Prominent goaltenders on the slippery slope include the rhyming pair of Jonas Hiller (Anaheim) and Ryan Miller (Buffalo), two teams of great promise underachieving greatly. No one can explain why Hiller, an all-star last year, has been so bad for so long, unless it is the vertigo that kept him out of the Ducks’ lineup for the last part of last season. The Ducks’ struggles mean that their roster will be scouted fiercely in the second half, as the trade market heats up. Could Getzlaf find a new home? Ales Hemsky? Alexander Semin? Jonathan Bernier? Jarome Iginla? And lesser names - Tim Gleason, Bryan Allen, pick any pending unrestricted free agent on a non-playoff team - could all be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
On the ownership front, Matt Hulsizer did not land the Phoenix Coyotes last spring and now apparently, Hulsizer is not going to get the St. Louis Blues either. There is a new sheriff in the NHL’s front office, Brendan Shanahan, and he is providing great transparency to the NHL discipline system, but making nobody happy either. Colin Campbell looks 10 years younger, Shanahan 10 years older. It really is a thankless job.
And just one final note of caution as we hand out the first-half hardware: A year ago, Crosby was the runaway Hart Trophy choice, and at the 41-game mark, was day-to-day with a concussion. He didn’t play another game. So lots can change in the second half. With that disclaimer, however, here is our first-half choices for the major NHL awards:
Hart (MVP): Jonathan Toews, Chicago. Runners-up: Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers, Claude Giroux, Philadelphia. Toews, aka Captain Serious, is challenging for the NHL scoring lead and has the Blackhawks back on track, after winning the Cup in 2010 and then faltering for much of the regular season last year. Giroux, given the opportunity to play as the No. 1 centre following the trades of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, has flourished. Lundqvist has the Rangers in the running for top spot in the Eastern Conference, on a team that features a no-name defence and not much up front beyond Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik.
Norris (top defenceman): Zdeno Chara, Boston. Runners-up: Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit, Erik Karlsson, Ottawa. If it were just about scoring, Karlsson would be the runaway winner, but he needs to improve his defensive play to be considered a legitimate contender. Chara continues to suffocate opponents’ top forwards defensively and Lidstrom remains uncommonly effective at the age of 41.
Vezina (top goalie): Lundqvist, Rangers. Runners-up: Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles, Jimmy Howard, Detroit. The two top defensive teams, Boston and St. Louis, have both adopted a goalie rotation of late, which will make it harder for Tim Thomas/Tuukka Rask and/or Brian Elliott/Jaro Halak to get consideration for the award. Lundqvist has been phenomenal, as noted above. Quick, meanwhile, has taken on the Miikka Kiprusoff role for Darryl Sutter in L.A. and kept the offensively challenged Kings in the playoff mix; while all Howard does for Detroit is win.
Jack Adams (coach of the year): Kevin Dineen, Florida. Runners-up: Paul MacLean, Ottawa; Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis. Dineen inherited a completely revamped Florida squad which was millions under the cap until Tallon started shopping in July and quickly molded it into a real team; he has the Panthers in the playoff race for the first time in forever. Ottawa is early in its rebuilding program, but MacLean has gotten the most out of Craig Anderson, Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Karlsson, making the Sens an unlikely playoff contender. Hitchcock took over from Davis Payne in St. Louis and executed a neat-about face in St. Louis, a team that promptly went from the ranks of the also-rans to a spot in the playoff mix. Among the new coaches working in the NHL since early October, only Hitchcock and Sutter in L.A. have had the desired effect - of getting a stalled team started again. And weirdly, neither of them is bilingual either.
Calder (rookie of the year): Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton. Runners-up: Adam Henrique, New Jersey; Craig Smith, Nashville. Nugent-Hopkins was running away with the award until a shoulder injury knocked him out of the lineup until probably February. That’ll give Henrique, who has made the most of his opportunity to play a top-six role with the Devils, a chance to catch him. Nashville is always looking for more scoring and Smith appears to be the answer to David Poile’s prayers.
AND FINALLY: The Ducks will have a decision to make on Devante Smith-Pelly, who will miss four-to-six weeks because of a broken ankle, suffered while blocking a shot in the world junior tournament. Smith-Pelly said, in a pre-tournament interview, that he was going back to Anaheim. But with the season lost, Anaheim may decide to send him back to junior and save a year on his contract. While Smith-Pelly was away in Calgary, the Ducks landed Rod Pelley, a defensive centre from New Jersey. Now if they can only coax Craig Smith out of Nashville, or Zach Smith out of Ottawa, they will be able to ice one of the great tongue-twisting lines of all time - Smith, Pelley and Smith-Pelley. I’m sure Brian Hayward is in GM Bob Murray’s ear every day, trying to make it happen.