Three years ago, the Professional Hockey Writers' Association graciously extended an invitation for me to join its ranks. One privilege of membership is the ability to vote for five post-season awards -- Hart, Norris, Calder, Lady Byng and Selke -- along with the All-Star and All-Rookie teams. General Managers vote for the Vezina, broadcasters for the Adams.
The 48-game schedule made this season's selections more difficult than ever. A full year culls the herd, creating separation between candidates. There seems less consensus than ever.
My process is to create a "master list" of candidates for each award, then eliminate all but the most serious contenders. From that second group comes the winner. The three toughest awards this year (for me, anyway) were the Hart, the Norris and the Calder. There are multiple players with outstanding credentials. Ballots were due before the playoffs began.
So, awaaaaaaay we go:Hart Trophy
The serious contenders:
Sergei Bobrovsky, Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, John Tavares, Jonathan Toews. Also considered:
Ryan Getzlaf, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Andrew Ladd, Martin St. Louis.
Look, if Crosby plays anything close to a full season, there is just one name in the "serious contenders" list. He wins in a landslide. He may still win, but a broken jaw
opened the race to the field.
There is no shortage of outstanding resumes here. Ultimately, it came down to what one coach said about Toews: "When he starts a game poorly, he just wills himself into it."
The Blackhawks lost just seven games in regulation, the only team in single digits. They led the NHL from Day 1 to Day 100. On Feb. 10, they were 10-0-2 despite the fact 10 of those 12 were away from the raucous United Centre. Eight of those 10 road games were outside their own division, which meant two different Pacific trips.
Toews wasn't solely responsible for that, but is the catalyst. In this ugly stepchild of a season, Chicago's consistency and dominance stands out. Toews gets this vote. He plays against opponents' best players every night.
Besides, Wayne Gretzky said on Hockey Night in Canada Radio
that Toews or Ovechkin was an acceptable vote, so argue with him
.Norris TrophyThe serious contenders:
Francois Beauchemin, Drew Doughty, PK Subban, Ryan Suter.Also considered:
Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith, Niklas Kronwall, Kris Letang.
Slightly different situation than the Hart. There are several contenders here, but not four or five dominant choices. Beauchemin is an amazing story. I've used this in 30 Thoughts before, but he knew he'd be switched to the right side for the first time in his life, so he practiced there during the lockout and in whatever charity games he played.
To play at such a high level during a season where there was so little practice time is hugely impressive.
The Doughty selection will be criticized because his offensive numbers were down, but every time I watched the Kings, he played very well. With Willie Mitchell out for the year and Matt Greene for most of it, they asked even more of him. At one point, GM Dean Lombardi met with him and said, "Stop worrying about the offensive numbers. You are playing great."
The biggest argument against Subban seems to be: he's not ready to win this yet. That's craziness. If you're the best, you're the best.
But, this year, the best is Suter. He had to make an adjustment from Nashville's man-to-man defensive coverage to Minnesota's more "zone-style" setup. Once he got used to it, he carried that blue-line. Suter led the NHL in minutes played and time on ice per game, overall and at even-strength. Suter isn't a Subban- or Letang-esque points machine, but he was second among defencemen in assists.
In the last week of the season, with the Wild locked in a near-death spiral, he played 30:46 against Calgary, 32:17 against the Kings, 24:24 against Edmonton (blowout) and 32:54 against Colorado. Good enough for me.
Calder TrophyThe serious contenders:
Jonas Brodin, Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Huberdeau, Brandon Saad, Nail Yakupov.Also considered:
Brenden Dillon, Alexander Galchenyuk, Jake Muzzin, Justin Schultz, Mika Zibanejad.
Sometimes this morphs into arguing who will have the best career. That's probably Yakupov. He is the most talented player in this class and he will score. He's already in the top five per cent of shooters in the NHL. But the criteria specifically says, "Most proficient in his first year of competition."
On a full-season basis, there were some highly proficient forwards. Saad, at age 20, was a perfect fit on one of the NHL's best lines. Gallagher's enthusiasm
played a major role in re-igniting the Northeast Division champions.
Of all the forwards, though, Huberdeau is most deserving. Saad and Gallagher are in the playoffs, while Yakupov's OIlers were right there at the trade deadline before an ugly nosedive. The Panthers did something awful in a previous life. Last year, they looked like Cinderella. This year, it was Kristen Stewart at The Oscars.
Huberdeau led all rookie forwards in minutes played (overall and even-strength). He tied Yakupov for the points lead. There were a lot of questions about him after the World Juniors, but Huberdeau showed up night-after-night for a team that had an awful season. That says a lot.
He was the best rookie forward, but not the best rookie. That honour goes to Brodin. "How many times do you say a 19-year-old NHL defenceman is better defensively than offensively?" said one GM.
The most ridiculous argument against him is, "Well, he played with Suter, so he looks better." If Saad gets credit for being able to stick with Toews and Marian Hossa, Brodin gets credit for being able to stick with Suter.
He played 1:38 more per game than any other rookie. He played 1:30 more than second-place Brenden Dillon at even-strength. No Minnesota defenceman who played a full season had a fewer percentage of offensive-zone starts. A lot of responsibility was placed on his shoulders, and he handled it superbly.
Lady Byng TrophyThe series contenders:
Logan Couture, Pavel Datsyuk, Matt Duchene, Patrick Kane, Andrei Markov, Martin St. Louis.
Kris Letang, Andrei Markov.
Kane got this vote for the same reason Toews got the Hart vote. Best team, beginning to end. Kane played a huge role in that and fits the criteria beautifully.Selke TrophyThe serious contenders:
Patrice Bergeron, Datsyuk, Marian Hossa, Toews.Also considered:
David Backes, Andrew Cogliano, Boyd Gordon, Jay McClement, Derek Stepan.
My personal belief is you should be a very good offensive player in addition to a defensive stalwart. In hockey, possession of the puck is the best defence, and, if you're one of those guys who can't do anything with it, are you really helping your team?
The biggest challenge for me is: can I vote for anyone other than Toews? After all, he's my Hart pick and his defensive play is a major reason for that. Bergeron, who is such a smart player, was on the ice for just 13 five-on-five goals this year. Toews' total was 18. (Courtesy: behindthenet.ca.)
But when you look at the differential, Toews was plus-27. The only players with 40 games and a better spread were Chris Kunitz (plus-31) and Pascal Dupuis (plus-29). That sealed it.
Every year, I try to remind people that just because I didn't vote for your favourite player on your favourite team, it's not negative. It just means someone is a little better. Of course, that never works, so it's time for a new tactic: if you're unhappy with these selections, yes, it is because I hate your player, your team and you too.
1. NHL All-Star Team selections: Toews, Crosby, Tavares at centre; Ovechkin, Kane, St. Louis at right wing; Rick Nash, Henrik Zetterberg and Kunitz at left wing; Suter, Subban, Doughty, Beauchemin, Chara and Keith on defence; Bobrovsky, Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Niemi in goal.
2. All-Rookie Team: Huberdeau, Gallagher and Yakupov up front; Brodin and Dillon on defence; Jake Allen in goal. My Masterton vote is Josh Harding.
3. After his brilliant performance in the 2-1 Game 1 overtime loss
to Chicago, Harding declined to talk about his battle with Multiple Sclerosis. One of the people who helps him through this disease is Abbotsford Heat goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet. Sigalet was diagnosed with MS a decade ago, and like Harding, initially disliked discussing the issue. He kept it secret to all but a close few for the first six months.
4. Harding missed nine weeks this season as he got used to the medication. Sigalet helped him with that, giving him advice on how to manage the doses and how to best take care of yourself as an elite athlete. They text often. He understands how Harding would think the MS "overshadows" your play and allows others to define who you are.
5. The general managers vote for the Vezina and the broadcasters' association for the Adams. Personal picks would be Bobrovsky and Paul MacLean, edging out Bruce Boudreau and Adam Oates.
6. The one thing Roberto Luongo must remember entering Wednesday night's game is that you can always re-write an awful regular-season story in the playoffs. Everything he's been angry about -- not getting traded, his contract, the "Edmonton Embarrassment" -- goes away with a strong performance from now on. If he comes out and stones the Sharks, other teams will look past the contract and see the goaltender. This is a great opportunity
for him. He must look at it that way.
7. The biggest question now is: if Luongo plays great, does Vigneault stay with him? The number one factor is Cory Schneider's health. But, last Saturday, captain Henrik Sedin said, "I don't want to play one shift just to extend my consecutive-game streak." To which Vigneault basically replied, "I don't care. You're playing, because this is not ending on my watch." If he wants to use Schneider, he'll use Schneider.
8. The next biggest Canuck question is Ryan Kesler. One Western Conference coach: "I still don't think Kesler is in top shape... but I'm talking about 'hockey shape.'" The coach is referring to the fact Kesler missed the start of the season, played seven games, then got hurt again and missed another five weeks. "Did he ever get back to 100 per cent condition-wise?" We find out now.
9. Martin Brodeur, asked if we could consider retiring: "Why would I? I've still got the fire."
10. We may see some tinkering with draft lottery odds. On HNIC Radio
, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said one potential idea is determining each team's chances by percentage of points in the overall "pool," instead of standings. The fourteen teams that missed the playoffs combined for 635 points. Florida -- which was 30th -- had 36 of them. Will have to follow-up on exactly how that would work, but it's an intriguing idea.
11. How badly did the Avalanche want the No. 1 pick
? There were already rumours they were going to try and trade up if they didn't get it. All signs point to Seth Jones, especially after a season in which Colorado defencemen combined for one goal every 12 games.
12. What is the importance of taking a "hometown boy" in the draft? Jones discovered hockey in Toronto, where his father played with the NBA expansion Raptors (Popeye Jones is an awesome guy), but learned to play in Denver. Two NHL GMs gave similar answers: "You take the best player, no matter where he is from," one said. "That only becomes a factor when you're looking at two equal players. Then, his hometown might become a reason to take him."
13. There is a lot of curiosity about the Colorado front office. As in: "What is going to happen there?" Greg Sherman remains the GM, but the overall situation probably comes down to Joe Sakic's decision. If Sakic does decide to oversee the operation, it is believed that Craig Billington, currently the team's Vice-President of Player Development, will have a larger role.
14. If Sakic declines the offer (family reasons), what route do the Avalanche go? Is it still Sherman? Does Billington get the job anyway? Tough to say, because the organization is tough to read. If Colorado decides to look at external candidates, there could be a lot of interest. You're adding a number one pick to Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O'Reilly (depending on what the team decides to do after his trade embargo is lifted).
15. When the Rangers were talking to Colorado about O'Reilly, Sherman asked for Derek Stepan. New York said no. Now we all know why. Stepan took a major leap this year.
16. Whenever the Avalanche coaching job comes up, you have to check with Patrick Roy. There were significant talks in 2009, but the two sides couldn't make a deal. Nicole Bouchard, who really runs the QMJHL Quebec Remparts, said by email: "Just talked to (Patrick) and he told me as of now nobody contacted him." That was Monday afternoon.
17. Will Lake Erie coach Dean Chynoweth be in the mix? Chynoweth worked hard with Tyson Barrie, a critical prospect for Colorado. He benched Barrie for one AHL game, because the blueliner was basically playing as "a rover," rather than attending to his defensive responsibilities. Barrie improved afterwards.
18. I'm biased when it comes to Joe Nieuwendyk, who, 20 years ago, was incredibly gracious to a nervous rookie reporter at Maple Leaf Gardens. This is a tough business, and when you don't make the playoffs, you're in trouble
. But, there is a good chance that in a year or two, we will look at his tenure differently. The Stars have some real young talent. A shrewd evaluator like Jim Nill
does not take this job without seeing that.
19. Haven't spoken to Nieuwendyk, but people who know him say he knew it was over when he had to trade Jaromir Jagr at the deadline. He thought the organizational direction would be to re-sign the future Hall-of-Famer.
20. Huge bounce-back night for Corey Crawford. "If he gives up a bad one early, maybe they start to wonder about him," one Western Conference coach said. Crawford did, to Cal Clutterbuck. But he responded very well, including a brilliant save off Zach Parise in overtime.
21. Asked one Eastern Conference coach how the Islanders could beat Pittsburgh. His reply: "The Penguins are the most physical team in the Eastern Conference, hard to play against, with good speed. It's incredible how hard everyone plays. If you are not willing to stand up...it is tough on you. Pittsburgh really imposes their will on you in the first five-to-seven minutes in their own building. The Islanders do have good puck-moving defencemen. If those 'D' can get the puck before the forecheck, that's how they can play with them."
22. The biggest question for Montreal will be how the Canadiens make this series
hard on Erik Karlsson. The Rangers were built to do it. They like to get the puck down low, behind your net and battle to create offence from the there. Montreal is one of the NHL's fastest teams. They get the puck and they go. Karlsson likes that game, too. Will it matter if they don't punish him physically?
23. One of the places the Kings really targeted in beating St. Louis last season was left defence. The Blues' right side was excellent with and Roman Polak. Los Angeles worked really hard on the other side and were successful. Both teams chased Jay Bouwmeester, with LA backing off because they were scared of the defenceman's cap number for next season. The Blues got him (and Jordan Leopold). Will those moves change last year's result?
24. Blues GM Doug Armstrong felt Pietrangelo relaxed after the two moves were made. "Our young players were doing their jobs plus five-to-seven per cent of someone else's. They don't have the experience to carry other players. Now they can worry about their own." (As usual, anyone quoted is not used as an anonymous source.)
25. One executive on Detroit's extension of Jimmy Howard: "Great timing to do it right before the playoffs. Sends a message: 'We can win with him. He's our guy.'"
26. Such a huge goal
from Teemu Selanne in Game 1 of the Anaheim/Detroit series. Selanne looked exhausted at the end of the regular season, taking a game off and going through one stretch where he played 14 minutes just once. He skated 13:34 Tuesday night, but made it count. The Ducks need that.
27. Of all the contract decisions Boston must make, the first one will probably be Patrice Bergeron. Since he has one year left on his contract, nothing can be signed until July 5. But it sounds like the Bruins are working on getting it ready. Good call, he's their best forward.
28. Don't know if the Toronto Raptors are going to get Phil Jackson. What I do know is Tim Leiweke
is going to bring that thinking across Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. He demands you think big. If you tell him you can't do something, he will ask, "Why not?" His belief is nothing is unattainable. He will bring that attitude to the hockey team.
29. This is my guess with Phoenix: Sometime in the next week or so, the NHL is going to work out a "conditional deal" with one of the potential owners. The likely choice is George Gosbee, although Matt Hulsizer and Darin Pastor remain in the picture. But, it's all going to come down to the city of Glendale. The deal Greg Jamison couldn't close isn't available (20 years, $324 million), but is there something else available? That will determine the team's future.
30. If Gosbee does get the team and closes a deal to stay, the belief is Don Maloney and Dave Tippett will stay, too. If it's a different owner, or the team moves, or this takes too long, it's less certain.
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