As the 2022 portion of this season comes to a close, enough games have been played to start to gauge front-runners for the NHL Awards.
The NHL doesn’t have a piece of hardware similar to the NBA’s Most Improved Player (they should), but that doesn’t mean we can’t examine five contenders to win such an award if it existed. Away we go.
Adam Ruzicka, LW/C, Calgary
Before November, Ruzicka was a castaway for the Calgary Flames.
Scratched in all but one of Calgary’s first 11 games, the 23-year-old forward – who split last season between the AHL and NHL – appeared irrelevant in Darryl Sutter’s plans. But when an injury to Jonathan Huberdeau left a hole on the team’s top line alongside Elias Lindholm and Tyler Toffoli, Ruzicka slotted into the void.
He hasn’t looked back since, recording 20 points in 27 games while evolving into a valuable middle-six piece for the Flames. Ruzicka has the ninth most 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes (3.01) among skaters that have played at least 200 minutes, according to Natural Stat Trick. He’s also carved out a spot on the team’s second power-play unit.
Ultimately, the most encouraging thing about Ruzicka’s ascendance is that he’s proven to be highly consistent while being deployed in several different roles during 5-on-5 play. Even if he can’t keep scoring 0.74 points per game – a 61-point pace over an 82-game season – Ruzicka becoming a solid play-driving utility piece makes for a great story. And with him signed to a $762,500 cap hit until the end of 2023-24, it’s looking like a great bargain for the Flames.
Jake DeBrusk, RW, Boston
It wasn’t too long ago that DeBrusk’s days as a Bruin appeared numbered.
On the heels of being a healthy scratch at the tail-end of last November, word of DeBrusk requesting a trade became public. While DeBrusk’s 2021-22 season was a rocky one – with the 26-year-old seemingly in Bruce Cassidy’s doghouse for extended periods – it ended on a high note, with 16 points in his final 18 games of last season. DeBrusk rescinded his trade request this summer, which could go down as a pivotal moment in the Edmonton native’s career.
Skating on the Bruins’ top line alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, DeBrusk has recorded 27 points in 34 games – putting him well on his way to smashing his career high in points (43). It’s not a total surprise to see a player like DeBrusk flourish, considering he’s a former first-round pick with top-notch speed and eclipsed the 25-goal mark twice.
Granted, DeBrusk has never been anywhere near this good. He looks like he’s been shot out of a cannon. He’s weaponizing his speed to create chances, recording 1.63 5-on-5 rush attempts per 60 minutes, which ranks 14th among forwards that have played at least 200 minutes, according to Natural Stat Trick.
“When he has the puck, he has the ability to put defensemen on their heels,” Bruins coach Jim Montgomery told reporters on Dec. 13.
While it’s easy to cherry-pick a narrative that DeBrusk is only playing this way because he’s alongside Bergeron and Marchand, remember the Bruins have no shortage of options – namely David Pastrnak, Taylor Hall and Pavel Zacha – to put aside that dynamic duo. DeBrusk is looking like the player many thought he could become. And it’s hard to foresee things going anywhere but up from here.
Daniel Sprong, RW, Seattle
Hear that? That’s the sound of the high-fives among the analytical community as they watch Daniel Sprong pop.
From 2019-20 to the end of last season, Sprong recorded 1.17 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes, placing him in the 97th percentile among skaters that played a minimum of 1,000 minutes, according to Natural Stat Trick. But like many “soft skill” type players, Sprong – who split the previous four seasons between the Pittsburgh Penguins, Anaheim Ducks, Washington Capitals and Seattle – struggled to earn trust as his two-way play and inconsistency were warts in his game.
After the Kraken opted not to issue him a qualifying offer at the end of last season, Sprong went unsigned throughout the summer and attended Seattle’s camp on a PTO, which he later parlayed into a one-year league minimum deal.
Sprong – 10 goals and nine assists in 26 games this year – has already eclipsed his career-high assist totals (seven).
The craziest part about Sprong’s season is that he’s burying 0.38 goals per game – a 32-goal pace over an 82-game season – all while averaging just 10:39 minutes of ice time. Pretty efficient output, if I do say so myself.
When assessing whether or not Sprong can continue to play at this pace, we’d be remiss not to mention that he’s currently rocking a crazy high 18.5 percent shooting percentage. Encouragingly, however, his 5-on-5 goal production has long been accompanied by his continuous scoring chance production.
Josh Morrissey, D, Winnipeg
Before this season, Josh Morrissey had restraints.
Paul Maurice’s systems called for defensemen to stay home, giving little leeway to join the rush and get involved offensively. But when Rick Bowness came this year, he allowed the smooth-skating, poised puck handler to create chances. It elevated Morrissey’s impact to unprecedented heights. Morrissey would be the clear frontrunner this season if there were a most valuable defenseman award.
Morrissey leads the Jets in scoring with 42 points in 36 games – blowing by his career high of 37 – and averages a team-high 23:22 TOI/GP. Adam Lowry described him as an anchor on the back end.
“He’s been so critical for us in every situation,” Lowry said after the Jets fell 4-1 to the Wild on Tuesday. “He’s a key cog in the offense and in the D-zone, shutting down the other team’s top players in every situation.”
While Morrissey – averaging an assist per game – may scream as a regression candidate to the naked eye, it’s not like the 27-year-old defenseman is doing anything he wasn’t capable of beforehand.
The only difference is that his skillset is being weaponized to create offense. It makes you wonder what kind of point totals Morrissey would have had in the past years if he had played under a different coach.
Linus Ullmark, G, Boston
It’s pretty remarkable that a goalie with Ullmark’s career profile is a Vezina trophy front-runner.
Ullmark – a prototypical 1B-caliber netminder who posted a career .913 save percentage before this season – had never shouldered more than 50 percent of his teams’ workload. Last season – when he split the workload evenly with Jeremy Swayman – he set a career high with 41 games played in a season. And now this year, Ullmark has taken the ball and ran with it, starting in over 60 percent of the Bruins’ games.
It’s well deserved because Ullmark is one of the best goalies in the NHL right now.
Through 24 games this year, Ullmark boasts a 20-1-1 record and leads the league in save percentage (.938). And while it can be easy to cherry-pick an argument that he’s carried by the Bruins being a top team in the NHL, that’s not the case at all. In fact, he actually ranks first in goals saved above expected, according to moneypuck.com, meaning he’s exceeding expectations more than any other goalie on high-danger shots.
Hey, the Bruins looked to be on to something when they signed Ullmark to a four-year, $20-million deal before last season. So far, it’s working.