. Eastern media bias!

  • @JW

    What do you think if they made a rule that PHWA ballots were public… with the caveat that they could not vote for a player on the team that they cover.

    While it wouldn’t remove all bias, it would certainly render Puck Daddy’s point moot.

    It would be similar to the rule that a referee can no longer work a game involving his home country in the IIHF.

  • Cheap Shot Charlie

    I love the radio interviews with PHWA member’s who disclose how they voted and why. I would love to see each writer do a write up on who they voted for and why. Some writers I wouldn’t care about but if someone went way off the board it would be interesting to see why. Or if someone’s reason was “because it’s a safe vote” would hold that accountability. For example: voting Crosby for Hart is a safe vote but voting for Bobrovsky is a bold(er) vote and has merit.

    Good Article

  • Concur

    To me this is a non-issue, because the awards don’t really mean much. Just a lot of fluff for bragging rights. It doesn’t put goals in the net or win hockey games. I haven’t watched an awards show (sports, cinema, or music) for 20 years.

  • Concur

    Great read. Analytic breakdown always seem to make the point (factual). It’s hard to hide from facts. They tell the truths whether we want to here them or not. I believe that the PHWA should start practicing what they preach. Use facts, not team allegiance. Be transparent.

  • Concur

    Great read. Analytic breakdown always seem to make the point (factual). It’s hard to hide from facts. They tell the truths whether we want to hear them or not. I believe that the PHWA should start practicing what they preach. Use facts, not team allegiance. Be transparent.

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    I would like to see (3) players each from the East and West nominated initially. Then pick one from each for a final showdown so to speak. I would have (50) media from each conference pick the intial nominees. They could be a group put forth by their association based on experience, credentials, etc. Their votes would be public of course. Then I would have an elite group of (7) pick the final winners. The Bob McKenzie’s of the league. It’s never going to be perfect but just my two cents.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    Think it’s MLB has 1 per city voting on MVP. That’s what it should be. You want bigger numbers then go 2 per city.

    My other question is why do writers get to do it anyway?