Today in From the Pressbox:
As the regular season winds down, accredited members of the press will be asked to vote on a number of individual awards. We take this opportunity to join in the fun, chiming in with our top three picks and our projected winners. Of course a couple of these awards are strictly based on the best numbers, so in those cases we will just highlight the winners.
There has been a great deal of intrigue in recent years around the James Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the most outstanding defenseman, because of the number of blueliners who combine great defensive skills with offensive productivity. This year is no exception. The top three in our book, for this season, are Erik Karlsson (Ottawa), Zdeno Chara (Boston) and Shea Weber (Nashville).
Weber's case is built around the fact that he has scored more goals than any other defenseman (19 - tied with Karlsson) and forms a part of one of the league's top shut-down duos (+18 alongside Ryan Suter). Chara, a perennial contender for this hardware, leads his peers with a (+33) and is tied for second in points (52).
Our vote goes to Karlsson, whose 77 points almost lap the field and tell only part of the story of how he led the Ottawa Senators to a very successful and surprising season that will qualify them for the playoffs, when most pundits expected them to finish last in the Eastern Conference. He posted a league low (-30) last year but was among the best this season with a (+19), indicative of his improved in controlling the pace of the game when he was on the ice.
The Hart Trophy will once again be presented to the most valuable player to his team. The three candidates that I propose for this award represent three vastly different circumstances.
Jason Spezza is part of the veteran core of the Ottawa Senators, who, as mentioned above were the surprise team in the league this year. They added a number of young players to the mix and this team performed much better than expected. A big part of this unexpected result was the guidance and strong play of Spezza, who has produced one of the best offensive campaigns of his career, with 33g, 50a, along with a +12 rating. Over in Tampa, there will be no playoffs this spring, but that will not be Steven Stamkos' fault. The fourth year pro has eclipsed the 50-goal mark (58 so far) for the second time in his young career and that total is 10 more than his nearest rival. He will win the Rocket Richard trophy for this accomplishment and his 95 total points is second best in the league.
However, the Hart Trophy will go to Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, who rescued the Penguins in a year where they played most of the season without Sidney Crosby and top-scoring defenseman Kris Letang, among a host of other injuries. Without the insulation of a line centered by Crosby, Malkin's unit was subject to the best checking opposing combinations night in and night out but he rose above all of those obstacles to lead the league with 105 points. Malkin will also walk away with the Art Ross Trophy as the regular season's scoring champion. His efforts were instrumental in Pittsburgh's strong regular season performance, particularly in light of such a rash of injuries to key players. Now that some key pieces have returned they are viewed once again as a serious playoff threat.
The Vezina Trophy is awarded to the best goalie in the NHL. It was not easy coming up with three picks in this competitive category. Pekka Rinne made our final trio because he was a workhorse (71 appearances - second in the league) who led the loop with 42 wins and was the central figure in a defense-first philosophy that has led Nashville to the post season once again. It seems a case can be made for Henrik Lundqvist most years and this term is no different. He posted a 1.93 goals against average along with eight shutouts, while appearing in 61 games, in leading the Rangers to the top of the Eastern Conference.
The Vezina will go to Los Angeles's top goalie Jonathan Quick, who led the league with 10 shutouts and a miniscule 1.89 goals against average in 67 appearances. These numbers, and his 35 wins to date, are more impressive when we factor in the Kings' anemic offensive totals. They would not be in the playoff hunt with the heroic effort of Jonathan Quick.
The William Jennings Trophy goes to the goalies who have played at least 25 games for the team with the lowest goals against total in the league. It has been a long time since two goalies performed so well as a tandem in earning this award. The fact that they split the workload here was a large reason why neither was part of my Vezina consideration. They just didn't play enough games to get into that discussion. However the St Louis Blues can thank Jaroslav Halak (1.97 goals against average and six shutouts in 47 appearances) and Brian Elliott (1.49 goals against average and nine shutouts in 37 appearances) for leading them to the second best record in the Western Conference.
The Jack Adams Award is given to the top coach in the NHL. Once again Ottawa's situation will earn a mention, as the Sen's Paul McLean was the steward of the stunning turnaround in Canada's capital city, during his first full season behind their bench. He is widely credited for the assimilation of a young supporting cast with a group of grizzled veterans to exceed all expectations. In Nashville, Barry Trotz will once again finish up another terrific season and continue as the Predators only coach in club history. His perennial success is a marvelous achievement in light of the fact that most coaches don't exceed four or five years with one club before their messages and tactics become stale for their clubs. The Predators have continued to operate without a signature offensive star and adhere to Trotz' tight checking philosophy and are poised to be a tough out in the upcoming playoffs.
The runaway winner of the Adams Award will be Ken Hitchcock, who took over the job in St Louis after the Blues sputtered to a 6-7 start. Since his arrival the Blues have gone 42-14-11 and are primed for a long playoff run. Hitchcock implemented a defensive structure and the club bought in completely, to lead the league in team defense. He has seen his tactics succeed in a season that saw the Blues contend with a number of key injuries. The team's success in the face of that adversity only added to Hitchcock's case to win this recognition.
In some quarters the Lady Byng Trophy has come to be associated with some negative connotations because it is awarded to the player "adjudged with the most sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability." The physical element of hockey and accumulation of penalty minutes is heavily discounted with respect to this award. Nonetheless, a number of players qualify with top credentials.
Patrick Elias has carved out a lengthy career while adhering to the prerequisites for this award on an annual basis. This season he has surpassed the 70-point mark for the fifth time in his 15-year career and is still a key offensive cog, who plays within the rules (only 16 penalty minutes). Marian Hossa is back among the top point-producers in the league (t-10th with 77 points and has posted a +19 rating, while accumulating only 18 penalty minutes. He also assumed a greater leadership role down the stretch due to Jonathan Toews' injury woes.
The winner of the Lady Byng will be Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Despite the team's struggles he posted a career–best 37 goals. He's only one of four players with an active current streak of 4-30 goal seasons. He achieved this personal best despite being the primary focus of opposing checkers once again this season. His pace didn't decline even after losing the services of top-scoring linemate Joffrey Lupul. Kessel chose to fight back against the tight-checking by letting his superior hockey skills do the talking. He has been among the top-10 point scorers all year long and only been ticketed with 20 penalty minutes.
As the regular season winds down, two other major trophies remain at stake. The Conn Smythe Trophy will go to the most valuable player in the playoffs and of course the Stanley Cup will go to the winner of the playoffs. Who will win those? I can't tell you yet. That would take all the fun out of the next two months, wouldn't it?
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