With just a little over two weeks left in the regular season, it seems like as good a time as any to give the league general managers, coaches and members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association some help with their end of season award selections.
I decided to concentrate on what most observers consider the National Hockey League’s five major awards - the Hart Trophy presented to the league’s Most Valuable Player; the James Norris Trophy awarded to the NHL’s top defenseman; the Vezina Trophy given to the league’s top goalkeeper; the Calder Trophy, which honours the NHL’s top rookie and the Jack Adams Trophy which goes to the Coach of the Year.
After pondering the possibilities for a couple of hours, I have a lot more respect for the professionals who are tasked with the responsibility. It isn’t easy. In most of the categories, strong cases could be made for several players not even among my finalists.
So with further ado, here are my selections:
Jack Adams Trophy – Coach of the Year
Finalists: Ken Hitchcock, Columbus; Claude Julien, Boston; Brent Sutter, New Jersey
Hitchcock has the young Blue Jackets playing the same stifling defensive style that led to a Stanley Cup Championship in Dallas in 1999. He’s also poised to do something that no coach has done before—lead the Jackets into the playoffs.
Julien has guided the Bruins to the best record in the Eastern Conference in 2008/'09 after barely squeaking into the playoffs last season. And he’s done it all in spite of a long list of injuries.
Sutter’s Devils were given up for dead when all-world goalie Martin Brodeur went down early in the season. Not only did he keep them in the playoff race during Marty’s absence, he has them challenging for top spot in the conference with a little more than a handful of games remaining.
And the winner is: Brent Sutter, New Jersey Devils. His system made Scott Clemensen look like a front-line NHL goalie
Calder Trophy – Rookie of the Year
Finalists: Steve Mason, Columbus; Pekka Rinne, Nashville; Bobby Ryan, Anaheim
Mason has been nothing short of sensational and his 10 shutouts (and counting) are the most by a rookie goaltender since Tony Esposito had 15 in 1969-70. His 31 wins, 2.18 goals against average and .920 save percentage make him a favourite for the Vezina as well (see below).
Rinne would probably be a slam dunk for the award if Mason disappeared. Seven shutouts to go along with a 2.22 GAA and a .922 save percentage mean he’s for real.
After looking like a possible bust for his first couple of years in the league, Ryan has exploded this season with 24 goals and 46 points in 56 games. He also produced a couple of the goals of the year, showing his skill and potential.
And the winner is: Steve Mason, Columbus Blue Jackets. Double digit shutouts, as a rookie, is just incredible.
Vezina Trophy – Most Outstanding Goaltender
Finalists: Nicklas Backstrom, Minnesota; Steve Mason, Columbus; Tim Thomas, Boston
Backstrom is the heart of the Wild and has the flashy numbers, too. Thirty-three wins, 2.46 GAA and a .921 save percentage confirm his place as one of the game’s elite.
Mason is looking to become the first rookie to win the Vezina since Philadelphia’s Ron Hextall in 1987. He plays like a 10-year veteran and seems to perform even better in big situations.
The unorthodox style of Thomas doesn’t prevent him from keeping the puck out of the net. He current leads the league in goals against average (2.11) and save percentage (.931).
And the winner is: Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins. He’s not pretty to watch some nights, but the individual and team results speak for themselves.
James Norris Trophy – Best Defenseman
Finalists: Zdeno Chara, Boston; Mike Green, Washington; Mark Streit, Islanders
Chara can dominate a game at either end of the ice and has emerged as one of the game’s best leaders. His 16 goals and 43 points are more impressive when you consider how much energy he expends in the defensive end.
Green is likely to become the first 30 goal defenseman in years. He doesn’t play a traditional style of defence for sure, but he logs nearly 26 minutes of ice time a game and has a plus 24 rating in spite of the offensive chances he takes.
When Streit left Montreal for the Islanders after the 2007/'08 season he was viewed as a one-dimensional power-play specialist on a good team. A year later with 54 points and a +plus-six plus/minus with the lowly Islanders, he’s a star. Just ask Bob Gainey how good he is.
And the winner is: Mike Green, Washington Capitals. Chara might deserve the award, but 30 goals as a defenseman, in this era, is just too sexy to ignore.
Hart Trophy – Most Valuable Player
Finalists: Zdeno Chara, Boston; Steve Mason, Columbus; Alex Ovechkin, Washington
Chara does everything for the Bruins and is the main reason they are at the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
Similarly, does anyone really think the Blue Jackets would be in the playoff race if Fredrick Norrena was their starting goalkeeper? Mason is the reason they have a chance at all.
Ovechkin is having another spectacular season leading the league in goals (51), shots on goal (475) and Lambeau leaps into the glass. He’s also eighth in the league with 230 hits, a number that must both excite and scare Bruce Boudreau and George MacPhee.
And the winner is: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. The game’s dominant player and dominant personality will become only the 11th man to win back-to-back Hart Trophies.