On Thursday morning the NHL announced the finalists for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. Among the finalists – Toronto Maple Leafs’ star Auston Matthews. As defined by the NHL, the Lady Byng is awarded “to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.” Matthews shares the nomination with St. Louis Blues forward Ryan O’Reilly and Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon.
Congrats to @AM34 on being named a Lady Byng Trophy finalist!
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) July 16, 2020
Matthews is the first Maple Leaf to receive a nomination for this award since 2003, when Alexander Mogilny won it and decided he didn’t want it, calling it a “consolation prize.” Very cool.
Clearly, there are several reasons Auston Matthews comes to mind when you think of this award, but like everything else near and around the Leafs, this nomination was immediately hotly contested online. Let’s explore this nomination a bit more.
What makes a Lady Byng finalist? The award has sort of become the “Least Penalty Minutes Award” despite the fact that there are other considerations to be made when awarding it. It’s important to understand that high standard of playing ability is written right into the awards definition. This would prevent a fourth line guy who doesn’t take a lot of penalties from being nominated. Generally speaking, if you’re a guy who plays seven minutes a night, it’s a lot easier to end up without a minor penalty by the end of the game.
Matthews certainly meets the minimum requirement for the award which is limited penalties. Auston Matthews recorded four minor penalties with zero major penalties this season, which is the least in the NHL amongst players who average at least twenty minutes of ice-time per game. Ryan O’Reilly (STL), Jaccob Slavin (CAR), and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic (SJ) all had just five minor penalties this season while averaging over twenty minutes. O’Reilly is a fellow nominee of Matthews’ and Slavin has a case of his own despite not being nominated. Vlasic, however, didn’t do it at what would be considered a high enough standard of playing ability this season.
Speaking to high standard of playing ability, this also helps Matthews’ case. Matthews had 47 goals and 80 points in 70 games. Many people wondered if Auston would have broken the Maple Leafs single season goal record of 54 if the season had played out in its entirety; he needed just 7 goals in 12 games to tie it. There’s no doubt that just eight penalty minutes in 70 games by the eighth highest point getter in the league is the definition of high standard of playing ability.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) July 16, 2020
“GENTLEMANLY” ON OR OFF THE ICE?
While the Lady Byng is nice in it’s intentions, there is a lot of debate how to properly evaluate this award. There is a constant discussion as to whether or not this award is purely an on-ice award. The interesting thing is that aside from “high standard of playing ability” there is literally no mention that this is based purely on a players on-ice contributions, leading people to believe the players are also required to be considered gentlemen off the ice. That is where this award gets messy every year.
I am not one to hold Matthews’ off-ice incident from last summer over his head. He shouldn’t be forgiven immediately, but he should also be afforded the opportunity to grow beyond the incident. That said, if we are considering the Lady Byng winner as a gentleman on and off the ice, that incident does need to be taken into consideration when evaluating Matthews.
In addition to that incident, many people did not take too kindly to his on-ice “who are you” incident with Senators minor leaguer Scott Sabourin . To me, the move doesn’t display gentlemanly conduct, but it’s not a sucker punch to the guy either. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a player that is gentlemanly every shift in the NHL. If we’re going to nitpick, O’Reilly and MacKinnon moments over the years that could disqualify them as well.
So with all of the debate as to whether or not this is purely an on-ice award, here’s where I come down. The NHL has plenty of awards to attribute to off-the-ice contributions to the NHL community. It becomes very difficult to combine a players actions on the ice with what they do away from the game. While I believe last summer’s incident needs to be considered, it also shouldn’t automatically disqualify Matthews from the running.
CHANCES OF WINNING
Here’s the thing: I have no idea. Most years, most awards, I have a pretty good idea who the winner is once I see the nominees, especially the Lady Byng. But this year is a bit different for a couple reasons. Off-ice incidents aside, Auston Matthews has about as good of a case for this award as you will ever see. There were no on-ice incidents aside from his run in with Sabourin, if you want to blow things out of proportion and call that an ‘incident’. The numbers are all there. So should he really not win because of something that happened off the ice?
It depends how you see this award.
The other interesting thing of note is that while Matthews has “as good a case as you’ll ever see,” that could be said of Hurricanes defender Jaccob Slavin who was not even nominated for this award. Defensemen always have a difficult time getting nominated for the Lady Byng, but Slavin had as good a season as any shutdown defenseman in the last twenty years. If he couldn’t get a nomination, the criteria of the voters is something I highly question this time around.
In terms of on-ice criteria? This award far and away belongs to Auston Matthews. However, I’m not entirely sure that’s the only prerequisite considered here, and maybe that’s the way it should be. This could be a situation where the off-ice incident is the difference between finishing first or third in Lady Byng voting.