Eric Duhatschek devotes his weekly notebook to the NHL's annual awards voting, which starts as soon as the regular season wraps up Sunday.
Controversy usually accompanies NHL awards balloting, especially in the years when there are no clear-cut favorites for the major hardware up for grabs. This year, the controversy started before the vote, and it involves the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, which casts ballots for five of the seven primary awards (Hart, Norris, Calder, Lady Byng and Selke). NHL broadcasters choose the Jack Adams (coaching) and general managers pick the Vezina (top goalie).
Last weekend, as ballots were distributed to 177 PHWA members (including TSN's Bob McKenzie and CBC's Elliiotte Friedman, who were newly admitted because of their online writing credentials), the New York Rangers' chapter determined they would boycott the voting as a show of support for Chris Botta, who'd been banned from covering New York Islanders' games earlier this year. Botta is a former senior member of the Islanders' public-relations staff and was blogging for AOL Fanhouse at the time the Islanders revoked his credentials. No amount of hard lobbying, coaxing and even a face-to-face meeting between commissioner Gary Bettman and PHWA president Kevin Allen could convince the NHL to step in and make the Islanders to overturn their decision.
In the end, the Islanders' and New Jersey Devils' chapters joined the boycott, as did the Columbus Blue Jackets' chapter in the Western Conference.
Some individual members of the association were also planning to withhold their votes in protest. In the end, it was expected that upwards of 120 ballots would be cast in total, which is still far greater voting body than decided these awards in the 1980s, when three members apiece of then 21 PHWA chapters voted.
How the boycott will affect the final outcome is anybody's guess at this stage. The possibility of a Western Conference bias has been raised, but it will be a difficult thing to prove no matter how it plays out, simply because the West was the far superior conference this season anyway. In the second-half absence of the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby, who was on his way to a runaway Hart Trophy title until a concussion sidelined him for the second half, the favourites for a lot of these awards are playing in the Pacific time zone.
What an irony there - because usually the perception of bias goes the other way. The argument is, it is far more difficult for Lubomir Visnovsky to press his Norris Trophy case than for Zdena Chara because who stays up to watch the Anaheim Ducks play into the wee hours of the morning anyway?
This will be the third year of the NHL's three-year commitment to hold the awards in Las Vegas. In other years, it has been fairly easy to predict the majority of winners. This year, the suspense should be greater than ever.
And so, with that lengthy disclaimer out of the way, the envelopes please:
Hart (MVP): Daniel Sedin (Vancouver Canucks) Runners-up: Corey Perry (Anaheim Ducks), Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators)
Perry's candidacy is reminiscent of the 2006 Hart race when Joe Thornton came from far off the pace in the final weeks, caught Jaromir Jagr atop the NHL scoring charts and ultimately prevailed in the MVP balloting because of his 11th-hour surge. It's the same scenario right now with Perry, who became the only NHLer to reach the 50-goal plateau in Wednesday's victory over the Sharks and has been on fire down the stretch, with 46 points since the All-Star break, a surge that helped push the Ducks squarely into the playoff picture. Perry's situation is also similar to what went on with Henrik Sedin last year, when he won the Hart. Sedin starred for the Canucks when brother Daniel missed 19 games with an injury, proving that he was not umbilically attached to his brother, but a great player in his own right. It was Perry's strong play during Ryan Getzlaf's 13-game absence with a mushed face that kept the Ducks alive in January, when it looked as if they could plunge out of contention. The wording of this award is always pivotal: It goes to the player "adjudged to be most valuable to his team." Philosophically, that could hurt Sedin, playing for a team as deep as Vancouver. Having said that, Daniel Sedin has also been the model of consistency, from the start of the season to the finish, which is also built into the Hart trophy philosophy; and he is a primary reason why they are the runaway President's Trophy winners. Perry's stock is soaring up the charts with a bullet; this could be one of the closest races since Jarome Iginla and Jose Theodore finished in a deadlock for the award back in 2002 and Theodore won on the tie-breaker.
Norris (top defenceman): Shea Weber (Nashville Predators) Runners-up: Nicklas Lidstrom (Detroit Red Wings), Zdeno Chara (Boston Bruins)
Another wide-open race, where players such as Visnovsky, the leading point producer among rearguards and the Phoenix Coyotes' breakout defenceman (and leading scorer) Keith Yandle also factor in the conversation. The Red Wings have been dropping Lidstrom's ice time gradually over the years as a nod to his birth certificate (he'll turn 41 in three weeks time) and they've been rewarded with another effective season from the six-time Norris winner (Bobby Orr is the all-time leader with eight, followed by Doug Harvey with seven). Lidstrom has had an exceptional year on a team that has been uncharacteristically leaky defensively this year. The same cannot be said for Central Division rivals the Nashville Predators who rely on far less talent to be a playoff contender, but boast one of the most feared players in the league in Weber (remember the candid conversation between Carey Price and Tim Thomas at the all-star selection process, where they rave about his shot?). Weber inspires that sort of admiration among his peers - he is strong physically, passes well for a big man and keeps the crease clear for the Preds' goalies. In short, he most accurately meets the trophy's official definition, possessing the "greatest all-around ability in the position."
Calder (top rookie): Jeff Skinner (Carolina Hurricanes) Runners-up: Logan Couture (San Jose Sharks), P.K. Subban (Montreal Canadiens)
Another fine crop of NHL rookies this season. Long-term, the Edmonton Oilers' Taylor Hall may be the best player to enter the NHL in 2010-11, but his season was cut short by injury. Skinner, meanwhile, made the Hurricanes out of training camp as an 18-year-old and responded by becoming the seventh-youngest player in history to score 30 goals. He is a dynamic finisher, reminiscent a little of the early Mike Bossy, great skating ability, good instincts, confident in his ability with the puck. Couture helped change the culture in San Jose, and by proving he could play in the No. 2 slot, permitted coach Todd McLellan to tinker with his lines, moving Dany Heatley off the Thornton unit, and shifting versatile Joe Pavelski down the charts to centre the third line to replace Manny Malhotra, who they lost in the off-season as a free agent to Vancouver. Couture went from airline commuter last year (shuffling back and forth constantly between the minors) to integral part of the team's top-six forward group; and will finish second in team goal-scoring behind only Patrick Marleau. Impressive.
Selke (top defensive forward): Ryan Kesler, (Vancouver Canucks) Runners-up: Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings), Patrice Bergeron (Boston Bruins)
Kesler has been a Selke candidate for awhile and he was runner-up to the three-time winner, Datsyuk last year. When healthy, Datysuk is to this era what Bob Gainey was to a previous one, the perennial default winner because of his accomplished, all-around game, and his uncanny ability to take away pucks. But Datsyuk has been in and out of the Red Wings' line-up this year, and while that doesn't disqualify him because he will play upwards of 55 games, it means that Kesler is finally in line to be rewarded for the way his game has evolved over the years. It isn't just the goal-scoring, which shouldn't be a factor in this award. It is his face-off work, his penalty killing and the fact that no matter who coach Alain Vigneault runs out there, on the wings, with Kesler, they became the de facto No. 2 line for the Canucks and usually draw a potent opposition scoring line. Simply put, it is Kesler's turn.
Lady Byng (sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct/combined with high standard of playing ability): Nicklas Lidstrom, (Detroit Red Wings) Runners-up: Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks), Martin St. Louis (Tampa Bay Lightning)
In his years as editor and chief of the Hockey News, TSN executive Steve Dryden lobbied tirelessly on behalf of Lidstrom, as a candidate for the Byng, noting that the award rarely goes to a defenceman (Red Kelly won three of them on behalf of the Red Wings in the 1950s, and that's been pretty much it). The award doesn't specifically disqualify rearguards and more and more, in this age of puck-moving defencemen, it is appropriate that they get some consideration. Re-read the criteria for the award and explain how it doesn't fit the description of the way Lidstrom has played throughout his career. He should have won multiple Byng trophies by now; this may be the last chance for voters to right a long-standing wrong.
Jack Adams (coach of the year): Barry Trotz (Nashville Predators) Runners-up: Dan Bylsma (Pittsburgh Penguins), Alain Vigneault, (Vancouver Canucks)
You could also make convincing cases on behalf of Todd McLellan in San Jose, Dave Tippett in Phoenix, Bruce Boudreau in Washington, and even Jacques Lemaire in New Jersey, if there was such a thing as a half-season award. But Trotz has done a remarkable job again this year. There is a temptation to string all the Nashville success stories together, but when you consider that they lost Pekka Rinne for a handful of games in the opener, Matt Lombardi in the second game to what turned out to be a season-ending concussion and had such a revolving cast of centre-ice men that at one point, they had a player named Chris Mueller on an American Hockey League contract and had to sign him to an NHL deal because they'd run out of options down the middle, well, to get this overachieving group into the post-season again represents remarkable work by Trotz and his staff. The way Bylsma and Vigneault navigated their teams to success despite crippling injuries also merits strong consideration.
Vezina (top goalie): Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators) Runners-up: Tim Thomas (Boston Bruins), Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens)
On a purely statistical basis Thomas has led the race from wire to wire, emerging from an off-season last year, in which he lost the starting job to Tuuka Rask, to a fabulous bounce-back season on behalf of the Bruins, Thomas has been exceptional again. Rinne's numbers are in the same ballpark, however, so ultimately, GMs will have to decide if Boston's superior roster will be a factor in their decision-making.
In a round-about way, the 2011 voting year reminds me a lot of 1997, a season when a fairly non-descript Buffalo Sabres' team dominated the proceedings. That year, the Sabres took home the Vezina (Dominik Hasek), the Selke (Mike Peca) and the Jack Adams (Ted Nolan) for greatly exceeding expectations (they won the Adams with 92 points, ahead of the Mario Lemieux-led Penguins, who had 84).
Rinne, Trotz and Weber should all be finalists in their respective categories for the little team that could. Whether they win or not, well, a side trip to Vegas in June is always a nice way to round out the season.