With less than 10 games left in this NHL regular season I figured it would be a good time to take a look at which players have the best shot of taking home the major NHL awards this season. Yes, at this time of year it is all about the playoff races, and players will tell you that these individual awards are the furthest thing from their minds. However, come June when the Stanley Cup has been awarded and the players are partying it up in Las Vegas at the annual NHL awards you can bet those same players will be waiting with bated breath to hear their names called when the hardware is handed out.
So who will those players be? I’ve picked what I consider to be the top 3 in each awards category, ranked from lowest to highest. Check out my picks, and see what you think. Disagree? Leave a comment with your own selections.
Lady Byng Trophy
– Let’s be honest, does anyone really care about who wins the Lady Byng Trophy? I can’t imagine even the winning players get too stoked about this one. Still, it is considered a major NHL award with a long history, so here are my 3 picks for the most likely to win the Lady Byng:
3 – Pavel Datsyuk – Detroit Red Wings – This 3 time defending Lady Byng Trophy winner will be in the conversation for a lot of NHL awards when the sun sets on the NHL regular season. The Lady Byng winner is often considered by hardcore hockey fans as a soft hockey player, but Datsyuk is anything but. He goes to the tough areas and throws his weight around. He is simply smarter and more disciplined than the majority of his NHL brethren, and it certainly wouldn’t be an upset if he carried home the hardware for a 4th consecutive year.
2 – Brad Richards – Dallas Stars – Injury has kept Brad Richards from playing a complete season, and that, ultimately is what will prevent him from winning this award. Still, his gentlemanly play, and his minuscule 6 PIMs in 56 games will still get him some serious consideration.
1 – Martin St. Louis – Tampa Bay Lightning – Richards’ former teammate, Martin St. Louis, is another player that seems to make a regular appearance on the list of nominees for the Lady Byng. Small in stature, with incredible speed and shiftiness, St. Louis keeps his focus on his game at all times, refusing to be intimidated or distracted by his larger opponents who attempt to get him off his game. He has been Tampa Bay’s best player in a dismal season, and has racked up only 12 penalty minutes along the way. In my opinion this will be the year he dethrones Datsyuk for the Lady Byng.
– The Masterton Trophy is another NHL award that doesn’t get the attention of some of the other NHL awards, but unlike the Lady Byng, the winner of this award commands a great deal of respect from players, fans and media alike. Given to the player who best shows perseverance to the sport of hockey it usually goes to a player who has overcome a devastating injury to return to the game he loves, and my picks for this season’s frontrunners are no exception.
3 – Patrice Bergeron – Boston Bruins – After suffering a broken nose and a devastating concussion after being hit from behind by Philadelphia’s Randy Jones at the beginning of the 2007-2008 season many, including Bergeron, were wondering if his NHL career was finished. He played only 10 games last season and for a long time was plagued by post-concussion syndrome. However, Bergeron persevered and this season returned to the sport he loves, and though he hasn’t put up great offensive numbers by his standards this year he has still been a key cog in helping the Boston Bruins lead the Eastern Conference almost wire to wire.
2 – Steve Sullivan – Nashville Predators – One of the smallest players in the NHL this diminutive forward has given Don Cherry another reason to love him. After missing the better part of two seasons with chronic back problems Sullivan is back and performing at a high level for the Nashville Predators, and he has been a key reason they are still in the hunt in the super tight Western Conference playoff race.
1 – Richard Zednik – FLorida Panthers – After suffering one of the most horrific injuries in NHL history when he had his throat slashed with a skate late in the 2007-08 season Richard Zednik has returned with a vengeance. Showing no ill effects from his long layoff Zednik has been a steady contributor offensively throughout the season for his Florida Panthers, and has not been shy about getting engaged physically. With all due respect to Bergeron and Sullivan look for the voting on this one to be a landslide.
Jack Adams Trophy
– Personally I think they should name this one the Scotty Bowman award, and hockey traditionalists be damned, but that aside choosing the coach of the year in this season of incredible parity is no easy gig. Here are the guys who in my opinion have to be considered the favorites to bag this year’s Jack Adams Trophy.
3 – Claude Julien – Boston Bruins – This guy might be #1 on many hockey pundits’ lists, but in my opinion he is barely edged out by the two gentlemen in front of him. Still, if Julien were to win it certainly wouldn’t be an upset. He took a Bruins team that finished 8th in the Eastern Conference last season, and has had them firing on all cylinders since day one of the season. They’ve led the Eastern Conference pretty much from wire to wire, and spent some time first overall in the league. Julien has to be credited with the work he has done with young players like Phil Kessel, David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Blake Wheeler, all of whom are enjoying breakout seasons, and his faith in goalie Tim Thomas has paid off in spades.
2 – Todd McLellan – San Jose Sharks – Some may argue this guy’s inclusion on the list – after all the Sharks have been a juggernaut for several seasons now. However, remember that this guy is a rookie coach and has jumped into a job with a huge amount of pressure. Anything less than a Stanley Cup this year will be considered a failure by San Jose fans who’ve seen their club underachieve in the playoffs for the last several seasons. Ultimately McLellan will be judged on his team’s post-season success, but what he has done this regular season will get him much deserved consideration for this year’s Jack Adams Trophy.
1 – Brent Sutter – New Jersey Devils – Really, you could flip this list upside down and no one would bat an eye. That’s how close this race is. Still, for my money, Brent Sutter, in only his sophomore year as an NHL head coach, is the number one candidate to take home the hardware. Sutter has guided the Devils to 2nd place in the NHL Eastern Conference, despite being deprived of the NHL’s winningest goalie of all time for the bulk of the season. With limited assets Sutter has managed to squeeze every last drop of talent and hard work from his roster. Rumor has it that Sutter may move back to Red Deer following this season, so a Jack Adams would be a nice retirement present for him.
– The Selke Trophy might not be a very glamorous award, but ask any NHL coach and he will tell you he’d love to have a Selke award winner on his roster. The Selke is given to the game’s best defensive players, those adept at shutting down the other teams’ top players, and this year’s crop of candidates are not only outstanding shutdown men, but also have plenty of offensive upside as well.
3 – Alex Burrows – Vancouver Canucks – What a difference one year makes. Last season, Alex Burrows was a hard-working shutdown guy who saw limited minutes and only managed to contribute the occasional goal. This season his hard work has been rewarded as he has been bumped up to the team’s top line with the Sedin twins. He continues to be one of the league’s elite shutdown men, and his nickname Burr is well earned as he is almost as adept as superpests like Sean Avery and Steve Ott at getting under an opponent’s skin. Vancouver is doubly blessed, as Burrows’ teammate and former linemate Ryan Kesler is almost as good defensively. Look for these two guys to get regular consideration for the Selke Trophy in years to come.
2 – Pavel Datsyuk – Detroit Red Wings – Wings fans everywhere are probably up in arms right now that I haven’t got this slick center pegged to win his second consecutive Selke Trophy. Datsyuk is one of those rare players that combines incredible offensive talent with the ability to shut down the other teams’ top guns. How does he do this? Well, he never lets them have the puck! This guy is an absolute wizard with the biscuit and is arguably the smartest player in the game today. Only the narrowest of margins kept him from being my favorite for this year’s Selke Trophy.
1 – Mike Richards – Philadelphia Flyers – Mr. Everything for the Philadelphia Flyers tops my list of Selke candidates. This guy, much like Jarome Iginla in Calgary, does it all for his team, hitting, fighting, putting up points, and shutting down opponents. However, it is his incredible penalty killing ability that earned him the nod over Datsyuk. Richards possesses almost ESP-like anticipation, and that has not only made him effective at breaking up plays in the defensive zone, but also a threat to score every time he is out in a shorthanded situation. His 7 shorthanded goals are the most in the NHL, and this year he set a league record for the most 5-3 shorthanded goals in a career.
– While this year’s crop of NHL rookies might not be quite as stellar as those of the past few seasons that have seen guys like Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin, Kane and Toews arrive on the scene, there are still a number of guys who look to be well on their way to becoming NHL stars. Here are my picks for the top Calder Trophy candidates for the 2008-09 season:
3 – Pekka Rinne – Nashville Predators – Coming in at 3rd place of my list of Calder candidates is a guy who was on nobody’s radar at the start of the 2008-09 season. However, Finnish phenom Pekka Rinne is quickly making quite a name for himself as one of the NHL’s premier puck-stoppers. Rinne’s numbers put him among the league leaders in most major statistical categories for goaltenders. He has posted 7 shutouts, has a 2.23 GAA, and a more than respectable .922 save percentage. This guy has what it takes to be the next Miikka Kiprusoff, and the Predators have got themselves a steal at well under a million per season for this guy for this season and next.
2 – Blake Wheeler – Boston Bruins – Though Steve Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning was getting all the pre-season Calder hype it has been this surprising Boston Bruins sniper that has been getting all the buzz among forwards for potential rookie of the year honors. Wheeler’s play has been a major reason why his Boston Bruins have sat atop the NHL’s Eastern Conference standings for the bulk of the year, and though he has cooled off in recent weeks his 40 points should get him some serious consideration for the Calder at this year’s NHL awards.
1 – Steve Mason – Columbus Blue Jackets – This one should be another landslide victory as Steve Mason has been absolutely spectacular this season for the Jackets, and is the reason his team is currently sitting in a playoff position in the jammed Western Conference standings. The 20 year old from Oakville, Ontario wasted no time proving he could compete at the NHL level, and he currently leads the league with 9 shutouts. He has already reached the 30 win mark this season, and his 2.22 GAA and .919 save percentage aren’t too shabby either. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but you might see this guy up for another major NHL award this season.
– Wow, another one that is really difficult to pin down. There are a half a dozen guys that can be considered legitimate Norris Trophy contenders, and this vote might be closer than any of the other categories. Whoever wins, the issue is likely to be contentious. Here is my humble attempt to weigh in on the matter:
3 – Zdeno Chara – Boston Bruins – Is there a harder guy to play against in the NHL than this 6’9″ giant from Slovakia? With Chara’s immense size, incredible reach, underrated foot speed, and his penchant for nastiness he is almost impossible to get the better of when battling down low. However, Chara’s game isn’t just pure defense; he regular contributes on the scoresheet as well as his 16 goals and 43 points will attest to. He is also a huge threat on the powerplay, routinely hammering 100+ MPH slapshots on net. This guy is the complete package, and though I don’t think he will capture the Norris this year it is only a matter of time before he has one (or many) on his mantle.
2 – Nicklas Lidstrom – Detroit Red Wings – This one literally came down to a whiskers-breadth to me. While Nicklas Lidstrom might not be quite as dominant from the back end as he has in his other 6 Norris-Trophy-winning seasons he is still the grease that makes the powerful winged wheel go in Detroit. Lidstrom, who will turn 39 this April, is showing little sign of slowing down, and his 51 points and +30 rating will back that up. Though I think he is a close second this year I wouldn’t be surprised or upset if this guy ties Doug Harvey by capturing his 7th Norris Trophy at the end of the year.
1 – Mike Green – Washington Capitals – Finally, the roving offensive defenseman is making a return to the NHL. Not since the days of Paul Coffey have we seen a riverboat gambler like Mike Green (well, unless you count Sandis Ozolinsh, but his decisions were almost always bad ones). Green, arguably as much as Ovechkin, has been responsible for Washington’s incredible season, and his 28 goals and 65 points make him the league leader (among defensemen) in both categories. Earlier this season Green broke a long standing NHL record when he scored goals in 8 consecutive games. However, a Norris Trophy winner should have some defensive ability, and though Green’s defensive zone play has been much maligned in the past he has worked hard under the tutelage of Bruce Boudreau to improve that part of his game. His +24 rating shows he is no slouch on the other side of the puck.
Guys like Shea Weber, Dan Boyle, Duncan Keith, and Andrei Markov should also get some consideration, but in my opinion the Norris race will come down to the three mentioned above.
– With the long-term injuries to both Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo this season the race for the Vezina Trophy is the most wide open in years. Several goaltenders have thrown their hats into the ring with their impressive performances so far this year. Here are my top 3 choices for the guys who’ve managed to stand above the rest this season:
3 – Miikka Kiprusoff – Calgary Flames – Yes, I know he has had some off nights, and yes, he doesn’t have the impressive statistics of some of his peers, but in my opinion Miikka Kiprusoff has done enough this season to at least enter the conversation as a Vezina Trophy candidate. Why? Well, when he doesn’t play, the Calgary Flames don’t win, simple as that. The Calgary Flames have 42 wins this season and Miikka Kiprusoff has been in net for every single one of them. I seriously considered Evgeni Nabokov for this spot, but in my mind Kiprusoff has had to work a lot harder to earn the wins he has so I gave him the nod.
2 – Steve Mason – Columbus Blue Jackets – Sure, he’s still a rookie, but this guy has shown the poise of a veteran keeper this season after taking over the number one duties from the injured Pascal Leclaire. He is a lock for the Calder Trophy, and his impressive statistics, including his league-leading 9 shutouts should earn him plenty of votes for the Vezina as well.
1 – Tim Thomas – Boston Bruins – What a Cinderella story this guy is. It wasn’t that long ago that Tim Thomas’s prospects of ever becoming an NHL goaltender seemed bleak. However, he kept working and battling, and when he finally got his shot with the big club he made the most of it. He has improved his game every season, and despite his unorthodox style he should be considered up there with Brodeur and Luongo as one of the premier puck-stoppers in the game. With a 31-11-7 record, a stingy 2.11 GAA and a sparkling .931 save percentage he has to be considered the odds-on favorite to win the Vezina Trophy this year.
– Okay, on to the granddaddy of NHL awards – the Hart Trophy. I’ve taken the liberty of lumping in the Lester B. Pearson Trophy in with the Hart as they almost always go to the same player for the same reasons. Here are my picks for the favorites to take home both these prestigious awards:
3 – Pavel Datsyuk – Detroit Red Wings – Sorry Wings fans, your boy is again an also-ran. However, expect this guy to get plenty of dark horse votes. Not only is he again a Selke Trophy favorite, but he is also in the top 5 in NHL scoring. He is arguably the best stickhandler in the game, and his slick passing ability rivals that of Joe Thornton and Sidney Crosby. Again, I was hemming and hawing between he and Mike Richards for a spot on this list, but Datsyuk wins this round between the two, earning the number 3 spot.
2 – Evgeni Malkin – Pittsburgh Penguins – Though I have him at number 2, he is actually much closer to the number 1 spot as the Hart Trophy favorite than most hockey media and fans would put him. This hulking Russian star might not have the flash of Ovechkin, but he has led the NHL scoring race all season long, and he has done so while being defensively responsible. He leads the league in takeaways, and his +19 rating is significantly better than both Ovechkin’s and Crosby’s. I predict that this will be the last year he plays second fiddle. He will be dusting a few Hart Trophies in the years to come.
1 – Alexander Ovechkin – Washington Capitals – Yes, I am with the rest of the hockey world on this one. Alex Ovechkin is a dominant offensive force such as the game has rarely seen. Nobody is as much a threat to score on a given shift as this guy, and goalies must go home black and blue from all the pucks this guy fires at them. Ovechkin isn’t just a goalscorer, he is a slick passer as well, and is one of the most punishing hitters in the game. Look for him to capture his 2nd straight Hart Trophy this year.
Wow, a clean sweep for the Russians on my list of Hart Trophy nominees. Apparently our Canadian boys have some work to do. Come on Crosby, Richards, Iginla, get it in gear! It will be interesting to see how quickly John Tavares throws his hat into the ring once he hits the big league.
Well, there you have it, my picks for the favorites to win this season’s NHL awards. It has been an interesting season and the abundant talent in the NHL will make sure there the races for these coveted trophies stay close for many years to come.