Wednesday, March 30, 2016

About those awards

The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin in less than two weeks and will unfold across the course of two months. And as they unfold, many of the performances and storylines of the regular season will inevitably get pushed to the back of our memories.

But the NHL's awards, whose winners will not be announced until the playoffs are over, are based on what happens during the regular season. Because of that (and because I've been itching to write about hockey for a while now) I have decided to go ahead and say who would get my vote for those awards, and why. Not that I have a vote to give, and not that anyone should care, but anyhoo, here goes:

Hart Trophy  (MVP)
The Montreal Candiens started this 2015-16 season better than they have started any other in their storied history, winning their fist nine games and thirteen and of their first sixteen, with one of the three losses coming in overtime. Then, on November 25th, during a win that pushed their record to a stellar 17-4-2, Carey Price went down with an injury that has kept him sidelined ever since. And now they are below .500 and have been mathematically eliminated from having any chance of reaching the playoffs.

Based on that, a perfectly logical argument can be made that Price should be named the league's most valuable player despite missing most of the season. I do not agree that he should, because I think the Habs would have eventually cooled off even with him in the lineup; and also because I think that when you only play one-fourth of a season, the sample size is too small for you to be considered for such an award. But there is no doubt that the Habs are a playoff team with him but not without him, and I still wanted to point out the hypothetical case for him being MVP, because I think it is cool.

So who should get the award? Hands down, it's Patrick Kane. Arguments can be made for several other players, but Kane's torrid pace in piling up points (he has 94, which puts him nine ahead of second place Jamie Benn) combined with his solid +13 makes him the clear favorite. Take him out of the lineup and the defending champs might be out of the playoff picture right now, but instead, they have already clinched a spot.

Vezina Trophy  (Best Goaltender)
There is little doubt that Braden Holtby will take this hardware home. Goaltender is the most important position; and with him playing that position to an outstanding level throughout the year, his team has by far the best record in the league, having clinched the President's Trophy two weeks before the season's end. Plus, Holtby has been one of the league's best goalies for several years and never gotten his due respect, so it would be nice to see him take this home.

However, I believe Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop has been the best goalie this season. Bishop's Bolts, unlike Holtby's Caps, have not been scoring at the high rates they scored the last couple years, so Bishop has needed to steal games for them and has done so. Bishop bests Holtby in save percentage (.928 to .923), goals-against average (2.02 to 2.19), and shutouts (six to three). He leads the NHL in shutouts, and the only person ahead of him in save percentage and goals-against average is Brian Elliott -- but because Elliott plays in a platoon system for the Blues, he has appeared in 19 fewer games than Bishop and it can not even be said that he is a starter.

Yes, I am a Tampa Bay Lightning fan and have been since Day One. Nevertheless, my reason for saying Bishop should get the Vezina is objective, not subjective.

Norris Trophy  (Best Defenseman)
None of the smart money is forecasting that Erik Karlsson will win the Norris this year, and that makes me happy. Not because I have anything against the 25-year-old Swede, but because I am sick of hearing about him.

Yes, he's a helluva player. Yes, he is one of the better defenesmen on the planet. But so much of his game is based on offense, and so many of the accolades thrown his way are based on offense, that I have an instinctive problem declaring him the best defenseman on the planet. Especially when he is currently at -2. But there are still some folks who think he deserves Norris votes, and that makes me shudder.

Now I will get off my high horse and focus on the matter at hand. And I, like most observers, believe this year's Norris should go to LA's Drew Doughty. At least one observer has criticized this as giving out a lifetime achievement award to a dude who's 26, but in my opinion, that criticism misses the point.

Right now, who is a better all-around defenseman than Doughty? I can't think of one, and my thinking includes the knowledge that a guy named Duncan Keith still plays in the league.

Right now, three defensemen have a better plus/minus for the season than Doughty, but Doughty is only three points back from the leader (+24 versus +27) and, unlike those three, he is an adrenaline-infusing difference-maker when the game is on the line.

Right now, Drew Doughty is the best defenseman alive. He gets the Norris, and his getting it is deserved.

Selke Trophy  (Best Defensive-Minded Forward)
This is often a tough one to figure out. It requires seeing, in their entirety, an abnormally large number of games played by teams who are not your team. In other words, I feel that my opinion on who should get this trophy means less than my opinion on who should get the others.

With that said, my hypothetical vote for the Selke goes to Anze Kopitar, and I am very confident that that vote is going to the most deserving player out there. In this day and age, "Kopitar for Selke" is the default, kind of like "Gretzky for MVP" would have been the default vote in the 1980's, and kind of like "I'll have a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale" is my default choice when I'm not sure which beer I should order. Kopitar is the best defensive-minded forward of his generation; is in his prime at the age of 28; and is, at +31, second in the league at plus/minus for this season. And his team, of which he is an alternate captain, already clinched a playoff spot 11 days ago. I dare ya to pick anyone else!

Calder Trophy  (Rookie of the Year)
Although Carey Price missed too much of the season to warrant legitimate consideration for an award, there is something to be said for the notion that missing some prolonged amount should not automatically disqualify you. Connor McDavid has missed 37 games due to injury, but in the 42 in which he has played, he has averaged more than a point per game, and that certainly seems to justify the "generational talent" hype with which he was selected first in the 2015 draft at the fledgling age of 18.

Still, there is something to be said for sample size and I don't disagree with it. Plus, there are plenty of rookies who have suited up for far more games that McDavid, so it is not unfair that "number of games played" be taken into account.

A big part of me wants to give my hypothetical Calder vote to Chicago's Artemi Panarin. This is partly because he has played superbly across the course of 75 games (25 goals, 39 assists, 14.6 shooting percentage, +2) and partly because some observers hold his 24-year-old age against him. The Makarov Rule was already implemented to guard against the "older rookie problem" and it set the threshold at age 26. If you have a problem with Panarin being 24, then your problem is with the rule, not with him, and the rule is what it is.

Be that as it may, I say that Philadelphia's Shayne Gostisbehere (aka "The Ghost") is the NHL's Rookie of the Year. This is based partly on the "eyeball test," by which I see that he makes a major impact because his team is electrified when he steps on the ice and starts making plays. And it is based partly on his eye-popping production: 42 points (as a defenseman) in 57 games played, five game-winning goals (two of which were in overtime), and +8 with only 20 minutes in penalties.

At one point he notched a point or more in 15 consecutive games -- which is more than any rookie defenseman in NHL history, and more than any Flyer at any position in team history.

Not long ago the Flyers appeared too far back to have any chance of making the playoffs. But now, due largely to Gostisbehere starting rushes and patrolling the point on the power play, they have made an unlikely run to put themselves in playoff contention as the season enters its final eleven days.

Honesty is the best policy, and honesty compels me to admit that I give "The Ghost" tiebreaker points for being the first Florida native to play in the NHL. But I only give him tiebreaker points for that, and I think I have just established that he deserves the trophy outright.

Masterton Trophy  (Perseverance, Sportsmanship, and Dedication to the Game)
In my mind, this is an absolute toss-up between the Rangers' Mats Zuccarello and the Penguins' Pascal Dupuis. So I am going Ben Carson, meaning that I am splitting the conjoined twins by giving my hypothetical Masterton vote to Zuccarello and my hypothetical vote for the next award, the Messier, to Dupuis.

Because Zuccarello lists at only 5'7" and 179 pounds, and even those figures are generous, he already demonstrated plenty of perseverance just by making it to the NHL. Especially when you factor in the fact that he comes from Norway, a country which has never produced anywhere near as much hockey talent as its neighbors Sweden and Finland. But Zuccarello wins this award because of the way he has overcome the ordeals of the last 11 months.

On April 24, 2015, during last season's playoffs, he took a puck to the head that triggered brain bleeding and a stroke. Initially it was marginally unsure if he would survive, and considerably unsure if he would play again. He required speech therapy to speak again.

But with perseverance he recovered enough to host an annual charity event and travel to Africa to see the funds put to work. And with dedication to the game, he returned to the ice and has played every game this season, so far tallying 24 goals and 33 assists, which ties him for most points on the team.

Messier Award  (Leadership Qualities on and off the ice)
It's the "and off the ice" part that drives me to give this prize to Pascal Dupuis and the previous one to Mats Zuccarello. The 36-year-old winger has appeared in only 18 of the Penguins' 76 games this season and has rung up more penalty minutes (12) than points (4).

But just getting back on the ice was a major accomplishment after the tribulations that have rained down upon Dupuis since December 2013. First, his right knee was pulverized with a torn ACL, MCL, and PCL when Sidney Crosby got checked into him by an opponent. Then he had a blood clot that traveled to his lung and led to a pulmonary embolism, which is something that usually gets diagnosed at your autopsy after you suddenly drop dead. Then, he had another blood clot in his lung.

Through it all, Dupuis has remained with the team even as he has been mostly unable to play. He has watched games from the press box and offered feedback to active players. He has attended team meetings. He has assisted with scouting. And now, he has played in 18 games this season while his teeth have grown long. And you can go here and read what it's been like straight from the horse's mouth.

Lady Byng Trophy  (Sportsmanship and Gentlemanly Conduct combined with good play)
Several players deserve this and I don't know who deserves it the most, so I will simply give it to the deserving player I see the most: Tampa Bay's Anton Stralman. Along with fellow Swede Victor Hedman, Stralman anchors the Bolts' top defense pairing and is one of the best, most dependable defensemen in the league. And he is level-headed as hell, never losing his temper, always keeping things in perspective, always acting as a leader in the locker room.

Jack Adams Award  (Coach of the Year)
Actually, technically, this award goes to "the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success." And frankly it's a toss-up between: 1) Anaheim's Bruce Boudreau, who stayed the course without panicking when things looked bleak earlier in the season, and has reaped the harvest of seeing his team climb to within one point of first place in the Pacific Division; and 2) Washington's Barry Trotz, who has guided a previously underachieving squad to the league's best record and gotten even Alexander Ovechkin to buy into playing defense. I give my vote to Boudreau because he has faced and overcome adversity this season, whereas Trotz has yet to be proved in the heat of that crucible.

And, well, that's all. When the playoffs get here, may they be every bit as heart-stopping and entertaining as they usually are. And please, watch them and enjoy them, for hockey is the greatest spectator sport on Earth.

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