Every year, it seems, the NHL awards race gets closer and more interesting and 2009-10 will prove to be no exception, with no-sure-thing battles for all of the league's major hardware in every category - from the Hart for MVP to the underappreciated Lady Byng for sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct.
Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association vote for five of the major awards; the broadcasters get to pick the Jack Adams for coach of the year and NHL general managers cast their ballots for the Vezina, awarded to the NHL's top goalies.
Once upon a time, the league distributed the coolest-looking paper ballots and there was something magical about filling them in and then signing them to make them official. Now, it's all done by e-mail. Ballots generally drop into your in-box this weekend and need to be completed between the close of play Sunday and the beginning of the playoffs next Wednesday.
So without any further adieu, the envelopes please:
Hart ("to the player adjudged to be most valuable to his team"): Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks. Runners-up: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins; Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals.
As always, the wording of the Hart trophy is critical. It doesn't necessarily go to the best player - that would be Ovechkin again, hands down - but to the player that a team cannot live without and prosper at the same level they usually do. Sadly for Ovechkin, the two-time winner of this award, Washington's development into a genuine powerhouse will undermine his candidacy. Because of injuries and suspensions, he missed a total of 10 games this season, but the club hardly registered his absence at all, managing a 7-2-1 record, which essentially matches their winning percentage with him in the line-up. Ovechkin is the best player on the best team and thus will garner lots of support on that basis alone. The Penguins relied far more heavily on Crosby this season, given how Evgeni Malkin struggled at different times with his form; as did Sergei Gonchar, their best blue liner and Marc-Andre Fleury, their goaltender. Crosby was a reliable fixture on a team where the rest of the talent had substandard years and the supporting cast was just that a supporting cast. Even as good as Crosby was, it is hard to imagine him being as valuable to Pittsburgh as Sedin was in Vancouver. Sedin kept the Canucks afloat during all the adversity that team faced - from the absence of his twin brother Daniel during a 16-game injury to the record pre- and post-Olympic road trip. Up until this season, Sedin was known as a durable and reliable performer, who'd grudgingly and gradually earned his stripes as a top-tier player. Nothing that he'd done in his past, however, suggested he could challenge the big boys - that is, until he did.
Norris ("to the defence player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position"): Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks. Runners-up: Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings; Mike Green, Washington Capitals.
A major changing of the guard here at a position dominated by the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Zdeno Chara for most of the last decade. All of the aforementioned three youngsters have had exceptional seasons; and there isn't much to choose from among them. For the second consecutive season, Green will lead all NHL defencemen in scoring after posting back-to-back 70-point seasons. He leads all defencemen in all the major statistical categories - goals, assists, points, power-play points and is second to his defence partner Jeff Schultz in the plus-minus rating - and at plus-35, has quieted most of the critics who say he cannot play in his own end. Doughty followed up an exceptional rookie season with even a stronger sophomore campaign and with apologies to Anze Kopitar or Jonathan Quick, is the primary reason why the Kings are in the playoffs for the first time in seven years. A dynamic two-way presence on the ice, Doughty's skill said is comparable to that of Ray Bourque's - and if his development continues on this curve, he could be the dominant defenceman of his generation. However, Keith added the one necessary dimension - an offensive bent - to what had been for a couple of years now a complete skill set. He plays the most minutes of any defenceman in the top-10 in scoring (26:38 per night) and is the primary reason the Blackhawks, despite their on-going issues in goal, remain one of the top defensive teams in the league. The Olympics were his coming out party, but his reliability over an 82-game period will ultimately get him the Norris.
Calder Memorial Trophy ("to the player selected as the most proficient in his first season in the NHL"): Tyler Myers, Buffalo Sabres. Runners-up: Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche; Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings.
An apples-to-oranges-to-peaches competition between a defenceman, a forward and a goaltender of varying ages and experiences. Howard helped to save the Red Wings' season, given that they chose not to re-sign Ty Conklin because they thought Chris Osgood would have a bounce-back season. When Osgood faltered again and stuck right up against the salary cap in a year when injuries decimated their team early, the Red Wings had little choice than to turn to Howard, who barely meets the age criteria for the award (since the 1990-91 season, a player is disqualified from Calder contention if he has celebrated his 26th birthday by Sept. 15 of the year in which he is eligible. Howard played three college seasons for the University of Maine and then four in the minors for AHL Grand Rapids. He is 26 now, having celebrated his birthday in March and is old enough to be - well not Duchene's father exactly, but his older brother for sure (the Colorado rookie was born almost seven years later, in January, 1991). Howard had exactly one NHL victory in nine appearances up until this season; this year, he has 35 wins, and is among the statistical leaders in GAA (2.31) and save percentage (.923). Duchene, meanwhile, overcame a slow first month in which his Colorado teammate Ryan O'Reilly received much of the attention to overtake No. 1 draft choice John Tavares for the overall rookie scoring lead. In a year when the Avalanche needed to replace the immortal Joe Sakic, Duchene gave every indication that he will be their leading man for years to come. For all that, what Myers has accomplished as a defenceman for the Sabres trumps them both. He is playing six minutes more, on average, than virtually every other top rookie candidate and looks as if he has the size (6-7, 204) and skill set to be this generation's Pronger. An exceptional breakthrough season for a player didn't celebrate his 20th birthday until February at a position - defence - that usually takes years to master.
Jack Adams award ("to the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success): Dave Tippett, Phoenix Coyotes. Runners-up: Joe Sacco, Colorado Avalanche; Barry Trotz, Nashville Predators.
There are lots of possibilities for honorable mentions too, including Bruce Boudreau in Washington, who did an exceptional job of keeping all the Capitals' different pieces functioning through injury, illness and potential goalie controversies. Trotz remains the greatly underappreciated one-and-only coach in Predators' history, who keeps a team competitive despite limited talent and budget. Sacco performed a near miracle in Colorado, taking a team that pulled up the rear in the Western Conference last season and then lost its best player, Sakic to retirement and dumped its co-leading scorer, Ryan Smyth, for salary-cap reasons. There was no good reason to think Colorado would be anything but in the early stages of a painful rebuilding process. Instead, and thanks greatly to the work of goaltender Craig Anderson, the team got off to a fast start and then maintained a high level of play throughout the year. Colorado is already 25 points better than last season, with two games remaining, an exceptional year-over-year improvement with not a lot of appreciable, identifiable front-line NHL talent. For all that, Tippett's work with Phoenix - joining the team midway through camp and then navigating through all the off-ice issues relating to their ownership problems - represents one of the finest start-to-finish coaching jobs in league history. Phoenix won its 50th game of the season Thursday night; will establish a franchise record for points; and will host a home-playoff series in the far superior Western Conference - all this with a team made up largely of castoffs, players unwanted by other more well-heeled NHL teams. In the 30th anniversary year of the U.S. Olympic win in Lake Placid, you could legitimately channel Al Michaels by asking of the improvements made in the Arizona desert: Do you believe in miracles?
Vezina trophy ("to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at his position): Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres. Runners-up: Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix Coyotes; Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary Flames.
Lost in the aftermath of Calgary's disappointing season was how well Kiprusoff played this year, after just a so-so campaign the year before. Jarome Iginla said it: Kiprusoff might have been better this year than the time he established a modern-day record by putting up a 1.69 GAA. But the goalie race will come down to Miller and Bryzgalov, both of whom backstopped offensively challenged teams to unexpected playoff berths with consistent, night-after-night brilliance between the pipes. Bryzgalov will finish with more wins, Miller will be a touch better in the goals-against and save percentage departments. Ultimately, the GMs will need to decide which of two exceptional, almost mirror-image performances was superior. Good luck to them.
Frank J. Selke Trophy ("to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game"): Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks. Runners-up: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins; Vernon Fiddler, Phoenix Coyotes.
Always a wide array of choices here because so many factors enter into consideration, but Kesler has stepped up his game to another level this season and gave the Canucks arguably the best one-two punch down the middle of any team this season. Bergeron's strong two-way play earned him a spot on Canada's men's Olympic hockey team; and his presence became even more critical in Boston, once Marc Savard was lost to a season-ending concussion. Fiddler is part of that unsung collection of Coyotes' forwards that provided leadership, shot-blocking, and an all-around defensive presence on a team that needed to win a lot of close games to be competitive.
Lady Byng Memorial Trophy ("to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability"): Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning. Runners-up: Brad Richards, Dallas Stars; Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa Senators.
Interestingly, the aforementioned three have combined to finish as runners-up for this award for the past five seasons, St. Louis three times (the last three years) and Richards and Alfredsson before that. Richards also won the award back in 2004, before Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk rattled off four consecutive Byng trophies in each year since the lockout ended. That St. Louis has never won this award is something of a surprise, but he should be a mortal lock, given that he is currently fifth in the NHL in scoring, with 91 points, plays with fire and energy, but has been limited to six minor penalties all season. His former Tampa teammate Richards was almost as good, playing for Dallas, another playoff also-ran this season. As for Alfredsson, he was a reliable point-per-game performer again this season, but will mix it up as needed.
Around the rinks
It's good news and bad news for the Chicago Blackhawks on the injury front. Defenceman Brian Campbell, who broke his clavicle on that hit from Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, is skating lightly and could return at some point in the opening playoff round. Things are not going as well for Kim Johnsson, the player they acquired from the Minnesota Wild for Cam Barker just before the Olympics. Johnsson is out indefinitely with what appears to be a concussion and isn't skating yet ... The Blackhawks' Marian Hossa had a scare the other day in a weird 6-5 win over the St. Louis Blues, in which Chicago almost blew a 6-1 lead, but hung on in the end. Hossa fell hard into the boards and left the game, but was not shaken up too badly and is not expected to miss any time ... Injuries tend to dominate the discussion these days, especially among playoff bound teams, and for now anyway, there is no word on when the Buffalo Sabres' leading scorer Tim Connelly will be able to play; the hope is he's back in time for the start of the playoffs ... Columbus, meanwhile, has been without its captain, Rick Nash, the past two games because of a sore neck and shoulder, which may affect his willingness to play for Canada at the world championships ... Retirement watch: The Dallas Stars' Mike Modano may pack it in as well, and just in case that happens, he invited his parents to watch him play his final game of the season, Saturday against the Wild in Minnesota ... With Carolina confirmed for the 2011 All-Star Game, it now looks as if Minnesota will get the entry draft for the second time in history. The first occurred back in 1989, when they were still the North Stars ... Most everybody inside and outside the NHL is hoping that the Pittsburgh Penguins play the Capitals this season, a match-up that could occur in the second round once again, if the New Jersey Devils hold on to the second playoff seed. Most everybody except Capitals' coach Bruce Boudreau that is. "I hope they lose in the first round," said Boudreau, even though his club swept the season series with Pittsburgh this season ... Boudreau, incidentally, has no plans to rest Ovechkin this weekend, even though the Capitals have little left to play for. Boudreau figures Ovechkin was able to get a rest during that two-game suspension for running Campbell into the boards and figures the Great 8 will want every opportunity to nail down some major NHL hardware, what with the goal-scoring and point championships going down to the wire ... The fact that the Canucks' Henrik Sedin has intruded himself into the Art Ross trophy race this season, after it looked as if would be the permanent domain of Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the next decade, was one of the most unexpected developments this season. Sedin played 16 games without his brother Daniel; and never missed a beat. Since his return, they have been dominant. "I have an understanding where he's going to be," explained Henrik, "but I think it's mostly because we played together for much a long time. I think if you put any two guys together for 20 years on the same line, they're going to read off each other too - and get used to where he's going to put the puck and where he wants you to be." Makes sense ... The Penguins' 1,667th and final regular-season game was played at the Igloo Thursday against the Islanders, with more than 50 ex-players and front-office staff in attendance for the event. Next year, the Penguins move into newer more modern digs - and thank heaven for that. The Igloo had its own charm and its share of memorable moments, but the visiting dressing rooms have been a nightmare for going on 30 years - and so long as Crosby and company continue to challenge for championships, they need a more modern and better air-conditioned facility in order to play hockey into June. Either that, or the league could simply change the playoff schedule so hockey season ends before Victoria Day, a compromise lots of us could live with.