Officially, the lockout-shortened 720-game season will be half over by the end of Saturday’s game between Boston-Philadelphia and as advertised, it has been an unpredictable wild ride. The Chicago Blackhawks still haven’t lost in regulation; the Ottawa Senators continue to play above the Mendoza Line, despite injuries to their best goalie, defenceman and forward; the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens are exceeding even the most optimistic forecasts for their seasons; and even the Calgary Flames are achieving a modicum of prosperity of late.
The San Jose Sharks were 7-0 out of the game; and the Tampa Bay Lightning 6-1, but both have fallen into mediocrity ever since. The Anaheim Ducks have gone from No. 13 last year to No. 2 in the Western Conference, even though contract talks were theoretically supposed to act as a distraction to both team captain Ryan Getzlaf and 2011 league MVP Corey Perry. But just to prove that some things really don’t ever change, the Columbus Blue Jackets continue to limp along at the bottom of the NHL standings and the Edmonton Oilers are still waiting for their breakthrough moment, still unable to turn all that vast potential into any kind of significant push up the ladder.
Similarly, rarely has the race for individual NHL awards seen so much ebb and flow as it has this season. There was early support for the Buffalo Sabres’ Tomas Vanek and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steve Stamkos, but neither team is doing well. The Ottawa Senators had a couple of early candidates – defenceman Erik Karlsson, goaltender Craig Anderson – but then both got hurt and they’re still winning.
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby had a comparatively slow scoring start, but he has moved to the top of the scoring table now – and teammate Kris Letang leads all defencemen in scoring, largely because an Achilles tendon injury knocked Erik Karlsson out of the Sens’ line-up. The league’s top goaltending duo of a year ago – the St. Louis Blues’ Brian Elliott and Jaro Halak – aren’t even in the top half this year, supplanted by a pair of Chicago Blackhawks’ goaltenders, Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, both of whom entered the year with a lot to prove.
Chicago has been by far the best team in the league this season, gaining points in their first 24 games, but who is the MVP? Patrick Kane is the only Blackhawk in the top 25 in scoring, and Duncan Keith is 19th in defensive scoring. All but three teams – Columbus, Colorado and Florida – are within five points of a playoff spot, and thus humoring themselves that they’re still in the race. Who knows? Maybe they are.
Everywhere the races are too close to call, but midway through the season, here’s how the hardware would be allocated:
Hart Trophy (MVP): 1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago. 2. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh. 3. Craig Anderson, Ottawa.
The fact that Crosby is healthy and productive would be the top story of any other season, had it not been for Chicago’s amazing start. The Blackhawks are getting timely scoring from Patrick Kane, plus solid defensive work from their defence corps, but Toews, the captain and a perennial slow starter, has been the glue that’s held it all together.
Norris (top defence): 1. Zdeno Chara, Boston. 2. Duncan Keith, Chicago. 3. Niklas Kronwall, Detroit.
The Norris race is complicated by Karlsson’s injury and the fact that perennial favorites Shea Weber and Drew Doughty are off to slow start in Nashville and Los Angeles respectively. Weirdly, Chara, even at 6-foot-9, is easy to overlook because he doesn’t put up the points that others do, but he remains a strong plus player (at plus-11) and plays almost 25 minutes per night for the NHL’s fourth-best defensive team. Keith doesn’t have to log nearly the same minutes he did three years ago, but he remains a reliable minute-munching defender on an improving defensive team, and Kronwall has stepped up to play big minutes for the hanging-in-there Red Wings a year after Nicklas Lidstrom’s retirement.
Vezina (top goalie): 1. Craig Anderson, Ottawa. 2. Corey Crawford, Chicago. 3. Antti Niemi, San Jose.
Anderson’s numbers are frozen because of his injury, but they are impressive – a 1.49 goals-against average and a .952 save percentage, stats for the ages. Crawford too has been hampered by injuries, but he has bounced back in a big way after his struggles a year ago. As for Niemi, he is quietly getting the job done on a Sharks’ team that has really struggled to score. Without his 1.83 GA and .935 save percentage, San Jose would be a real mess.
Jack Adams (top coach): 1. Paul MacLean, Ottawa. 2. Bruce Boudreau, Anaheim. 3. Joel Quenneville, Chicago.
As usual, there are about 10 worthy candidates for the award, but MacLean’s ability to keep the Senators competitive in the light of all their injuries, gives him the edge over Boudreau and the amazing turnaround he’s engineered with the Ducks (16-3-3 after finishing 13th out of 15 teams last year in the Western Conference). Odd as it may seem, there was some discussion about Quenneville’s future with the Blackhawks last year and a sense going into the season that if they faltered at all, he would be on a short leash. Twenty-four games and zero regulation defeats later, all that talk has vanished into the ether.
Calder (rookie of the year): 1. Justin Schultz, Edmonton. 2. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida. 3. Cory Conacher, Tampa.
Schultz is playing almost 23 minutes per night for the Oilers and though he isn’t tearing up the NHL the way he did the minors, is giving Edmonton that puck-carrying, puck-handling presence that they’d hope he would provide. Huberdeau leads all rookie scorers with 11 goals and was better in the second month than in the first. That upward trajectory is what teams really want to see at this time of year from their first-year players (it’s what got Gabriel Landeskog the Calder last year). Conacher was fast out of the gate (along with the injured St. Louis rookie Vladimir Tarasenko), but has tailed off in the last little while. Still, 20 points in 24 games currently leads all rookie scorers.