2019-20 NHL Awards By the Numbers: Calder Trophy

2019-20 NHL Awards

With the season on hold for the time being, there’s no telling what would have happened with the 2019-20 NHL Awards. Sure certain players had leads but the race for most awards were tighter than what showed on the surface. This is especially true when looking at the underlying stats, which bring up some exciting cases. In this series, the Last Word on Hockey team will decide who should have won each award based on the advanced numbers. Today, we’ll look deeper at the 2019-20 NHL awards, turning our attention to the Calder Trophy.

It’s important to note that while we are looking at who the advanced numbers say should win each of the 2019-20 NHL Awards, our true decision looks much deeper. These articles don’t reflect those, instead just showing the dramatic nature of the story told by the advanced stats.

Deciding the 2019-20 NHL Awards: Calder Trophy

Winner: Adam Fox

This is going to be a controversial pick, to say the least. Adam Fox didn’t tally almost a point-per-game, break the 50-point mark, or score 30 goals like some of his fellow rookies but he did bring one unique trait to the table: relentless, 200-foot reliability. Fox was incredibly underrated all season long. He brought both elite offence and elite defence to the table, something no other rookie did. On top of it all, Fox still scored a very admirable 42 points in 70 games, ranking 15th among all NHL defensemen, ahead of fellow high-end youngsters Rasmus Dahlin and Thomas Chabot.

There will still be a host of people to argue that Fox isn’t worthy enough to pass up Cale Makar, who had a dazzling rookie season in his own right. But Fox brought a just-as-elite offensive punch to the table, while also looking significantly better in his own end. The two players’ RAPM charts best shows this:

Adam Fox (left) and Cale Makar (right) 2019-20, even-strength RAPM charts courtesy of Evolving Hockey.

Ultimately, this graph shows that Fox was nearly just as strong on offense while being amazingly better on defense. Against what many consider the best rookie in the league this year, Fox was significantly better. If this evidence wasn’t enough, though, comparing the two’s isolated unblocked-shot-rate charts adds to things. The same story is told: Fox had an amazing impact on the team, particularly compared to Makar:

These charts show an even better visual of the amazing boost to both offence and defence that Fox provided. This is contrasted by Makar who, despite his amazing play, really made little to no difference in unblocked shot rates. Makar even had the benefit of favourable zone starts, whereas Fox has it pretty neutral in terms of starts.

Fox did this all while playing on the top pairing of the New York Rangers, a team whose defence has been notoriously beat down in the last few years. Both players also saw a healthy amount of special teams time but, ironically, lined up pretty well statistically. Makar was a bit better on the power-play but Fox was a bit better on the penalty kill.

At even-strength, though, Fox was amazingly better. The Rangers would not have been the same team without him. In his first year, he immediately put the team on his back and led the charge. It was everything you could have wanted from any top-four defenceman, let alone a rookie. His season established his elite potential and easily earns him the Calder Trophy.

Runner-Up: Cale Makar

With all of that said, there’s a reason Fox is being compared to Makar. Makar was an absolute terror for the Colorado Avalanche this year, recording an amazing 50 points in only 57 games. This ranked him seventh among all defencemen and second among all rookies in scoring. It also ranked him second on the Avalanche in scoring, behind only Nathan MacKinnon.

As seen above, his RAPM chart really speaks for itself. For a rookie defenceman to offer that significant of an offensive punch is truly phenomenal and can’t go unsaid. He ranked second among all defensemen in GF/60 and 13th among any player with at least 750 minutes of ice time. His GF/60 was higher than David Pastrnak, Nikita Kucherov, Leon Draisaitl, and Connor McDavid. And while that can be a bit like comparing apples to oranges, given their positions, it still adds incredible weight to Makar’s list of rookie-season achievements.

The Downside

The high GF/60, compared to a good-but-not-great xGF/60 of 2.5 (tied for 54th in the league amongst defencemen with at least 750 TOI), could show signs for regression in the future for Makar, though. Such a stark difference between the two tallies could spell two things: incredible luck or incredible shooting ability. For Makar, both seem to be true. He had 12 goals on 121 shots this year, giving him the seventh-highest shooting percentage among defencemen with at least 50 games played. Makar also spent most of the season on the ice with MacKinnon: spelling out a healthy amount of luck and incredibly strong linemates. Really, Makar likely truly lies somewhere between the dangerously-high GF/60 and his xGF/60.

Still, the Calder doesn’t look at future warning signs. Luck or not, Makar tallied an amazing GF/60 and equally impressive point totals. The offence he brought to Colorado was one of the greatest additions a rookie had to his team. While the questions surrounding the merit of his points, his truly mediocre isolated impact, and a league-average defensive play knock him down to second place, Makar is still a truly special talent.

Third Place: Quinn Hughes

Rounding off the list of amazing rookie defencemen is, expectedly, Quinn Hughes. Hughes was fighting neck-and-neck for the Calder, with Makar, for most of the season. Ultimately, he scored three more points than Makar – in 11 more games, though – to edge him out of the rookie scoring lead. This was one of many tallies that fans of Hughes held over Makar’s head.

Realistically, though, the two were fairly in-line. The RAPM chart comparison again show this best:

Quinn Hughes (left) and Cale Makar (right) 2019-20, even-strength RAPM charts courtesy of Evolving Hockey.

This shows the evenness of the two names. Makar had a dazzling higher GF/60 but questions were readily apparent with that stat, as mentioned. Hughes, on the other hand, has a higher xGF/60, more confidently placing his offensive worth. While it can’t be said that Hughes was better than Makar offensively, thanks to the uncertainty of the stats backing Makar, they are on a similar plane.

What can be said, though, was that Makar was just better defensively, although Hughes did manage to limit opposition’s puck possession a bit more. Still, the two were almost identical all year long, with Makar barely edging Hughes out statistically. As a result, it’s only fair to award Hughes the final nomination, following what was a terrific rookie year for yet another elite defenceman.

Honourable Mentions

Dominik Kubalik

Dominik Kubalik led all rookies in goals, dazzling 30 on a very meager Chicago Blackhawks lineup. He had an amazing xGF/60, dramatically higher than fellow star goal-scorer Patrick Kane, and backed it with a just-as-high GF/60. This proves one thing: Kubalik is undoubtedly an amazing goal scorer. His league-averaged defence, though, drops him outside of the top three in our Calder rankings.

John Marino

John Marino added little to the Pittsburgh Penguins offence but was, statistically, the best defensive rookie in the league this year. His xGA/60 and CA/60 were better than truly incredible, and Norris-calibre, defencemen like Roman Josi.

As always, thanks to Evolving Hockey and HockeyViz for all graphs used in this piece.

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