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      NHL Awards Watch: Canucks’ Quinn Hughes, Thatcher Demko among early frontrunners

      Could Hughes become the first defenseman since Chris Pronger to win the Norris and Hart in the same season?

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      A lot can change after the quarter mark of an NHL season. A year ago, Bo Horvat had 17 goals after 21 games and, spoiler alert, did not go on to win the Rocket Richard Trophy. At the same time: the sample size after roughly 25 percent of the campaign isn’t nothing. There’s a reason people look to U.S. Thanksgiving as a crucial signpost for predicting playoff berths.

      With that in mind, let’s take our first peek at the NHL Awards races. We’ll set aside the Selke Trophy for now because it’s so subjective and is easier to evaluate with larger sample sizes. But let’s check in on the battles for the Hart, Norris, Vezina and Calder Trophies and the Jack Adams Award.

      HART TROPHY

      Early frontrunner: Quinn Hughes, Canucks

      He’s on pace for 123 points. He’s leading the NHL in assists. He’s logging close to 25 minutes a night. He’s tilting the play at 5-on-5, with the Canucks outscoring opponents 25-12 while he’s on the ice. Hughes has been as dominant as any player in the league, and he’s doing it as a defenseman. Cale Makar, by the way, has been just as good – more on him later – but arguably no player has meant more to his team’s success than Hughes.

      Top challenger: Nikita Kucherov, Lightning

      Sometimes I wonder if Kucherov is the most overlooked player of his generation relative to how good he actually is. He’s a two-time Stanley Cup winner, a two-time playoff scoring champ, a two-time first-team all-star and a Hart winner, but his prime has overlapped with the Connor McDavid/Auston Matthews era. My goodness, is Kucherov special. He holds or shares the league lead in goals (15) and points (36). He helped keep afloat a Tampa Bay Lightning team that played uncharacteristically poor defense while goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was out.

      Don’t forget about: Connor McDavid, Oilers

      The Art Ross and MVP might come down to whether the leaders got a strong enough head start on McDavid, who missed a couple games with a lower-body injury and might’ve been playing through it for several more games after returning, trying to help a struggling Edmonton Oilers team. Well, the living legend has nine points in his past two games. He’s back. And he’s coming for all the awards.

      Other Hart Trophy contenders: David Pastrnak, Cale Makar, Artemi Panarin, Elias Pettersson, William Nylander, Jack Hughes, Sam Reinhart, Sidney Crosby

      NORRIS TROPHY

      Early frontrunner: Quinn Hughes, Canucks

      No surprise here given I’ve tabbed him as the current MVP frontrunner. Could he become the first defenseman since Chris Pronger in 1999-00 to win the Norris and the Hart in the same season?

      Top challenger: Cale Makar, Avalanche

      Makar is scoring at a higher per-game clip than Hughes is. The Avs are just as dominant with him on the ice as the Canucks are with Hughes out there. And while Hughes has made tremendous strides defensively, Makar was already there. He’s the best all-around defenseman we’ve seen in the NHL since Nicklas Lidstrom. The Norris isn’t a legacy award, of course, but Makar been every bit as good as Hughes this year. The vote could come down to the wire just as it did when they were neck and neck for the Calder Trophy in 2019-20.

      Don’t forget about: Erik Karlsson, Penguins

      The reigning Norris Trophy winner has three to his name and remains within striking distance of a fourth. Last season, Karlsson won it on the strength of his best-in-a-generation offense, becoming the first defenseman in 31 years to reach 100 points while sacrificing most of his defensive play to do so. This season: on a team with designs on making the playoffs, Karlsson has been a more complete player. He’s still tracking for close to a point per game, but he’s also on the ice for his fewest scoring chances against and high-danger chances against per 60 at 5-on-5 in four years. That said: the gap between Hughes and Makar and everyone else is massive right now.

      Other Norris Trophy contenders: Victor Hedman, Charlie McAvoy, Jaccob Slavin, Josh Morrissey, Miro Heiskanen

      VEZINA TROPHY

      Early frontrunner: Thatcher Demko, Canucks

      The Vezina voters, a.k.a. the active NHL GMs, often have a bias toward win totals, and Demko checks that box, tied for second in the league with 10. But they haven’t been cheap wins. Demko has been a force for the Canucks, posting a 2.18 goals-against average and .925 save percentage while ranking among the league leaders in goals saved above average per 60 at 5-on-5. The Canucks have improved defensively under Rick Tocchet, but Demko is still seeing a pretty difficult workload, ranking in the top half of the league in expected goals against per 60 at 5-on-5.

      Top challenger: Cam Talbot, Kings

      So far, 36-year-old Talbot has made Los Angeles Kings GM Rob Blake look very smart for signing him at just $1 million over the summer. The Kings have arguably been the best all-around team in the league thus far, so Talbot has enjoyed plenty of support, but he has been a rock, posting a .931 SV% and sitting second in the NHL in goals saved above average.

      Don’t forget about: The elite tandems in Vegas and Boston

      Adin Hill and Logan Thompson. Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark. All four puck-stoppers have been sublime in 2023-24, but in each team’s case, the tandem teammates could cancel each other out in the voting. Then again, Ullmark was so good last season that he won the Vezina despite Swayman also excelling.

      Other Vezina Trophy contenders: Jake Oettinger, Igor Shesterkin, Tristan Jarry, Ilya Sorokin

      CALDER TROPHY

      Early frontrunner: Connor Bedard, Blackhawks

      No need to overthink this one. The most hyped rookie since Connor McDavid had some bad puck luck in his first half dozen games, but that has predictably normalized and Bedard is ripping pucks past goaltenders with his incredible shot. He’s on pace for 43 goals, which would be the most by a rookie since Alex Ovechkin sniped 52 in 2005-06.

      Top challenger: Luke Hughes, Devils

      It appears we’re going to have a third NHL star from the Hughes family. Luke’s minutes have been sheltered, with him playing on the third pair and top power-play unit, but he has excelled in a play driver in those minutes. His offensive totals should spike soon with the Devils getting healthier after enduring injuries to Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier.

      Don’t forget about: Joseph Woll, Maple Leafs

      Faced with an extremely difficult workload from a chance-quality perspective on a bad defensive Leafs team, Woll has held his own with a .910 SV%. If he continues to wrest starts from Ilya Samsonov and establishes himself as the No. 1 goalie on a Cup contender as a rookie, Woll could catch Calder voters’ attention.

      Other Calder Trophy contenders: Logan Cooley, Brock Faber, Pavel Mintyukov, Leo Carlsson, Luke Evangelista, Matthew Knies, Adam Fantilli, Marco Rossi, Connor Zary

      JACK ADAMS AWARD

      Early frontrunner: Rick Tocchet, Canucks

      The Canucks have been a different team since Tocchet took over last winter, more committed to two-way play than they have been in years while not sacrificing offense in the process. The Jack Adams often goes to a turnaround coach who takes a team from outside to inside the playoff picture, and Tocchet fits the bill.

      Top contender: Peter Laviolette, Rangers

      Who expected the Broadway Blueshirts to be this great without No. 1 defenseman Adam Fox? The intense Laviolette is getting the most out of this group. The Rangers’ power play and penalty kill rank among the best in the league, and they have the top goal differential in the Eastern Conference.

      Don’t forget about: Jon Cooper, Lightning

      The salary-cap squeeze keeps yanking pieces off Cooper’s chess board, yet he keeps this team competitive every year, even doing so in Vasilevskiy’s absence this time around.

      Other Jack Adams Award contenders: Jim Montgomery, Jared Bednar, John Tortorella, Paul Maurice

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