The Lady Byng Memorial Trophy often doesn’t get the credit it deserves, but in 2018 the high-profile nominees should turn some heads. The three finalists, as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, were announced by the league tonight as the Florida Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov, the Vegas Golden Knights’ William Karlsson, and the Buffalo Sabres’ Ryan O’Reilly. Whoever of the three is judged to have “exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability” will take home the hardware at the NHL Awards in June.
In many ways, this Lady Byng race is almost a runner-up competition to the Selke Trophy. All three of Barkov, Karlsson, and O’Reilly could have been a finalist for the best defensive player award this season. Barkov is a two-way wizard, Karlsson led the NHL in plus/minus, and O’Reilly continues to be one of the best face-off specialists of his generation. There was no lack of offense either, as Barkov and Karlsson each set career-highs with 78 points, while O’Reilly notched his fifth-straight season of 55+ points. However, they all have shown an adept ability to avoid penalties as well – a major criteria for the Lady Byng. O’Reilly in particular was a shockingly clean competitor in 2017-18, taking just one two-minute minor penalty in 81 games for an average of just one second worth of penalty minutes per game. This was far and away the most impressive mark on the year. Karlsson played in all 82 games, accumulating only six minor penalties for 12 PIM. Barkov was guilty of just seven minors, a total of 14 minutes in the box, all season.
The gentlemanly conduct is apparent among the finalists, as is the high standard of ability at both ends of the rink. All three played nearly game this season as well, showing the most important ability of all – availability. So what could decide the race? Sportsmanship, which is where O’Reilly’s recent remarks could hurt him. The Sabres center recently went on record as saying that he has lost his love for the game while playing in Buffalo. Compare that attitude to those of Karlsson, arguably the best skater on the team who has been the biggest story in hockey in their inaugural season, and Barkov, who has grown into a leader in Florida and led his team to an unlikely late-season surge, and you can see how O’Reilly could lose some votes. We’ll know for sure how it turns out at the NHL Awards on June 20th in Karlsson’s new home town.