Welcome to 2021, and may it be a better year for you than 2020. We wish that for everyone.
Today kicks off a new feature—welcome to NHL Saturday—as the 2021 National Hockey League season begins soon. We don’t know what it will hold for us as sports fans, but hockey may be the last truly pure, major professional sport in North America. For that reason alone, we need to write about it regularly.
Using hockey-reference.com as our primary source for sabermetrics and statistics, we’re going to start with the 1967-68 NHL season to look at a handful of awards and evaluate them for accuracy and potential revision. We pick this starting point, because with the Original Six in place from World War II on, it was a hard league to take seriously.
With full expansion in the late 1960s, the NHL became a truly North American sports league that we can analyze with better data and understanding. In that sense, we will examine five different NHL awards every week out: the Hart, Vezina, Norris, Calder, and Conn Smythe trophies. These are the traditional MVP, top goaltender, top defenseman, top rookie, and playoff MVP honors, respectively.
Some caveats to discuss first, however!
The initial one is whether goalies should be considered for the Hart, when we have the Vezina. Like baseball with its Cy Young, we think they should be separate awards, so only forwards will be eligible for the Hart—since defensemen have the Norris. That way, all three distinct roles on the ice get their own trophies. This is unconventional, we know, but it also eliminates multiple winners of multiple awards, so we’re spreading the love around more democratically.
Also, for years, the Vezina went to the primary goalie(s) on the team that gave up the fewest goals. We’re scrapping that idea, as it is silly. We want a singular winner who distinguished himself as much as possible on his own—isolating the sabermetric data for individual play and contextualizing the assistance a goalie gets from the guys in front of him on the ice, for better or for worse.
Finally, the Conn Smythe always will go to a member of a team that made the Finals, because even if you were amazing in one or two rounds, you have to play enough games to reach for the Stanley Cup, legitimately. That doesn’t really need clarification, but we’re stating it here, anyway.
It’s a lot to cover every Saturday, but we’re doing it: Here we go!
1968 Hart Trophy: Stan Mikita (original), Phil Esposito (revised)
The top six forwards in the league were Chicago Black Hawks center/right wing Stan Mikita (10.00 Point Shares), Chicago left wing Bobby Hull (9.73), Detroit Red Wings RW Gordie Howe (9.67), Boston Bruins C Phil Esposito (9.41), New York Rangers C Jean Ratelle (9.07), and Montréal Canadiens C Jean Beliveau (8.66).
Chicago was the fourth-best team in the East Division, which was basically the Original Six. The Black Hawks claimed the last postseason slot there. Detroit finished sixth in the East with a losing record. Boston finished third in the East, while New York was second and Montréal was first. There were no legitimate Hart candidates from the West Division teams—all the expansion teams.
It’s hard to look at Mikita and Hull as anything but teammates, and how valuable were they, individually, if together they both couldn’t get Chicago above fourth place? Howe is out, playing for a losing team, meaning we can focus on Esposito, Ratelle, and Beliveau for this award.
Esposito has the most Point Shares for the “lesser” team, which suggests value. In the NHL Top 10 for Point Shares, there were no other Bruins (three goalies and one defenseman joined the above six forwards on that list). In fact, two of the goalies in the Top 10 were from the Canadiens and the Rangers, respectively. This helps us pick Esposito, readily, for this award.
His traditional stats? He led the league in assists (49) while also scoring 35 goals and registering 84 points to finish with plus-18 rating on the year. Overall, the Bruins posted a plus-43 scoring margin on the season.
1968 Vezina Trophy: Rogie Vachon & Gump Worsley (original), Ed Giacomin (revised)
The top three goalies in Point Shares were the Rangers’ Ed Giacomin (12.85), the St. Louis Blues’ Glenn Hall (9.12), and Montréal’s Gump Worsley (8.96). The Rangers finished with the second-best record in the NHL, and Giacomin’s margin above is significant. It’s easy to revise this award for him, as a result.
His traditional stats: a league-best 36 victories, based on a .915 save percentage and a 2.44 goals-against average. Giacomin also topped the NHL in shutouts (8), total saves (1,717), and total minutes (3,933). He was on the ice a lot, and he was the biggest reason New York finished as well as it did in the standings.
1968 Norris Trophy: Bobby Orr (original), Mike McMahon (revised)
The Minnesota North Stars claimed the final playoff berth in the West Division, and the biggest reason why was defenseman Mike McMahon (9.14 PS). The Rangers had let him go in expansion, and he posted 47 points and 71 penalty minutes for the North Stars. That PS mark was the sixth-best total in the NHL, as no other defenseman finished in the Top 10. He accumulated approximately 4.8 PS on offense and 4.4 PS on defense.
Boston’s Bobby Orr won the Norris vote, probably because he was … well, Bobby Orr. He had won the Calder Trophy the year before, but Orr finished with just 6.7 PS this season—well behind McMahon’s numbers on an expansion team. His splits? Approximately 3.3 OPS and 3.5 DPS.
The North Stars were not a good team—none of the expansion teams finished with a winning record, but the NHL decision to split the league into divisions based on franchise existence gave the new teams a shot at winning the Cup, rather than relegating them to the basement. Boston was basically an All-Star team, as most of the Original Six teams were in 1968, so McMahon’s value here is a lot more than Orr’s on every level.
1968 Calder Trophy: Derek Sanderson (original), Doug Favell (revised)
The top 3 rookies in the league were Boston C Derek Sanderson (4.8 PS), Montréal C Jacques Lemaire (4.5 PS) … and Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Doug Favell (7.8 PS). Sanderson won the vote—no surprise, based on similar logic to the Orr vote above—probably just because he played for the Bruins, but once again we see an expansion player with more value.
The Flyers won the West Division—go figure, geographically—and almost finished above .500 for the season (31-32-11). They edged the Los Angeles Kings for first place among expansion teams, and Favell was clearly the primary reason.
This is not taking anything away from Sanderson or Lemaire, but they were playing on virtual All-Star teams in the East Division. Favell didn’t have that luxury: He didn’t lead the league in anything, but his 16-15-6 record—along with a 2.27 GAA and a stellar .931 SP—were a huge reason why the Flyers were so good for an expansion franchise in its first NHL season.
1968 Conn Smythe Trophy: Glenn Hall (original), Gump Worsley (revised)
The Montréal Canadiens swept the St. Louis Blues in the Cup Finals, and Hall won the playoff MVP despite going 0-4 in the final round. Overall, his postseason numbers were moderately impressive considering his team’s expansion status: 8-10, .916 SP, and a 2.44 GAA. But those really aren’t great numbers, even without the sweep loss in the Finals.
For example, Worsley posted an 11-0 record in the playoffs, with a .930 SP and a 1.88 GAA. That is some amazing play, considering 7 of those victories came against the East Division. This is the playoffs, too, not the regular season—so we need to look at these numbers straight up more so than the regular season.
But what about any of the skaters, on either team? The Canadiens had two skaters who notched a point a game or more in the playoffs: RW Yvan Cournoyer (14 points in 13 games) and Lemaire (13 points in 13 games). Meanwhile, the Blues played 18 games and didn’t have a single skater post more than 14 points.
None of the skaters were dominant enough to claim this award, but Worsley clearly was dominant. That seals the deal for us. He may have lost the Vezina in our minds, but he gained the Conn Smythe—a fair trade.