Dark-Horse Candidates for 2017 NHL Awards

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2017

Dark-Horse Candidates for 2017 NHL Awards

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    With just over two months remaining in the 2016-17 NHL regular season, several notable stars are establishing themselves as favorites to win the league's major individual awards. San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns could be a finalist for the James Norris Memorial Trophy, but he might also be a dark horse to win the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer. 

    Burns isn't the only player in an unlikely position to win a major award. Los Angeles Kings goaltender Peter Budaj and New York Rangers right wing Michael Grabner could be contenders for some of the league's top hardware.

    Here's a look at the dark-horse candidates for this season's major NHL awards. We'll examine the reasons why they deserve consideration and the obstacles they must overcome. 

Jack Adams Award: Mike Babcock, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    The Jack Adams Award is usually bestowed to the NHL coach whose team finishes high in the standings after missing the playoffs in the prior season. It rarely goes to a bench boss whose club rose from being the league's worst team to one that flirts with playoff contention. Such is the case for Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

    Now in his 14th season as an NHL head coach, Babcock guided the Anaheim then-Mighty Ducks to the 2003 Stanley Cup Final and the Detroit Red Wings to two Cup Finals and a championship in 2008. Now in his second season with the Leafs, he's coached them through a painful last-place finish in 2015-16 to within range of a playoff berth this season.

    Adding talented rookie forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and acquiring goaltender Frederik Andersen helped the Leafs this season. But without Babcock's guidance, they wouldn't be where they are now. Babcock's never won the Adams Award, but his work with the rebuilding Leafs merits consideration.

Frank J. Selke Trophy: Ryan O'Reilly, Buffalo Sabres

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    In recent years, the Frank J. Selke Trophy finalists tended to consist of a small group of centers, led by the Boston Bruins' Patrice Bergeron, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, Los Angeles Kings captain Anze Kopitar and the Anaheim Ducks' Ryan Kesler. This season, however, Buffalo Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly could get his name into the mix. 

    Despite missing 10 games to injury and an appendectomy, O'Reilly's having a solid campaign. He's third on the Sabres in points with 30 in 40 games. His defensive play is more impressive. O'Reilly leads the Sabres in takeaways (33) and faceoff win percentage (57.7). He also leads all Sabres forwards in total short-handed time on ice (95 minutes, 58 seconds). 

    Had O'Reilly not been sidelined earlier this season, he might be among the league's top forwards in those categories. Skating for a non-playoff club, he faces long odds of getting a Selke nomination. Still, his value to the rebuilding Sabres and his two-way skills should be taken into account. 

Calder Memorial Trophy: Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    This season's Calder Memorial Trophy race is dominated by top rookie scorers such as Toronto Maple Leafs forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and Winnipeg Jets right wing Patrik Laine. Their exploits could overshadow Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski, who's also enjoying a stellar NHL debut.

    Only 19 years old, Werenski has become a key part of the resurgent Blue Jackets defense. He's among both the Jackets' top-10 scorers (31 points) and the league's rookie scoring leaders. He's averaging 21 minutes, nine seconds of ice time per game.

    Despite his youth and big-league inexperience, Werenski is playing a difficult position with the poise of a seasoned veteran. His performance deserves some attention for Calder Trophy honors. 

James Norris Memorial Trophy: Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    This year's James Norris Memorial Trophy could go to San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns or a former winner such as the Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty or the Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson. Minnesota Wild blue-line stalwart Ryan Suter should also merit some appreciation for his efforts this season. 

    Suter, 32, doesn't put up gaudy offensive numbers like Burns or Karlsson. With 30 points in 50 games, he's on pace for a second straight 50-point season. A superb all-around defender, he leads all blueliners in plus/minus (plus-30) and sits among the leaders in time on ice per game (27 minutes, six seconds). 

    For most of Suter's career, he's been among the league's elite blueliners. Thanks in part to his leadership, experience and solid defensive game, the Wild are among this season's top teams. His play this season should put him in the running for the Norris Trophy.

Vezina Trophy: Peter Budaj, Los Angeles Kings

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Peter Budaj began this season with the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League. The 31-year-old was recalled and pressed into service as the Los Angeles Kings starter when Jonathan Quick was sidelined indefinitely by a groin injury. He's done an admirable job, helping the Kings remain in playoff contention. 

    In 42 starts, Budaj has a record of 24-14-3. He also has a goals-against average of 2.01 with six shutouts. Those stats rank among this season's goaltending leaders. He also has a solid .922 save percentage. 

    Despite Budaj's impressive numbers, he's going up against former Vezina winners such as the Columbus Blue Jackets' Sergei Bobrovsky, the Washington Capitals' Braden Holtby and the Montreal Canadiens' Carey Price. The Minnesota Wild's Devan Dubnyk is also enjoying a strong season. But if Budaj maintains his steady play down the stretch, he could get some consideration as a Vezina candidate.

Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy: Michael Grabner, New York Rangers

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    It's unsurprising to see superstars such as Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin among this season's leading goal scorers. Both are previous winners of the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy. What is unusual, however, is finding Michael Grabner among such elite company. 

    The 29-year-old Grabner's previous career high was a 34-goal performance with the New York Islanders in 2010-11. In 2015-16, he netted a career-worst nine goals in 80 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs. But with the New York Rangers this season, his 22 goals lead the Rangers and put him only six behind the league-leading Crosby. 

    Given Grabner's streaky scoring history, he'll find it challenging to remain among the league's goal-scoring leaders. However, he's defied the odds thus far.  If he can maintain some consistency over the remainder of the season, he could have a shot at winning the Richard Trophy. 

Hart Memorial Trophy: Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins

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    Boston Bruins left wing Brad Marchand is a feisty player with four suspensions totaling 12 NHL games on his resume. On Jan. 28, he was fined $10,000 for a dangerous trip on Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall. Despite his chippy tactics, few players are as valuable to their teams this season as Marchand is to the Bruins. 

    In 2015-16, Marchand emerged as an elite scoring forward. After tallying 37 goals and 61 points last season, he leads the Bruins with 23 goals and 54 points this season. The 28-year-old is also among the league leaders in goals and points. 

    Some might scoff at the notion of the oft-suspended Marchand as a contender for the Hart Trophy. However, the award goes to the player considered most valuable to his team. Without Marchand's strong offensive contributions, the Bruins probably wouldn't be a playoff contender this season. That should make him worthy of consideration. 

Art Ross Trophy: Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    With 22 goals and 33 assists for 55 points in 52 games this season, Brent Burns' production should once again make him a finalist for the Norris Trophy.  The 31-year-old's offensive exploits also give him a legitimate chance to become the first defenseman since Bobby Orr in 1975 to win the Art Ross Trophy. 

    Burns is the leading scorer among NHL defensemen, sitting well ahead of Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson (41 points). The bearded, gap-toothed blueliner is also the San Jose Sharks' top scorer, nine points ahead of teammate Joe Pavelski (46 points). Among all NHL skaters, he's behind only Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (60 points) and Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (56). 

    Winning the Art Ross will be a difficult endeavor for Burns. McDavid and Crosby provide strong competition. Maintaining his high level of production through the difficult final stretch of the season could be challenging. But given Burns' size (6'5", 230 lbs), superb conditioning and impressive offensive skills, he has a decent shot at winning the scoring title. 

                     

    Stats (as of Feb. 3) via NHL.com. Additional info via Hockey-Reference.com.