Monday, March 12, 2018

Almost in the rearview, Part One

The NHL's 2017-18 regular season is not yet over, and there some playoff spots that might not get clinched until its final day. But come on, man, depending on what team you are talking about, the season is anywhere from 81 to 85 percent done. It is clear who is elite and who is not, who has put together a good run and who has screwed things up, etc. Plus, I am not patient when I want to write about something and think I can bang it out fast.

So I am going to jump the gun and start recapping the regular season right now, fully admitting that whatever I write today might not be the same if I were to wait a couple weeks (though it probably would be, except for updating the stats).

Today's post is about who should win the NHL's individual awards, which are always based solely on the regular season and are voted upon before the playoffs even commence. Here I go:

Hart Trophy:  Nathan MacKinnon, COL
Contrary to popular belief, the Hart does not go to the league's best player, but to whoever is "judged most valuable to his team." It should go to Nathan MacKinnon this time around, because coming into this season the Colorado Avalanche were widely considered to be one of the league's worst teams yet if the playoffs were to start today the Avs would be in them, and he would be far and away the main reason why. MacKinnon has 81 points in 60 games played, which works out to a 1.35 points per game pace that is reported to be the 11th best in the NHL since the introduction of the salary cap.

I wish I could give the Hart to Nikita Kucherov or Andrei Vasilievskiy since they both play for my Tampa Bay Lightning. However, the Lightning are bursting at the seems with world-beating talent and the Avs simply are not. Based on that "most valuable to his team" definition, I gotta give this one to MacKinnon.

Ted Lindsay Award:  Nikita Kucherov, TBL
Now here we go. It is the Ted Lindsay Award, formerly known as the Lester B. Pearson Award, that gets awarded to the league's "most outstanding player," and it should go to Kucherov. A strong case can also be made for Vasilievskiy -- and for Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin and Anze Kopitar and Patrik Laine -- but if I had a vote I would give it to the 24-year-old winger from Maykop, Russia. Kuch leads the league with 88 points (34, 54) in 64 games played and has been in the lead since Game One. He mind-melts opposing goalies and defensemen not only with deception, but with a supersonic release and lethal passing. The hockey gods simply don't make 'em any better.

Vezina Trophy:  Andrei Vasilievskiy, TBL
It's a four-man race between Tampa Bay's Vasilievskiy, Anaheim's John Gibson, Toronto's Frederik Andersen, and last year's winner, Sergei Bobrosvsky of Columbus. You can make an equally strong case for each of those guys, and whichever of them takes home the hardware will deserve it, but I give my nod to Vasilievskiy -- not because he plays for my team, but because I have seen him play so much that I know he is the most valuable player on a club that is overflowing with names like Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman, and Point.

Though the Lighting get outshot in most games and surrender 30+ shots on net with alarming regularity, Vasilievskiy's goaltending is so stellar that they have the best goal differential in the league and also the best record. He leads all NHL netminders in both shutouts and victories, and is just 0.009 away from the top in save percentage. Damn good for a 23-year-old who is in his first year as an NHL starter.

Norris Trophy:  Drew Doughty, LAK
Flip a coin. When it comes to who should get the trophy for the NHL's best all-around defenseman, it's a flat out tie between LA's Drew Doughty and Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman. Both men are workhorses who log monster ice time (26+ minutes per game) and are always asked to defend their opponents' best players. Hedman's offensive game is better than Doughty's and Doughty's defensive game is a little better than Hedman's, but on that last point, the difference is so small it almost vanishes.

My heart wants Hedman to win it and my head can make a strong case why he should, but my head can also make a strong case why Doughty should. I will give my nod to Doughty partly to protect against any built-in homerism in my brain, but also because Doughty blocks more shots and because Tampa Bay surrenders noticeably more odd-man rushes and high-danger scoring chances than Los Angeles; although Hedman can't be on the ice every shift, the fact that he is the putative leader of Tampa Bay's defensive unit has to count for something when breaking a tie.

Selke Trophy:  Patrice Bergeron, BOS
This one absolutely belongs to Bergeron. As always this decade, Anze Kopitar has also made a strong case for himself -- they are two best defensive-minded forwards of their generation -- but Bergeron has been otherworldly in 2017-18, so much so that him missing a month to injury late in the campaign shouldn't make any difference in the balloting. Not only has Bergeron been the best defensive-minded forward this season, his full two-way game is arguably the best there is among forwards as well.

With his 33rd birthday awaiting him this summer, this native of L'Ancienne-Lorette, Quebec is a major, major reason why the Boston Bruins are full-on Cup contenders despite everyone thinking they were also-rans before the season began. After the curtain goes down on the NHL Awards Show in June, he should be going home with his fifth Frank J. Selke Trophy (and second in a row, and third in four years).

Calder Trophy:  Mathew Barzal, NYI
The NHL has been blessed with outstanding rookie classes for the past few years, and this year's ranks as the deepest I can remember in all of my years of watching hockey. The number of guys in their first full season who have put together a strong enough campaign to belong in the conversation for rookie of the year is literally in double-digits.

However, as we steamrolled deeper into the second half of the season it became clear that the three best were Brock Boeser, the golden-maned Minnesotan who plays for Vancouver; Charlie McAvoy, the Long Island native who plays on the Bruins' top defense pairing; and Mathew Barzal, the British Columbia native who plays for the Islanders... then the injury bug bit the first two, with a "non-structural" lower back fracture sidelining Boeser for the duration and a knee sprain putting McAvoy on the shelf for what is expected to be four weeks... and since Barzal was already building arguably the strongest case for winning the Calder, those injuries have served to render him a shoo-in.

Thanks to Barzal's sickeningly high number of assists (51 and counting) he leads all rookies in total points, 14 ahead of Boeser even though he is unlikely to catch up to the latter's still rookie-leading 29 goals. Yes, Boeser's shot is that good, but Barzal plays center, where passing is more integral that it is on the wing, and Barzal already had a decent lead on him in the total points race when he went down.

Jack Adams Award:  Gerard Gallant, VGK
Let's see. The Vegas Golden Knights are in their first year as a franchise, and while the expansion draft rules did permit them to get a few players who were known to be solid and one who counted as a star, their roster still reads like a typical expansion roster built of castoffs and bottom-six forwards and lower-rung defensemen. And shortly after the season started, their one star (goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury) went down with a long-term injury after which a succession of their back-up goalies also went down with injuries, to the point where they were playing their fifth-stringer between the pipes.

And yet, from the opening puck drop through the present the Golden Knights have consistently been one of the league's best teams. As of today, they have the NHL's fourth best record and are in first place in the Pacific Division with a comfortable 12-point cushion between them and second place San Jose. If the playoffs were to start right now, they would be the #2 seed in the Western Conference.

So, yeah, the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year belongs to Gerard Gallant. No one else should even be considered.

Masterton Trophy:  Steven Stamkos, TBL
Technically, the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy goes to the "player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey." In practice, it usually serves as a "comeback player of the year" award to someone who overcomes injury or some other personal trauma. And this year's recipient should be Tampa Bay centerman Steven Stamkos, who returned from the latest of three serious medical issues that have caused him to miss significant portions of his prime.

The first came during the 2013-14 campaign, when this tibia fracture forced Stamkos out for a three-month period that was notable because the three-month recovery was shorter than doctors expected. Then came 2015-16, when a blood-clotting vascular condition forced him to miss the post-season due to blood-thinning medication that was required after corrective surgery. And then came last season, which saw him return from the surgery and thinners and start lighting the world on fire with 20 points in the first 17 games -- only to suffer a torn right knee lateral meniscus that sidelined him for the remainder of the season.

All of which brings us to this season. Stamkos has not only made it back from the torn meniscus, but has played brilliantly with 79 points in 69 games played. His 52 assists are already a career high and there are still 13 games left (knock on wood) before season's end. Even without his prior history, Stamkos's return in 2017-18 from the injury in 2016-17 would be worthy of the Masterton... but it's a slam dunk when you factor in the cumulative effect of those earlier issues as well.

Lady Byng Trophy:  Vladislav Namestnikov, NYR
To hell with worrying about being accused of homerism. I already feel like I might have done Victor Hedman a disservice by giving my non-existent Norris vote to Drew Doughty. I am not gonna make myself feel like that again when it comes to the Lady Byng, which goes to the player who most exhibits "outstanding sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability."

Give this one to Vladislav Namestnikov and don't look back. He plays in New York now, but that's only because the Lightning traded him to the Rangers two weeks ago. My farewell tribute to him pretty much sums up why he deserves the Lady Byng, even though that was not what I was thinking about when I penned it. I don't blame you of you don't want to read that tribute, but consider this passage from it: "...the thing that stands out most about Namestnikov is the person, not the stats, for he is unfailingly polite and humble despite thriving in the ego-driven Type-A world that is professional sports. If your daughter has to date somebody, he is the kind of male you want her to date..."

And there are a few other individual awards out there, but frankly, I don't feel like opining about them, so I'll just go ahead and sign off. Take care.

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