Thank the hockey gods for giving us an interesting playoff race in the East.
What was once a moribund race has turned topsy-turvy, and only half the playoff spots have been claimed. There are five teams battling for the other four spots, and it’s possible that Boston or Pittsburgh could be the teams left out.
The West is no slouch in the drama department, either. Winnipeg, Calgary, and last year’s champions are all battling for the final two spots, and it’s the Kings who are at the disadvantage. It’s a cliche to say that nobody could’ve predicted this, but… nobody predicted this.
Rather than focus on the brackets, which are still completely in flux with only two games left, how about we recklessly opine about the annual awards?
I’m starting off with the big’un. Who is the league’s MVP?
I have no idea. It could be Alex Ovechkin, who is still the most dangerous goal-scorer in the league. In a year where the goaltender was king, Ovie was an anomaly who still reached the half-century mark in goals.
If this is the year of the goalie, why not Carey Price? The Canadiens might win their division, and it’ll be completely on the back of Price’s goaltending. Then there are those asking about Devan Dubnyk — he was only a starter for half a season, but that half a season was the most important 40 games any player has provided to any NHL team (arguably). (Editor’s Note: Ain’t no arguably to it. Without Dubnyk, the Wild are dead in the water. WILD for the WILD. – Travis)
Maybe the voters will look to the toughest division in the NHL, the no-tanking-here Central. Patrick Kane had the inside track on the Hart Trophy until he broke his clavicle. But his candidacy dried up like Chicago’s offense after his injury. Jonathan Toews could still win the award — his late-game goals have saved Chicago’s bacon almost as much as Crawford’s glove. Or maybe we should be looking at the St. Louis Blues’ sniper, Vladimir Tarasenko. The young player added a terrifying element to the Blues’ game — St. Louis always played heavy and made scoring difficult, but they didn’t have the offense to make the Stanley Cup finals. Tarasenko has given them that offensive edge.
In the long-shot category is Jiri Hudler, who I would be tempted to put at the top of my ballot. Playing alongside two inexperienced wingers, on a team that bleeds possession, Hudler was a top-ten scorer who may be the main reason the Calgary Flames are two games away from an unexpected playoff berth. Even when Mark Giordano was lost for the season, Hudler kept the team in the hunt. But with this field, I don’t know that he’ll even be a finalist. I honestly have no idea how I’d vote until the dust settled after April 11th.
I’m always amused by this award, which is given to the hockey player who demonstrates both skill and sportsmanship (and “gentlemanly conduct”). It’s usually awarded to whomever scores a lot of points without racking up penalty minutes. Because Jiri Hudler isn’t going to be a Hart finalist, he really ought to be the top candidate for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. Eighth in the league in scoring, only 14 PIM, and he’s been the spark plug for the Calgary Flames — even after Mark Giordano went down.
Carey Price. He’s been standing on his head since the season started, and is the primary reason the Canadiens might end up at the top of the Atlantic division. His save percentage is inhuman, both overall and at 5v5 even strength. He’s done so much for Montreal this season that he’ll probably be a finalist for the Hart Trophy.
But what about Devan Dubnyk? Despite not being a starter until halfway through the season, Dubnyk has been the savior for the Minnesota Wild, raising them from a team that should be in the playoff hunt to one of the most dangerous teams this postseason. Dubnyk has only played seven fewer games than Price (57 vs 64), and his numbers are almost exactly in line with Price’s.
When we look at performance from January 14th, when Dubnyk was traded to Minnesota, the Wild goalie has kept up his amazing numbers while playing all 38 games on Minnesota’s schedule (compared to Price’s 30). There’s only one goaltender who has better stats than Dubnyk in all situations and 5v5 play during this timeframe, and that’s… Carey Price. Huh. Yeah, I think Price gets this one hands-down.
Not surprisingly, the Canadiens are in the lead for this team award (see “Price, Carey” above), as they’ve given up the fewest goals. BUT WAIT. The Chicago Blackhawks have only given up one goal more than Montreal, and can overtake them! Granted, Chicago has a tougher pair of games to end the season, but it’s within reach.
The race for NHL’s rookie of the year seems to come down to three names: Gaudreau and Forsberg on the wings, and Ekblad on the blue line. Since the wingers are each playing a significant role in their teams getting into the playoffs, I think that makes Florida’s Aaron Ekblad a distant third-place. But who wins the trophy: the kid nicknamed “Johnny Hockey” or the Swedish sensation that the Preds stole from the Capitals for a song?
Filip Forsberg made his case early and often, skating on the top line of a Predators team that suddenly had offense. Johnny Gaudreau had an okay start to the season, but has really taken off during the Flames’ unexpected push to the playoffs. This late push has put him possibly ahead of Forsberg, who struggled with consistency when the Preds were in a mid-season skid.
Forsberg is his team’s top scorer, has more points in during 5v5 play while relying less on luck, and has much better possession numbers. But the difference in total scoring between the two is negligible, and Gaudreau gets the tougher zone starts. Plus, his possession numbers are among the best on his team (Calgary is awful in that area). Gaudreau is also playing alongside Jiri Hudler, who really ought to be getting a few Hart Trophy votes, so it’s not surprising he doesn’t lead his team in scoring.
Assuming that the Flames make the playoffs, I think that Gaudreau will edge Forsberg for the Calder. Were I voting, though, I would currently have my ballot with Forsberg at #1, and Gaudreau at #2.
The Art Ross Trophy is given to the player who scored the most points during the regular season, so opinions won’t mean much here. What is fascinating is that there’s a five-way race for the Art Ross this year. John Tavares and Sidney Crosby (and now Jamie Benn!) lead the pack with 83 points apiece, followed by Jakub Voracek at 81, and by Alex Ovechkin at 80 points.
Crosby has the edge here: the Penguins play Tavares and the Islanders, followed by the porous Buffalo Sabres. Benn only has one game left, against the stonewall of Pekka Rinne. In addition, if there’s a tie for most points in the season, the first tie-breaker is fewest games played. Thanks to missing a few games due to the mumps, Crosby has played at least four fewer games than all other contenders. When I say this season has been nutty, think about that: mumps may be the tiebreaker for a scoring trophy.
Whereas the points race is tight, the goal-scoring race has been long over. Alex Ovechkin has 52 goals. Nobody is even close to him — the next two goal-scorers are 10 goals behind him. The distance between him and the rest of the league is also why Ovie will probably be a Hart finalist again.
If only. That’s the name for the Norris Trophy this year. Mark Giordano was having the kind of year that would make it difficult to vote against him. Before he succumbed to a season-ending injury, Giordano was on a scoring pace that would have him near the top of all defensemen. He averaged over 25:00 a night, he started most of his shifts in the defensive zone, and his possession numbers were pretty good for a guy on one of the worst possession teams in the league. If only he didn’t get injured.
That might be the chorus repeated for Kris Letang. He was a scoring pace slightly better than Girodano’s, and helping keep an injured and floundering Penguins team afloat. But after a concussion in March, Letang will end the season only playing 69 games, and I don’t think that his totals will warrant voters to overlook his shortened season. If only…
If the voters are entranced by scoring (and why wouldn’t they), then Eric Karlsson will be a Norris finalist. His late-season surge but him out of the reach of the other offensive defensemen, and he’s helped his team win in front of a minor league goaltender. If the Senators make the playoffs, I think Karlsson garners even more votes. Andrew Hammond may get the publicity for Ottawa’s impossible run for the final wild card, but Karlsson (and Kyle Turris) should get a lot of the credit.
(Karlsson’s surge may also take votes away from P.K. Subban, who’s top-three in blue-line scoring, but plays in front of a goalie who has often carried the team on his back. Same with Duncan Keith, who has not looked at his best this year, and has owed Corey Crawford more than a few “saved your ass” beers this season.)
The veteran all-stars will garner votes, and nobody would be surprised to see Weber, Suter, or Doughty high in the voting. If I had my druthers, Roman Josi would be a finalist. He’s fifth in defensemen scoring, he’s got solid possession numbers, averages almost 27:00 a night, and takes more defensive zone starts than even Shea Weber. I don’t know that Josi gets enough attention to win the Norris, but I’d probably have him on top of my ballot.
I’ve seen this award described as “who (surprisingly) did the most with the least?” There are a fair amount of candidates who fit that criteria:
- Bob Hartley – might get the Flames into the playoffs despite having little depth and abysmal possession numbers. He’s this year’s Patrick Roy, so he has the inside track.
- Mike Yeo / Dave Cameron – coaches whose teams were saved by an improbable goalie. Yeo was filmed giving an awkward tantrum when Minnesota was at its lowest. Cameron took over for a beloved walrus, and lucked into Andrew Hammond saving Ottawa’s season.
- Barry Trotz / Peter Laviolette – coaches who got a second chance with new teams after 2013-14 went awry for their old teams. Ovechkin is back to winning the Rocket Richard, when everyone wondered aloud if the defense-minded Trotz would be a bad fit. Laviolette has the defense-focused Predators playing like their namesake, finally making Nashville an offensive threat.
But I’m not going with any of those. Alain Vigneault has the New York Rangers playing like a team, instead of the disjointed collection of players that it’s been of late. The Rangers were a surprise champion out of the Eastern Conference last year, and it looked early this season like it may have been a fluke. Under Vigneault’s guidance, the Rangers proved last season was merely a dress rehearsal for this one, winning the President’s Trophy and becoming the odds-on favorite to represent the East in the Stanley Cup again.
Marian Hossa. I will brook no other candidate. Reclaim the Selke from the writers who have turned this into an award for centers only. Reclaim the Selke!