Dark-Horse Candidates for NHL Awards in 2015-16

Steve Macfarlane@@MacfarlaneHKYFeatured ColumnistDecember 16, 2015

Dark-Horse Candidates for NHL Awards in 2015-16

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    With the Christmas break approaching and two-and-a-half months of NHL hockey in the books, there are some dark-horse candidates emerging for this season's major NHL awards.

    The favorites have established themselves as current leaders in categories like goals and points at their respective positions, but some of those just outside the top tier have shots at surpassing the superstars. These dark horses may not all be names you watch on a nightly basis, but their early performances have them pushing for recognition.

    In some cases, a star who has started with a fizzle could go on a tear and out with a bang to snatch the award away from one of the current pacemakers.

    Here's a look at this season's dark-horse candidates for each major NHL individual regular-season award.

Jack Adams Award: Jeff Blashill, Detroit Red Wings

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Numbers to date: Through 31 games, Jeff Blashill has 16 wins, nine losses in regulation and six overtime/shootout losses for 38 points.

    Why he's a candidate: Taking over for one of the most heralded coaches of the last decade is no easy task, but Blashill is doing fine filling in the shoes of former Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. He has been able to guide a team with some weaknesses on the blue line and without a clear No. 1 goaltender into a strong position for a playoff spot ahead of the Christmas break.

    How he can win: Just getting the Wings into the playoffs and prolonging their impressive postseason streak would go a long way toward votes for the rookie NHL bench boss. Strong performances by rookie Dylan Larkin and the team's young players combined with good showings from veterans like Mike Green and Brad Richards would prove Blashill is capable of keeping a group unified in its vision despite big differences in systems from last season for many key players in the group.

Frank J. Selke Trophy: Mikko Koivu, Minnesota Wild

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    Numbers to date: Mikko Koivu has six goals and 19 assists for 25 points in 29 games for the Minnesota Wild. He has won 56.1 percent of his faceoffs this year.

    Why he's a candidate: Koivu is on pace for around 70 points, a mark he's reached just once in his career (2009-10). But all those numbers do is draw attention to his overall game, which is extremely strong. He faces tough competition nightly and plays more than 20 minutes on average. He's also a big part of the penalty killing for the Wild. 

    How he can win: In the case of the modern Selke voting, advanced stats go a long way in influencing ballots. Koivu's numbers are strong with a shot-attempts percentage of 62.02 in close games (tied or a one-goal difference) that ranks first in the league, and a 63.96 in tie games that ranks second. He's won 52.6 percent of his defensive zone draws. All he has to do is keep those numbers up along with his offensive output.

Calder Memorial Trophy: Anders Nilsson, Edmonton Oilers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Numbers to date: Anders Nilsson has played 19 games for the Edmonton Oilers and has a 10-8-1 record with a .914 save percentage and 2.67 goals-against average.

    Why he's a candidate: The Edmonton Oilers have been better than expected lately and a big reason for that is the play of the 25-year-old Swede, who was in net for five of the team's six straight victories in December—and those resulted in a temporary taste of a playoff spot. He's been better than big offseason acquisition Cam Talbot this year.

    How he can win: First, Nilsson has to continue to get the majority of starts over Talbot. He also has to keep winning. He has his work cut out for him on both counts, but the team should get a boost from the return of rookie sensation Connor McDavid sometime in the new year, and the youngsters seem to have found their groove. If he can capture the voters' attention and steer it away from the top forward scorer in the race, he's got a shot.

Maurice 'Rocket' Richard Trophy: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Numbers to date: Alex Ovechkin has a meager 14 tallies in 28 contests this season. Not that it's relevant to the Maurice Richard Trophy, but he also has 11 assists and 25 points.

    Why he's a candidate: The six-time 50-goal scorer is one of the most explosive offensive weapons in the game of hockey and despite his down season in that department, he is still ninth in the NHL. Ovechkin is playing some of the most responsible two-way hockey of his career but still leads the league in shots on goal with 143 so far.

    How he can win: If Ovechkin can just get his uncharacteristically low 9.8 shooting percentage back up to his career average of 12.3—which factors in this down period—his goal total would jump back into the upper echelon and put him on track to compete with the likes of current leaders Jamie Benn (20), Patrick Kane (19) and Vladimir Tarasenko (19).

Art Ross Trophy: Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers

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    Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    Numbers to date: In 32 games, Taylor Hall has 15 goals and 20 assists for 35 points.

    Why he's a candidate: Hall sits fourth in league scoring and has 10 points in his last six games alone for the Edmonton Oilers. He's on a team that boasts a tremendous number of offensive weapons, which means he will continue to have plenty of opportunities to rack up more goals and assists.

    How he can win: If the 24-year-old can just stay healthy, he's on track for about 90 points. There are others projecting higher at the moment, but Hall has been especially hot lately and could climb the ranks quickly if he maintains the recent points-per-game pace. The return of Connor McDavid would also help his chances.

Vezina Trophy: Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Numbers to date: In 24 games played, Jake Allen has a 14-7-2 record with four shutouts, a .925 save percentage and 2.11 goals-against average.

    Why he's a candidate: The St. Louis Blues have had a goaltending tag team for the last couple of years and early on it appeared Brian Elliott would get the majority of starts. But the 25-year-old Allen rebounded from a rough first outing and has taken the top role with his strong play. He's earned the most shutouts so far this season and is top 10 in both save percentage and GAA.

    How he can win: Where Allen falls behind the front-runners in the category is wins. But if the Blues roll with Allen for the majority of the starts the rest of the season, the wins will come. And if he can avoid the occasional inconsistent blips to get his goals-against average and save percentage into the top five, he'll earn his share of votes.

James Norris Memorial Trophy: Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Numbers to date: Ryan Suter has scored five goals and 17 assists for 22 points in 29 games. The Minnesota Wild defenseman also averages 28 minutes, 13 seconds of ice time per game and a plus-eight rating.

    Why he's a candidate: The Minnesota Wild cornerstone is well on his way to a career year offensively in addition to being the league's leader in ice time. He's tied for seventh in scoring among defensemen at the moment.

    How he can win: Early in his career, Suter was overshadowed by Nashville Predators blue-line partner Shea Weber. And over the years, his point totals haven't been impressive enough to push him into the spotlight when it came time for voting. But combined with his hefty minutes and solid possession numbers, Suter has a shot at unseating defending champ Erik Karlsson.

Hart Memorial Trophy: Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Numbers to date: Erik Karlsson has seven goals, 27 assists and 34 points in 31 games for the Ottawa Senators.

    Why he's a candidate: The 25-year-old defenseman is tied for the league in assists and sits fifth in the points standings—tops among all blueliners. The Senators captain averages 27:30 of ice time per game, which is the third most in the NHL, and has a plus-six rating despite facing the opposition's best players most shifts. He means everything to the Sens, who are holding down a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.

    How he can win: If Karlsson can finish the season as the top-scoring defenseman and stick in the top 10 regardless of position, he'll have the attention of the voters. Of course, the Senators would have to make the playoffs, too. It's tough to beat out the best forwards because of their perceived value, but Carey Price did it last year as a goaltender and a defender could do it with the right numbers.

    All statistics via NHL.com.

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