NHL Predictions 2011-12: 3 Dark Horse Candidates for Each Major Award
The new NHL season is rapidly approaching, meaning the pursuit of the NHL's various trophies is about to begin again.
These many storied pieces of silverware are awarded to some of the best players the game has ever seen, and their feats and accomplishments will forever be remembered through their historic achievements.
While there are always favorites for certain awards, I love to look to who might not necessarily be in the conversations for these trophies early on.
Each award has its fair share of dark horse candidates who could spring to the front and be a surprise winner after a stellar season.
Here are three candidates for each major NHL award for the upcoming season.
Jack Adams Award
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The Jack Adams Award is given to the NHL's coach of the year and is always a very close race. Last year's winner Dan Bylsma is pretty much a constant finalist for the award, however there could be some surprising faces in that race this season.
Barry Trotz - Nashville Predators
Nashville has been hit pretty hard this offseason with the loss of three key pieces of their roster: forwards Steve Sullivan, Shane O'Brien and Joel Ward.
They've still got their solid core of young talent, but the Preds are going to have to fight a lot harder this season if they want to make a return to the playoffs.
If coach Barry Trotz is able to get them there and possibly even past the first round again, expect him to be a finalist for this award.
Terry Murray - Los Angeles Kings
It's no secret that the Kings are a stacked team and an early Cup-favorite of many pundits this season, so it might seem a little unfair to stick their coach in the conversation for the Jack Adams Award (seeing as it's pretty easy to look like a good coach if you've got a stellar team at your disposal).
But that being said, the Kings are perennially terrible finishers and usually stumble severely at the tail end of every season.
If Terry Murray can get the Kings to the top of the Pacific Division and through at least one round of the playoffs, I'd call him a possible Jack Adams finalist.
Dave Tippett - Phoenix Coyotes
Phoenix is going to have a pretty rough year this year, which from a business standpoint is not what the team needs while still struggling in the Arizona desert.
However, Dave Tippett has managed to coach the team to surprising finishes before and he could do it again this year.
He's in a very tough Pacific Division with Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles all appearing to be serious playoff contenders, but a good finish could easily put him in the conversations for this award again.
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The Frank J. Selke Trophy is awarded to the best defensive-forward in the NHL, and since this award is often really based around a lot of things that don't often appear on paper, it's always a tough one to predict.
Last year's winner Ryan Kesler is hardly a dark horse for this trophy, as is Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings, so pretty much let's just assume they'll be finalists once again as long as both of them are healthy. That third spot could be taken by a surprising finalist as there are some brilliant defensive-forwards in the NHL.
Samuel Pahlsson - Columbus Blue Jackets
Often invisible to the rest of the NHL as a depth center on one of the league's smaller-market teams, Samuel Pahlsson quietly finished last season at 52 percent in the faceoff circle.
Every night he's given the assignment of shutting down the opposing team's top players and he answers the call in a solid fashion.
If the Blue Jackets somehow manage to shock the league and finish in a playoff position, expect Pahlsson's contributions to be a big reason why and see him possibly nominated for the Selke.
Andrew Cogliano - Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks brought in the speedy centerman to hopefully add some scoring depth to their third line with veterans Ryan Getzlaf and Saku Koivu centering the top two units.
However, Cogliano brings a strong defensive game to the table as well.
Regularly seeing time on the penalty kill and still managing to score 35 points as a depth center on the bottom-of-the-league Oilers last season are encouraging numbers for Anaheim, and Cogliano should see a pretty significant jump in his numbers this year, particularly if Anaheim can live up to the hype generated this offseason.
David Backes - St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues are generating a buzz around the NHL in recent years. They've spent some time at the bottom of the league and developed some stellar young talent that have many thinking they could be a surprise top-eight finisher this season.
David Backes will have to be a key player if that's going to happen. Almost invisibly, Backes was stellar for the Blues last season, scoring 31 goals and 62 points while finishing tied for a second-best +32 rating.
Mark Messier Leadership Award
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One of the NHL's newest awards, the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award has quickly become a source of controversy and fascination as it is awarded to the NHL's best leader as deemed by Mark Messier himself. I could go into my disagreements with allowing just one person to decide the recipient of a trophy but that's a commentary for a different time.
There are some strong leaders in the game, but this year could see the award go to an unsung hero.
Dustin Brown - Los Angeles Kings
He's far from the most skilled player in the Kings' lineup, but captain Dustin Brown has proved that he's the right man to wear the "C" in Los Angeles.
With a lineup of extremely dangerous teammates and the appearance of big success being on the horizon, expect Dustin Brown's leadership to finally be noticed this season. Should the Kings finish the regular season high in the Western Conference standings, I think it's very possible he wins the Mark Messier Leadership award.
Shea Weber - Nashville Predators
Shea Weber has the extremely difficult job of being the leader of a team that relies on young talent and team chemistry to find its success.
In order to make these things really gel, a team needs an extremely strong leader. Should the Preds make it back to the playoffs again this season despite their losses this summer, don't be surprised if Shea Weber gets a good strong look from Mr. Messier for this trophy.
Alexander Ovechkin - Washington Capitals
Despite the fact that he constantly draws comparisons with Sidney Crosby on overall skill, Alexander Ovechkin has never really been acknowledged as one of the NHL's premiere captains unlike his Canadian rival (Crosby won the award in 2010).
The Washington Capitals look extremely dangerous at the outset of this season, and if Ovie can bring them to the top of the East once again and rediscover his scoring touch, don't be surprised if he does wind up being a finalist for this award.
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The award for the NHL's best goaltender is always hotly contested and as the new year approaches, hockey fans are wondering who will stand out between the pipes this season.
Last year Tim Thomas electrified crowds with dazzling saves and athletic stops that took our breath away, and the year before it was Ryan Miller who stole the spotlight.
So who are some dark horse possibilities for this year's Vezina Trophy?
Henrik Lundquist - New York Rangers
The Rangers are going to have a pretty tough battle on their hands if they want to secure a playoff berth this season, but that could mean it's time for Henrik Lundquist to step forward and shine in goal.
The Rangers have the offensive weaponry they need to succeed, but their defense is still young and vulnerable, meaning if the Rangers do find any significant success, expect Lundquist to have his name thrown around for the Vezina quite a bit.
Jon Quick - Los Angeles Kings
Easily one of the most underrated goaltenders in the NHL, Jon Quick has quietly been rock solid in net for the Kings in an NHL world where names like Lundquist, Miller, Thomas, Price and Bryzgalov have dominated the headlines in recent years.
With the Kings expected to make some serious waves in the league this season, I wouldn't be surprised to see Quick, who has already been selected to an Olympic team in his career, to get the nod for this trophy.
Carey Price - Montreal Canadiens
Carey Price was robbed last season, plain and simple. The Canadiens were lucky to make the playoffs at all, and were it not for numerous unbelievable performances by their goaltender, they probably wouldn't have even come close.
This season's going to be even tougher for Montreal, but if they can salvage a way to get into the Eastern Conference playoffs again, Price will have had a lot to do with it and thus should get some serious consideration this time around.
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The league's best defenseman is awarded the Norris Trophy and this is another tough one to predict because often times what doesn't appear on the scoresheet is what's most important in determining it.
However, with the influx of talented youngsters on the blue line, the role of a defenseman has changed in the modern NHL and we're seeing much higher-scoring players in recent seasons.
So who could reign supreme as the best defenseman in the league this season?
Kevin Bieksa - Vancouver Canucks
The Vancouver defenseman was easily the hottest commodity this offseason when it came to free-agent defensemen, however Bieksa chose to keep what was familiar to him and he re-signed with the Canucks.
Should Vancouver have as much success as they did last season (and I certainly don't think that's improbable by any stretch), Bieksa's talent as a gritty physical defenseman as well as a great offensive supporter could land him the Norris Trophy this season.
Drew Doughty - Los Angeles Kings
It's kind of hard to call a 21-year-old who's already been a finalist for this award once a "dark horse," but Doughty could be a revelation this season.
Assuming he re-signs with the Kings, Doughty will likely remain the cornerstone of the team's rock-solid defense, as well as being a great support to their now extremely potent and deep offense.
Don't be surprised if last season's tally of 11 goals goes up significantly and Doughty is once again a finalist for the league's best defenseman.
Lubomir Visnovsky - Anaheim Ducks
In my opinion, another one of the most underrated defensemen in the league. Visnovsky had a stellar season with the Anaheim Ducks last year, netting a whopping 18 goals (including a hat trick against the Dallas Stars).
Defensively, Visnovsky was second on the Ducks in plus-minus with a +18 rating behind only linemate Toni Lydman, and offensively, he led all NHL defenseman in points with 62, making him one of the most versatile and complete defensemen in the game today.
Art Ross Trophy
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One of the trophies that's straight-forward based on statistics, the Art Ross Trophy is given to the player who leads the NHL in points at the end of the regular season.
Last season's winner, Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks, is a favorite to repeat his triumph but there are some quality contenders to rival him this season.
Obviously guys like Steven Stamkos, Henrik Sedin, Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby all will have their names tossed into the hat as well, but here are a few guys who might be overlooked in the early going.
Corey Perry - Anaheim Ducks
Linemate Ryan Getzlaf has established his role as the passer of the Ducks' top line, leaving Perry and Bobby Ryan as the two scorers on what is arguably the best top line in the NHL.
While Perry might not be able to equal his 50-goal year that won him the Rocket Richard and Hart Trophies last season, I wouldn't be surprised if the increased attention he draws from defensemen opens up more opportunities for Bobby Ryan to score goals, sending Perry's assist numbers up this season and making him a serious threat to take the Art Ross.
Derek Roy - Buffalo Sabres
Terry Pegula has opened his wallet this offseason, and that's given GM Darcey Regier the freedom to do some shopping.
The results are a Sabres team that looks like it will seriously push the Boston Bruins at the top of the Northeast division next season, and Derek Roy will be a massive part of that.
With defensive support now lined up and with Roy being fully recovered and healthy, expect him to surge to the top of the NHL's point-scoring standings.
Patrick Marleau - San Jose Sharks
With Dany Heatley now gone, Joe Pavelski will likely move to the top line in San Jose, and the Sharks will have an extremely dangerous top unit that will see surges in production numbers, notably for Patrick Marleau.
If the Sharks can stay healthy and keep some good consistent support from their secondary offensive lines, Marleau could see a spike in his numbers that will send him to the top of the league's points standings.
Rocket Richard Trophy
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The Rocket Richard is also based on straightforward statistics, being awarded to the player who finishes the regular season with the most goals.
Defending winner Corey Perry is a favorite to repeat, playing on an even more dangerous Anaheim team this season while other feared goal scorers like the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Jarome Iginla and Pavel Datsyuk all look to wrestle it away from him this year.
But who might unexpectedly sneak into the conversation this season?
Vincent Lecavalier - Tampa Bay Lightning
While the 22-year-old hotshot Steven Stamkos is drawing the attention of defenses everywhere, the longtime Lightning veteran Vincent Lecavalier could be the one to really shine this season.
While his year was shortened to only 65 games due to injury, Lecavalier still managed to notch 25 goals and could easily see those numbers increase this year with the Lightning looking as dangerous as ever.
Bobby Ryan - Anaheim Ducks
While it was his linemate Corey Perry that grabbed all the attention, Bobby Ryan almost invisibly scored 34 goals for the Ducks, and looks primed for an even bigger year this year.
As previously mentioned, Perry will be drawing more attention from defensemen (much like Stamkos with Lecavalier) leaving Ryan open to scoring a few more goals. Don't be surprised if he takes off on a terror this season.
Jonathan Toews - Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks captain has proven he's capable of scoring, passing and playing an overall complete game, but perhaps what the 'Hawks need him to do more is simply shoot the puck.
Toews has proven he's a talented guy who can produce goals by the bucketload. If he gets a more offensive mentality and shoots the puck a little more next season, he could easily find his name towards the top of the list of goal scorers next season.
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Another award Anaheim's Corey Perry is out to defend, the Hart Trophy is awarded every year to the player deemed to be the NHL's most valuable.
This one is always extremely hard to predict as any player can step forward and stand out as a gem that might deem them as the league's most valuable player.
Obviously Perry as well as last year's favorites like the Sedin twins and Tim Thomas as well as perennial favorites like Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are all preliminary contenders.
But here are three guys who you might not be thinking about right now.
Anze Kopitar - Los Angeles Kings
Very few people can hop over the boards for their shift and immediately take control of the ice in a way Anze Kopitar can.
The only Slovenian-born player in NHL history has proven himself to be a gem for the Kings, and if the Kings can live up to the hype they've generated this offseason, Kopitar might get a pretty good look as the league's MVP as he might still be the best player on the Kings' roster.
Carey Price - Montreal Canadiens
The Habs are likely going to be clinging to their goaltender for dear life this season, and if he can pull through and bring them to some success, I wouldn't be shocked at all if he was in the talks for the Hart Trophy.
Sadly, however he could fall out of these talks if the Canadiens ultimately wind up failing and falling out of contention for the playoffs. There's only so much a goaltender can do.
Alexander Semin - Washington Capitals
He's often the target of a lot of criticism for the kind of production the Washington Capitals get from him for the amount of money they're paying him.
However, should the Russian-born forward really find his stride this season, he could prove to be one of the most valuable assets in the Capitals' locker room.
Ovechkin will probably be drawing a large amount of attention from defenses, often facing the best pairings, meaning Semin will have some room to maneuver. If he can have a season we know he's capable of, he could be in the thick of the Hart conversation at the end of the season.
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Awarded to the team who emerges victorious from the NHL's playoffs, the Stanley Cup is the trophy that trumps all trophies. Every player has their eyes set on lifting the enormous silver chalice over their heads come the first weeks of June, and every player trains year round for his shot at taking it.
Here are my three favorites to lift the Cup this season.
Los Angeles Kings
A host of talented young players from their many years at the bottom of the West are now emerging from their development programs, and the offseason acquisitions of Simon Gagne and Mike Richards make the Kings a stacked, formidable threat not only to the extremely tough Pacific Division, but the entire Western Conference.
If they get to their second Stanley Cup Final in franchise history, watch out NHL. The Cup might be making its second trip to Southern California in five years.
All the years of playoff failure have made the Capitals franchise extremely hungry for success.
The difference between this year and years past however is I believe they have solved their problems when it comes to keeping the puck out of their own net. Their revamped defense and new veteran goaltender in Tomas Vokoun make the Caps an extremely stacked, formidable team on all areas of the ice, making them my Eastern Conference favorite for next season.
The frustration of a Game 7 loss on home ice no doubt still lingers with the Canucks, and much to their relief, this summer could have gone much worse for them. Their only significant loss came in defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, and the Canucks should be able to battle on without him.
This means one thing: the Canucks will still be a powerhouse this year.
Expect the Canucks to tear apart the Northwest Division again this season, and possibly make a return trip to the Stanley Cup Finals if they can solve teams like Los Angeles, San Jose and Detroit.
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