NHL Awards season is finally upon us. If you aren’t in the know yet, each year during the playoffs, the league starts announcing the finalists for all the different individual achievements as voted upon by bodies such as the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA). Of course, with these announcements always comes some form of debate.
Now, some awards have more debate discussion than others. Sometimes it’s because a race is extremely close, and sometimes it’s because the phrasing of the award leaves room for interpretation. Like, how does one really define “most valuable player?”
But today, I’m here to stir up a debate about an award no one really ever talks about: the Lady Byng. Why? I think Matty Beniers should’ve been one of the three finalists announced Tuesday evening. Sure, he’s due to be a finalist for the Calder Trophy, and earning that prestigious rookie of the year award probably matters more, but he deserved a stronger look at the Lady Byng as well.
What’s a Lady Byng?
As officially defined, the Lady Byng goes to “the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability” It’s a lot of word salad to basically say “skilled player who takes very little penalties.” It seems a little lame, right? No one ever discusses wanting a player on their team because he doesn’t take many penalties. It holds more clout to say someone’s a Selke or Calder winner than a Lady Byng winner. Plus, lots of good players take penalties! No one will deny Evgeni Malkin entry into the Hockey Hall of Fame just because one of his records also happens to be the most penalty minutes in Penguins history.
Yet, this feat is also more impressive than it sounds. Hockey is a very fast-paced game. If a player avoids taking penalties in the NHL, it likely means they didn’t play many games in the league. Mistakes happen, especially when trying to defend a play.
Mistakes especially happen when you’re still new to a league trying to figure things out — unless your name just so happens to be Matty Beniers.
The on-ice case for Beniers
Honestly, I don’t need to write too much out for my case. The Seattle Kraken’s PR team, led especially by Lindsey Brown, did it for me.
Now, this was published on April 10 and didn’t include all of the final numbers. Beniers did play in those remaining three games, officially marking him as the fourth in NHL history to play 80 or more games and only take a single penalty. He also finished the season with a total of 57 points. Oh, and it bears repeating again, Beniers did this all as a rookie.
None of these facts impressed voters enough, though. Jack Hughes, Brayden Point, and Anze Kopitar instead earned the most votes by the PHWA. Now, the question is, did their campaigns stack up better than Beniers? Major stick taps to Alison Lukan for gathering some of the important comparative data for me. (You might have to click on the Tweet to see the chart in full.)
What stands out at first glance is that Hughes, Point, and Kopitar all produced more points than Beniers. This could be what influenced most voters. It’s not an award that automatically goes to the player with the least amount of penalty minutes, after all. As the definition above states, a high quality of play also matters.
Yet, Beniers isn’t that far off from reaching these heights. When adjusted to points per 60, Beniers has 2.50 points compared to Kopitar’s 2.67. Additionally, the penalties drawn column should also be considered. Beniers drew 24 penalties out of opponents. He was able to put himself into positions to help his team go on the power play without sacrificing his own discipline of play in the process.
Maybe Beniers isn’t at the level of offensive production yet to challenge those top three, but I once again must repeat: he’s a rookie. This is what Beniers is accomplishing within his first full season in the NHL. The Calder Trophy is his to lose, but there has to be something said for the fact that he is showing this level of discipline at such a young age.
The off-ice case for Beniers
In the word salad that is NHL Awards definitions, room for interpretation exists. Sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct don’t have to equate solely to taking few penalties. If anything, players show those traits best in how they are as a person.
Major disclaimer: I can’t pretend to legitimately know Beniers. I’ve never spoken a word to the man. Yet, when the cameras are rolling, he seems to show a big heart. There are almost too many times to count where the Kraken’s social media has captured him giving sticks and pucks out to fans. He’s also signed jerseys for fans that are tossed over to the glass to him. It can be at games, or it can be in the middle of practice. It’s not just his level of play that earned him this season’s Fan Favorite Award. The fans voted for him so they could return back to him the love he shows to the fans.
Also, how many 20-year-olds do you know that will willingly put on an ugly Easter Bunny costume to entertain his teammates’ families? If that’s not being a good sport, I don’t know what is.
Beniers comes across as a genuinely nice person. Off-ice conduct rarely factors into the Lady Byng, but why mention traits like gentlemanly conduct without thinking of the true character of the player? (Though if it were an award solely for being a gentleman, it would be the Grubauer Trophy in honor of the German Gentleman.) Now, I can’t argue that Beniers shows better sportsmanship than Hughes, Point, or Kopitar. In fact, that might be why off-ice personality isn’t considered. Each hockey writer knows the players they cover best, so a heavily biased vote would occur. I’m still making my case, though. If other awards have debate over their definitions, so can the Lady Byng.
Unfortunately, I’m too late to convince voters to place Beniers on their ballots (or place him higher). I just hope that when the PHWA can release the ballots that I see his name frequently. The truth of the matter is that it just might be too early in his career. Regardless, his extremely disciplined play this season made me see exactly why the Lady Byng exists. It’s hard to play at the caliber he has all season while only earning one minor penalty. If most members of the PHWA can’t see the impressiveness, then it is what it is.