Canadiens notebook: NHL Awards ballot dissection and Draft Day debate

MONTREAL— With total understanding that our ballots will be more thoroughly dissected than the frogs in eighth-grade biology class, we, at the Professional Hockey-Writers Association, openly submit to having them publicly disclosed.

We believe that transparency is necessary, that the fans deserve to see how the final results came to be, and we know that what’s disclosed will inspire passionate debate.

That’s part of the fun of it.

The other part is watching the conspiracy theories develop once the process is complete.

How amusing to see the Montreal media right at the root of them this time.

Canadiens fans are saying our reporters have an axe to grind with Carey Price and refused to give him a first-place vote for the Bill Masterton Trophy because of it. They’re saying that if it’s not that, it’s out of concern of revealing home-team bias that they avoided voting for one of the players they cover on the daily.

And now Leafs fans are saying Montreal reporters didn’t want to give Auston Matthews a first-place vote for the Hart Trophy because he plays in Toronto.

Meanwhile, as the only reporter of the 10 from our chapter to give Price a first-place vote for the Masterton and Matthews a first-place vote for the Hart, I can’t begin to express how uncomfortable it’s made me to be congratulated by both fanbases—one for “properly representing Montreal and the Canadiens by voting for Price” and the other for “not allowing my Montreal bias to interfere with my vote for Mathews.”

I voted for the people whom I felt deserved to win, and every other reporter from our chapter did the same.

You should know they’re more responsible for Price being on the Masterton ballot to begin with than I am. Masterton voting starts with a selection of three players from the team you cover, and whoever receives the most first-place votes becomes the nominee from that team.

My first-place vote over that run went to Paul Byron.

With respect to every other player in the NHL up for the award this year—and there were so many worthy ones, hence the spread in the vote—Byron was one of two Canadiens I’d have given my first-place vote to for the actual trophy. And, full disclosure, it would’ve been tough for me to keep the third player I voted for (Joel Edmundson) off my ballot had he been the one nominated from the team.

Price won the Canadiens’ nomination in a landslide, and to think the reporters who made that happen—the ones who wrote and spoke so empathetically about his personal and physical rehabilitation all season long—have something against him is patently ridiculous.

If you’re a Canadiens fan, spend some time reading up on Justin Danforth, the undersized Columbus Blue Jacket who took the least conventional path to finally landing an NHL job at age 28 and secured a two-year extension late in the season with his strong play. He got 19 votes for the award—and some first-place ones from some of the Montreal writers—and he embodies what the Masterton Trophy is about.

So do Kevin Hayes, Zdeno Chara, Brian Boyle, Kyle Okposo and Vlad Tarasenko.

Price may have gotten my vote and won by a considerable majority, but, by my count, there were 23 other players to receive at least one first-place vote for this award. And if you comb through the names, you can make a strong case for almost every single one of them.

Which brings us to the Hart—the trophy apparently no one wins without it being a total conspiracy.

I’m assuming I’m not the only reporter who tore up this portion of the ballot a dozen times before submitting it. This was the hardest decision I’ve ever faced since being awarded a vote a few years back, and I still don’t feel entirely comfortable about how I voted second-through-fifth place.

I resolved my internal debate over voting Matthews first with relative ease. While I could concede the Leafs likely would’ve easily made the playoffs without his contribution, I told myself they’d have been far from achieving their best regular season in their 105-year existence without it. And what Matthews delivered was so beyond unique and special that I didn’t feel someone else was more deserving.

Clearly, some people saw it differently, and not just the Montreal writers.

Some of them voted for Igor Shesterkin, and I lost sleep over bumping Shesterkin down to fourth on my ballot.

I actually called Elliotte Friedman the day after submissions were due and told him I felt sick about relegating Connor McDavid to fifth after he led the league in scoring and posted his most prolific offensive season in order to essentially carry the Oilers to the playoffs by himself. He laughed and said he put him second, adding that it was a brutally hard vote either way.

I still feel sick about it, but not as sick as I would’ve felt had I given someone other than Roman Josi my second-place vote. I think the Predators would’ve been contenders in the draft lottery without Josi doing what he did—and yes, full marks to Filip Forsberg and Juuse Saros, too.

Johnny Gaudreau’s name was included on 86 per cent of the ballots, so I’m not exactly sweating placing him third on mine.

But man, if you think it was easy leaving Jonathan Huberdeau and Kirill Kaprizov off entirely, you’re deluded. I even felt my stomach churning over not finding a way to vote for Alex Ovechkin, who had 50 goals and 90 points in 77 games to bring a substandard Washington Capitals team to the playoffs.

Think about this: Ovechkin’s name was on just six of 195 ballots. Six!

In the end Matthews won, and I don’t think anyone who had a vote is stomping their feet saying he didn’t deserve to. Price won the Masterton, and all the Montreal reporters I spoke to completely understood why and were happy for him.

We all take voting extremely seriously. It’s an honour to be part of the process, to be part of the tradition, and to be part of the rich history of the NHL and its awards—even if it puts us in the eye of the storm at times.

Rare for me to be celebrated by both Canadiens and Leafs fans at the same time, but at least I can rely on Bruins fans hating on me for voting Elias Lindholm over Patrice Bergeron for the Selke. 

So, you think you know the Draft…

I have never seen Shane Wright, Juraj Slafkovsky, Logan Cooley or any other top draft-eligible prospect play live, and neither have most the so-called experts who claim to know everything there is to know about these players.

I’m not talking about the actual paid draft analysts who unquestionably do exhaustive research, take in several live viewings and conduct countless interviews before formulating their opinion; I’m just referring to virtually everyone else who purports to be a know-it-all based on YouTube samples, a few television viewings and some regurgitated public perception.

I have scoured through footage of the top players in this draft, watched full games played by all three of them, and I have spoken to scouts, general managers, assistant general managers, coaches and assistant coaches from around the NHL to glean if what I saw matched up with what they have seen.

But I have always disclosed to these people that I have never spoken to any of these players and that I was missing close to 50 percent of the relevant information from having not seen any of them play live.

If I’m not there to watch a player’s habits away from the puck—away from where the camera takes you—shift by shift and over multiple games, I can’t possibly fully comprehend what that player is all about. I’m a big believer the most revealing information comes from seeing what a player does both behind and in front of the play, and television rarely captures all of that.

I’m excited to learn more. I’m excited for the draft to finally arrive—here in Montreal, with the Canadiens picking first.

What drama!

But I find the debate over the players exhausting. I find the characterization of this draft as weak—especially coming out of Covid-affected seasons which brought a lot more uncertainty into the mix—to be understandable but also somewhat absurd. And I find the discussion about the top players—most of it negative because none of them are Connor Bedard (as if generational players are available every draft)—to be obnoxious.

These are the best players in the world in their age category, and they’re entering an NHL that’s graduating more young players than ever before. They’re developed to play the game the way it’s going, and I anticipate many of them will wow us despite what people who have never watched them play live nor spoken to them have to say about it.

First pick still undecided

I can’t make it from the parking lot to the first tee at my golf course without at least one person asking me what the Canadiens intend to do with the first overall pick.

I’ll tell you what I tell them: So long as they don’t know, I don’t know.

It’s the same thing I say when people ask me if Price will play next season.

I did, however, have a conversation two weeks back with one of the most respected scouts in hockey, and here’s what he said to me about the choice Montreal has:

“I don’t see how they don’t take Wright,” he started. “I’m not saying he’s a guaranteed star, but I don’t think either of the others are knocking him off the perch.”

Where’s the debate then?

“I don’t see a ton of separation at the top,” the scout continued. “And all the times I went to see Wright play, I wanted to see him carry his team and didn’t really get that. He’s a very good player, good details, NHL skills, and probably the best player in this draft, but never quite saw him put his team on his shoulders the way I’d expect a top pick to.”

Fair…from what I can tell from having only watched a few of Wright’s playoff games on television.

On Wednesday, I placed a call to a top-level executive to look into something completely unrelated and, after answering a couple of my questions, he asked me what the Canadiens were going to do with the first pick.

“I’ll tell you the same thing I tell people at the golf course: So long as they don’t know, I don’t know. And they shouldn’t know until they absolutely have to know—exhaust all possibilities and debate as much as possible to be comfortable with the decision,” I said.

“So, you’re copping out,” he joked.

“No, I’m telling you the truth,” I said. “I can tell you what I would do, but first want to know would you do?”

“I think Wright is a lock to be a second-line centre, but he might never be more than that,” the exec started. “I think Cooley has upside to be a top point-producing centre and I see him as a player like Mat Barzal, but there could be see some habits in his game that prevent him from turning into that. And I think Slafkovsky is going to be a great scorer but am unsure what comes of him when he’s not scoring.

“I think Montreal would go for one of the two centres. If they want to play it safe, it’s Wright. If they believe Cooley will hit that upside, he gives them something they don’t have.”

But he was guessing.

And even if I agree with the way he sees it, because the opportunity to take a centre first overall is hard to turn away from, I wouldn’t be surprised if Slafkovsky ends up being the one to pull on a Canadiens sweater come Draft Day.

Exactly two weeks out from that day, everything is still up in the air.

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