It's mid-season! We officially past the half-way mark a week ago, but the All-Star weekend is unofficially considered the midway, where players can rest and relax for a weekend before preparing themselves for what eventually becomes a 20-game grind to the death for playoff spots. But it's also the best time of the year, because 1) I get to do lists, like this mid-season awards post, and bloggers love lists, and 2) we're 45 (!!!) days away from the trade deadline... which means I get to do another post about potential trade baits (stay tuned). But let's not get ahead of ourselves... here are 3 nominees for each of the major NHL awards.
Hart Memorial Trophy
3. Sidney Crosby. The best player, by a sizable margin, in the league. There's no one else in his class, but his case may be hurt with his concussion. These things are iffy, and considering that he played another game after he was clearly concussed by Dave Steckel at the Winter Classic (I called it... there's no way he wasn't if you watched how slowly he got up... and then missed his shift when the Pens played 5-on-5 with an empty net), so if he misses an extended period of time, it really hurts his case. While the Pens still have Malkin and Staal, Crosby is the key cog in that lineup and given the major lack of depth, this Pens squad just isn't as good without him. That goes without saying. But how much of a difference does it make? Take away the Pens' 12-game win streak where Crosby went on a Gretzky-like tear, and the Pens are a .500 team at best (15-14-4, 4-4-2 in last 10).
2. Daniel and Henrik Sedin. The only wrinkle is that the Hart has never been shared before. Could we make an exception for the Sedins? While they may not be the highest scoring brothers duo in league history (Bobby and Dennis Hull, Maurice and Henri Richard, and of course, Wayne and Brent "4 Points" Gretzky), their chemistry with one another is unmatched. And you gotta feel for Dan, right? First, Henrik makes an ASG before him, then wins the MVP, Art Ross, and is named captain. Henrik's been proven he can play without Dan, and I'm sure Dan can play without Henrik, but together they're practically unstoppable. (To be fair, if the NHL had to pick one Canuck, it should be Kesler. For the sake of Dan's sanity. You think Mrs. Sedin makes more cookies for Dan during Christmas?).
1. Steven Stamkos. He is the runaway MVP. The Lightning currently hold top spot in the traditionally Washington-dominated Southeast Division, and this division is no longer the joke of the league. Florida, the weakest with 42 points, sits 11th in the East. While Marty St. Louis has been a huge, huge part of Stamkos' success, he's been carrying the franchise and sits second in league scoring with 57 points. It's almost amazing that Stamkos is +9 (so much for that he-can't-play-defense theory, which I've tried to debunk since day one), even though the Lightning have allowed the third-most goals in the East with 137, which is also 6 more than they have scored as a team. Take away Stamkos' 31 goals and their GF total (100) sits third-last in the conference.
3. Carey Price. After every win at the Bell Centre, Price must be thinking, "how do you like me now, Montreal!?" If you're looking for a feel-good story of the season, Price is one of those. After being unceremoniously booed in last year's playoffs, Price came back better than ever. His record may not be shining, with 21-15-3, but his SV% is .919, and anytime you're finishing the season at the .920 mark you're having a great season. Major points for really bouncing back, and for a franchise that has so much pride and tradition his cocky, I'm-better-than-you attitude has really helped him along in the toughest hockey market in the league.
2. Tim Thomas. He's everyone's obvious choice and for the most part he's been flat out amazing. Of goalies with at least 20 starts, he has the fewest regulation losses with 4. His 1.88 GAA and .943 SV% has been tops in the league all season and has regulated Tuukka Rask, believed by many to be the B's starter this year, to the bench. It's amazing what he can do at his age and his
1. Jonas Hiller. Only Price has played more minutes but Hiller has better numbers, and Hiller's also played 400 more minutes and appeared in 9 more games (40 in total, tops in the league) than Thomas. That should seal the deal. His numbers are nothing to sneeze at either: his .927 SV% is tied for third in the league and his 2.43 GAA is 12th. Instead of Chara, Seidenberg, Stuart, and Ference, Hiller gets Visnovsky, Lydman, Mara, and Lilja. Which defense would you take? It's a no brainer. That and the Ducks still currently sit 6th in the West. Could you imagine the Ducks without him?
It's been a great year for goalies, but the Habs (defensive system), Bruins (defensive system), and Ducks (just no defense) rely on their goalies much more than other deserving nominees, like Luongo (great team), Ondrej Pavelec (Enstrom and Byfuglien), Jimmy Howard (Nick Lidstrom), Jonathan Quick (good team), Fleury (great defense) and a whole slew of others. I don't remember another year in which good goaltending has been so prevalent. It's going to be a fun race to watch if the Tim Thomas bandwagon doesn't blind everyone.
Calder Memorial Trophy
3. Corey Crawford. He was once a highly-touted prospect in Chicago's system, (drafted 52nd overall in 2003, the second goalie taken after Fleury was taken first), and forgotten by everyone when Antti Niemi stepped in. Now that both Huet and Niemi are gone and Turco is clearly over the hill, Crawford's single-handedly saved the Blackhawks' season, with the team losing Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, and Jonathan Toews to injuries at various points throughout the season. Among rookies with at least 25 starts he leads in wins, SV%, and GAA. Not more you can ask for.
2. Jeff Skinner. This kid came out of nowhere. He's undersized as a NHL centre, so he's been forced to move to the wing. His 15 goals are second on the team and he's a plus player on an average team. If he wasn't there, it'd be all Eric Staal, and Staal can't carry a team. He's provided some extra offensive juice and lessened the pressure on Staal. The fact that Skinner plays in Carolina hurts him because he's been a much better player than more heralded players like Hall and Eberle.
<img src="http://nimg.sulekha.com/sports/thumbnailfull/logan-couture-2009-11-5-21-13-11.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">1. Logan Couture. I wrote a while back that the Sharks are actually an above average team posing as a Cup contender. They have one good line that's constantly broken up because they can't score on a consistent basis, a defense that has Niclas Wallin, Kent Huskins, and youngster Jason Demers logging regular minutes, which means Todd McLellan has to rely heavily on 34-year old Dan Boyle (27 minutes/game). They're getting disappointing seasons from Joe Pavelski (9 goals, -12) and Devin Setoguchi (7 goals, -13). The lone bright spot is Couture, who wins more than 50% of his face-offs, and leads his team in plus/minus (+9) and goals (19), 5 of which are game-winners. And this is a team with Marleau and Heatley, mind you.
James Norris Trophy
As usual, this is the hardest category to figure out. This is the part where I disagree with everyone, and everyone disagrees with me. There's too much of an emphasis on offensive output for this award (which explains Mike Green's two nominations) and not enough focus on all-round, actual defensive play (which is what the award is about). You can't look at one singular category, be it points, blocked shots, hits, or ice-time. You have to look at how good he is at BOTH ends of the ice (so no Hal Gills or Willie Mitchells) and how well he plays within his team's system. It's hard to do because the only way you can truly tell which defencemen make a difference in their own zone is by watching them. Having not watched every single team enough times, I can't tell you definitively which player is the best, but I can tell you which ones should be considered. And Mike Green is about 832 spots down the list.
3. Kris Letang. The numbers speak for themselves: 7 goals (11th), 33 assists (1st), +20 (3rd), 84 hits (26th), team PK 87.4% (1st). Letang's putting up fantastic offensive numbers, but what about defensive play? It's been good, but not Norris-material. Even on the PK, it's Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek who get first taps on the shoulder. If there was one offensive defenceman who gets consideration, it should be Letang.
2. Alex Edler. Before flamers start yelling "homer pick!!!" let's (try) and look at this subjectively. Is Edler's game complete? Definitely, probably the most complete out of all Canucks defencemen, who has the league's 4th ranked PK. Does Edler figure in on said PK regularly? He averages 2:08 TOI/G on the PK, and considering that Vigneault has the luxury of spreading that time around, that's not an insignificant amount. Bieksa averages about 30 seconds more and Hamhuis about 50 seconds more. Tangible stats like hits and blocked shots? Check and check - Edler's 71 hits is third on the team and 76 blocked shots is first. And offensively? 27 points, +10, 4 PPG. Let's not mention that along with Ehrhoff, Edler has been key to the Canucks transition game, possessing an excellent first pass and skating ability. Case closed.
1. Dan Girardi. How about that? The Rangers are light on skill but they have plenty of players who play hard, like Callahan, Dubinsky, Staal, Drury, and even Gaborik. But perhaps the most indispensable defenceman under John Tortorella? #5 in blue. The Rangers' PK is ranked 9th in the league and a big reason for that is Girardi. In order to showcase how good he's been this year, let's compare him to all the other candidates, with leaders in bold.
Sure, Girardi's offensive game isn't as polished, but he's averaging close to half a point per game, and only 24 defencemen last year had more than 40 points. Girardi's SH TOI/G is 12th in the league (leads Rangers with Marc Staal) and 13th in hits and 2nd in blocked shots. But how vital has he been to the Rangers? Expressing his hits and blocked shots as a percentage, Girardi accounts for 25% of all Rangers' blocked shots and 13.7% of all Rangers' hits, who are by a significant margin the most physical in the league. That's astonishing. That means 1 in 4 blocked shots by the Rangers are by Girardi. In comparison: Edler (12.5% of all blocked shots), Letang (8.3%), Lidstrom (10.3%), Byfuglien (5.3%), and Enstrom (13.1%).
The popular pick is Dustin Byfuglien, but again, this award is about defence too, so the fact that Byfuglien averages only seven seconds (7!!!!) on the PK per game should automatically disqualify him. Atlanta also allows more than 3 goals per game and has the third-worst PK in the league. Byfuglien for Norris? Please. Giving it to Tobias Enstrom would make a lot more sense, but there are still better candidates. The other hard cut was Nicklas Lidstrom. Believe me, this was so, so, so difficult. Pedigree? Yup. Points? Yup. Team? Ehhh, not so much. The Wings' PK sits 16th in the league (which surprisingly is never at the top of the league - 10th last year, 25th year before), while the Pens, Canucks, and Rangers' PK have been much more effective. That's not mentioning that Lidstrom is an uncharacteristic -1 in plus/minus, and his career low of +9 was ten years ago.
3. Guy Boucher. The Lightning have been flailing since their Cup win in 2004 and literally dropped off the map. You didn't hear about them unless it was close to draft time because they held the first overall pick in 2008 (Stamkos) and second overall in 2009 (Hedman). Now they're becoming relevant again. While the Capitals may still have the reputation as the Southeast powerhouse, Tampa Bay now leads the division with a two point differential and Atlanta is close behind. Boucher's system has unleashed the Bolts' offense, an offense that ranked 4th worst in the East last year. He's one of the few coaches that have made a smooth transition to the NHL after coming over from Drummondville (QMJHL) and Hamilton (AHL).
2. Peter Laviolette. Laviolette's blessed because he has so much to work with. What other team can have Danny Briere (24 goals) on their third line? The Flyers have six forwards with more than 30 points and both James van Riemsdyk and Nikolay Zherdev have double-digit goals. You could make the argument that any decent coach could turn this team into a division winner, but what Laviolette has excelled at is playing the goaltending carousel. He made the curious decision to start rookie Sergei Bobrovsky on opening night and rode him until he got cold. Now Brian Boucher's the starter and he's on a tear. Credit Laviolette for having such a great feel for his goalies (2.62 GA/G, 10th), a big reason why his team's done so well.
1. Alain Vigneault. What a change this year's been for Vancouver. One of the most penalized and pugilistic teams in the past, the Canucks went from 15.5 PIM/G (26th) last year to just 11.5 (11th) this year. That means more 5-on-5 ice-time for the Sedins, and surprise, surprise, the Canucks even strength GF/GA ratio of 1.34 sits third in the league, trailing Philadelphia and Boston. The Canucks own the league's most potent powerplay and a top 5 penalty kill. This is the finest job Vigneault has done in Vancouver to date, and he's had some very good seasons here.
Frank J. Selke Award
<img src="http://blastmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/kesler.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">3. Manny Malhotra. Recently, he's managed to gain a bit of a cult following. The league's best face-off man also leads the the league's fourth-ranked PK in ice-time, with 2:45 per game. He is not the Canucks first-line centre, nor is he the second-line centre, yet he takes the most face-offs out of anyone on the Canucks, taking 30.4% of the team's total. Only Atlanta's Rich Peverley (30.6%) and Toronto's Tyler Bozak (31%) take a bigger percentage of their team's face-offs even though they're not a fixture on their respective teams' top line. His 46 blocked shots is third in the league amongst forwards, trailing only Mike Fisher and Adam Burish, but Malhotra's takeaways (27) is almost equivalent to Burish and Fisher's total (30). If there's any gripe about Malhotra, is that he is a minus player on the road. A Selke winner shouldn't have that wrinkle.
2. Mike Richards. A staple in the Selke category for years to come, Richards is a good shot blocker and never gives up on a play. That he's a +11 despite playing against the opposing team's top line and/or top pairing is quite the accomplishment. By taking away those match-ups, that has allowed Laviolette to play Briere and Jeff Carter against weaker lines and pairings, a big reason why Philadelphia's scoring is so spread out. That's major points for Richards and something that isn't reflected through stats. Only Blair Betts and Darroll Powe average more SH ice-time than Richards per game, but neither have shorthanded markers, of which Richards has 2. The only problem? The Flyers' PK is ranked 17th in the league and Richards is posting his lowest face-off percentage in his career (48.2%).
1. Ryan Kesler. Is there anyone else? Datsyuk's bid for a fourth straight Selke will end this year, meaning that Bob Gainey's record will remain intact. Offensively, Kesler's done it all, on pace for a 40-goal season and just two shy of his career high. His 69 hits ranks third on the team behind Hansen and Glass, his 44 blocked shots is just two behind Malhotra and fourth-best in the league, wins 57.4% of his face-offs, and his takeaway-giveaway ratio of +22 is the best on the team. He should've won the award last year and he should win this year. (For those thinking about a Selke/Hart double whammy for Kesler, only one player has done it in NHL history: Sergei Fedorov in 1994).
There are three other players that I considered: Jonathan Toews, Ryan O'Reilly, and to a lesser extent, Nicklas Backstrom. These three players' defensive games are extremely underrated, especially Backstrom's, who has been constantly mislabeled as a one-dimensional playmaker despite being quite polished in his own zone. The arguments against these players is that Chicago and Colorado's PK are fourth-last and second-last in the league, respectively, and Backstrom doesn't play enough on the PK each night (just 1:33 per game) to be really considered, despite top-notch marks in FO%, % of team face-offs, hits, and blocked shots.
And there you are, the mid-season awards! Given the Canucks' strong season, and if they continue this pace, I wouldn't be surprised if the Canucks clean up at this year's awards.
Thoughts? Comments? Flame away, readers!