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NHL Awards Voting, The PHWA & Transparency (Or Lack Thereof)

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Hart TrophyTim Thomas, Lubomir Visnovsky, Kris Letang, Pekka Rinne, Corey Perry
Norris Trophy: Lubomir Visnovsky, Kris Letang, Shea Weber, Nicklas Lidstrom, Ryan Suter
Selke Trophy: Frans Nielsen, Joel Ward, Cal Clutterbuck, Manny Malhotra, Dave Bolland
Calder TrophyJohn Carlson, Logan Couture, Jeff Skinner, Michael Grabner, Taylor Hall

That's my ballot for the 2011 NHL Awards.  It's out there for my readers to analyze, critique, criticize and argue about.  If I were a member of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, that would still be my ballot for the 2011 NHL Awards and I would still publish my ballot in an open and public manner.

(Note:  Members of the PHWA do not vote for the Vezina Trophy or the Jack Adams Award.)

One of the more arcane parts of the NHL Awards voting process is the complete lack of transparency behind the ballots.  Tyler from MC79hockey has written about this on two occasions, first when he discussed the impact that General Managers can have on other teams and their salary cap through the Vezina voting:

While we can’t be certain precisely that Gustavsson, Price and Rask have a bonus for winning the Vezina Trophy, they’re the most likely candidates. Here’s where it gets interesting. As I understand it, if payment of those bonuses causes their teams to exceed the salary cap, it comes off of next year’s cap. So, to be clear, the 27 GM’s who don’t run Toronto, Montreal and Boston can potentially reduce the cap space available to their competition by voting for their players to win the Vezina.

And later when he talked about the media's impact on the salary cap:

I will admit to having a bit of an impulse to say "Well, who cares about the NHL awards anyway?" I see three problems with this. From a financial perspective, for the players in the NHL, there’s money at stake. Winning an NHL award comes with bonuses from the league. For a player on his entry level contract, there might be bonuses at stake. I don’t claim to be an expert in journalistic ethics but, if Taylor Hall and the Oilers progress as we all hope that they will, the members of the Edmonton media could be faced with a choice at the end of the 2012-13 season: do they vote for Hall as MVP, potentially triggering a $2MM bonus in his contract and, if the Oilers are near the salary cap as the Hawks were last year, resulting in a cap overage that makes the 2013-14 team worse as the Oilers have less room to work with? Or do they not vote for Hall, even if he’s earned it? It’s one thing to be handing out awards – in this case, writers can do financial damage to the teams that they cover (or the competitors of those teams). You’re starting to get close to being an active participant in the story that you’re covering in those circumstances, I would think.

I recommend working your way through both articles before continuing as I've taken some of the arguments and thinking behind that article and applied them without full explanation below.

So the NHL has an awards system that impacts the potential salary pool, yearly cap space and individual salaries, yet the way in which that money is allocated is a complete secret.  Not only does the PHWA have potential geographical biases built in (there are more votes in major media markets like Toronto and New York than in smaller markets like Nashville), but they also have the issue, as mentioned by Tyler above, of writers who are no longer covering hockey casting ballots for these awards.  NHL General Managers vote for the Vezina and get to do so in complete secrecy.

Consider all of that background information set against the 2011 NHL Awards vote totals as released by Puck Daddy

Problem #1, The Vezina Voting:

1st 2nd 3rd
Total Ballots
Tim Thomas 17 5 4
Pekka Rinne 6 17 3
Roberto Luongo 3 4 6
Henrik Lundqvist 3 1 5
Carey Price 1 0 5
Ilya Bryzgalov 0 2 3
Cam Ward 0 1 1
Marc-Andre Fleury 0 0 1
Antti Niemi 0 0 1
Jonathan Quick 0 0 1

Votes Cast 30 30 30

NHL General Managers gave the award to Tim Thomas, but the final tally is curious.  Even though there were 30 ballots submitted, Tim Thomas was only on 26 of them.  While the voting for these awards is obviously an exercise in bias and subjective thinking, Tim Thomas had one of the greatest goaltending seasons in NHL history, yet four General Managers left him off of their ballot.  Who?  Why?  While I'm sure arguments could be made in support of giving another goaltender the first place vote, what reasons would those four voters have for leaving such a remarkable season off of their ballot entirely?  We have no idea what those arguments might be, nor do we know who to ask because the ballots are held as a secret by the NHL.

Problem #2, The Calder Voting:

1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th
Total Ballots
Jeff Skinner 71 39 12 4 0
Logan Couture 41 46 29 10 1
Michael Grabner 6 19 37 35 14
Corey Crawford 6 9 22 28 19
John Carlson 3 3 16 12 21
P.K. Subban 0 6 9 16 20
Sergei Bobrovsky 0 4 1 4 6
Cam Fowler 0 0 0 7 6
Taylor Hall 0 0 1 4 5
Kevin Shattenkirk 0 0 0 3 9
Tyler Ennis 0 1 0 0 9
Brad Marchand 0 0 0 1 9
Derek Stepan 0 0 0 2 0
Michal Neuvirth 0 0 0 1 1
Jordan Eberle 0 0 0 0 3
James Reimer 0 0 0 0 3
Michael Sauer 0 0 0 0 1

Votes Cast 127 127 127 127 127

The PHWA gave the award to Jeff Skinner, but there is yet another question about the vote totals.  Skinner was named on 126 ballots, meaning one writer left him off of the ballot completely.  We should be asking the same "who?" and "why?" questions of this writer, but a closed process prevents us from doing so.  Does this writer have a personal vendetta?  Will that vendetta affect awards voting moving forward?  Is there another angle?  Is this a Western Conference writer who never saw Skinner?  Note that he did have Couture on his ballot.  I have no idea, nor does anyone else and we won't know these answers as long as the ballots remain a secret.

Problem #3, The Norris Voting

1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th
Total Ballots
Nicklas Lidstrom 35 23 34 15 10
Shea Weber 32 41 14 14 8
Zdeno Chara 33 24 24 20 10
Lubomir Visnovsky 20 20 26 28 19
Keith Yandle 5 10 17 25 32
Kris Letang 2 3 9 12 22
Dustin Byfuglien 0 2 1 3 5
Christian Ehrhoff 0 0 1 6 5
Duncan Keith 0 1 1 3 3
Matt Carle 0 1 0 0 1
Drew Doughty 0 1 0 0 1
Chris Pronger 0 1 0 0 1
Toni Lydman 0 0 0 1 0
Dan Boyle 0 0 0 0 3
Ryan Suter 0 0 0 0 2
Brian Campbell 0 0 0 0 1
Dan Hamhuis 0 0 0 0 1
Andrej Meszaros 0 0 0 0 1
Tyler Myers 0 0 0 0 1
Marc Staal 0 0 0 0 1

Votes Cast 127 127 127 127 127

Nicklas Lidstrom beat Shea Weber by just 9 points in the final tally, but Lidstrom appeared on 117 of the 127 ballots, whereas Weber appeared on only 109 ballots.  The two men to finish behind Weber, Zdeno Chara and Lubomir Visnovsky appear on more ballots than Weber at 111 and 113, respectively.  18 hockey journalists left Shea Weber off of their ballots completely. 

The fact that Nashville-based writers have only two of the 127 votes compared to 10 in New York or 6 in Vancouver or an estimated (I counted the number of Toronto-based journalists, both local and national who talked about the awards voting as if they did cast a ballot) 16 in Toronto, had nothing to do with those vote totals, I'm sure.  Obviously, we can't be sure, but it seems like the geographical distribution of the PHWA voters had a direct impact on the Norris vote total, and probably slanted the results from Weber to Lidstrom.  It would be quite easy to figure all of this out if the ballots were public.

How can the NHL fix the problem?  For starters, the next CBA could remove financial incentives from the subjective nature of an award based on polling.  It's not likely that the NHLPA would go for this however, so the NHL must explore other ways to shed light on this process and not allow personal or geographical bias to cloud these awards.  Transparency is the key.  The NHL could look to the USA today's College Football Top 25 poll.  The poll is voted on by 59 NCAA coaches and the USA today publishes those ballots on a weekly basis and at year-end.  Publishing the ballots of the 127 PHWA voters and 30 General Managers is the first step.  If the PHWA wanted to show some integrity, the organization or the individual members should step up and publish the results themselves, like I did above.  Balancing the geographical distribution of the 127 PHWA voters should be the second step.  Again, the PHWA should police themselves and limit the pool of voters to three per NHL city, but if they cannot or will not, the league should step in and throw away all ballots beyond the first three submitted from each city.

The NHL has been fighting an on-going image problem related to violence, arbitrary punishment, a league executive in charge of discipline directly intervening on his son's behalf, a circus surrounding the financial stability of franchises, bankrupt owners, and franchise moves.  The league could start to rebuild that image by bringing transparency to a process that allows the media and opposing General Managers to determine salary and salary cap levels.