The 2011-12 NHL season has so far provided fans of the league with a myriad of compelling stories that add to the rich fabric of our sport. For teams like Boston and Detroit, early slumps have given way to absolute brilliance as the squads have risen to the top of their respective conferences. Others, such as Columbus and Buffalo, have seen their offseason ‘visions of sugar-plums’ dance their way right out of their helmet-covered heads.
As many of the usual suspects jockey for positions in the respective award considerations, some of the best performances just past the halfway point have been by ‘unexpected’ candidates. In what appears to be the first season of many in the post-Crosby/Ovechkin era, the league finds itself in a desperate search for a new ‘posterboy’ to hook the casual fan. The league should perhaps look no further than my first midseason NHL award selection:
- Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP) – Evgeni Malkin – PIT (42GP, 26G, 58P, +12)
Evgeni Malkin has been nothing short of spectacular for the Pittsburgh Penguins this season. Committing to a whole new training and fitness regimen in the offseason, Malkin rededicated himself to his game and becoming more of a leader among his teammates. In the absence of Sidney Crosby – who is still out of the Pens’ lineup with concussion symptoms after having played only 8 games – Malkin’s leadership has made all the difference for a Penguins team that very recently was struggling to maintain a playoff position. The Penguins recent struggles, however, are now a thing of the past; Malkin has taken this team on his shoulders, scorching opponents for 15 points over his last 10 contests and registering at least 1 goal in each of the last 7 games – all Penguins’ victories. The once highly lambasted Russian, in a renaissance season, is my selection for the Hart Memorial Trophy.
- Vezina Trophy (Best Goalie) – Jimmy Howard – DET (42GP, 30Wins, 2.03GAA, .924SV%)
After a somewhat maligned 2010-11 season that saw Jimmy Howard regress from his ‘rookie’ campaign, the 27-year old entered the year committed to establishing himself as one of the league’s top netminders. With a staggering 30 wins going into the All-Star break, Jimmy Howard has achieved that distinction and then some. Howard ranks 1st in the NHL in Wins, 5th in GAA, 9th in SV% and 4th in SHO – numbers that reflect just how dominant his play has been for the Red Wings. One of the major reasons why the Red Wings are currently 1st overall in the NHL, Jimmy Howard is my selection for the Vezina Trophy.
- Norris Memorial Trophy (Best Defenseman) - Zdeno Chara – BOS (45GP, 7G, 27P, +26)
There is certainly no shortage of top-drawer candidates for the Norris Memorial Trophy – awarded to the league’s best all-around defenseman. With breakout seasons from the likes of Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators) and Alex Edler (Vancouver Canucks), and career-best performances from Nashville’s Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, the Norris has not had so many worthy candidates since the days of Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin and Larry Robinson. Despite all the ‘sexy’ candidates for this award, Zdeno Chara is still the most intimidating – and defensively responsible – defender in the NHL. In addition to his league-leading +/- rating among blueliners, Chara ranks 12th among defenseman in scoring and eats up huge minutes for the Bruins, averaging 25+ per game. For these reasons, ‘Big Z’ is my selection for the Norris Memorial Trophy.
- Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – EDM (38GP, 13G, 35P, 80SOG)
The most recent first-overall selection in the NHL Entry draft wasn’t exactly expected to set the league on fire playing for an Edmonton squad in a state of ‘rebuilding.’ Many experts predicted the shifty – but frail – Center would return to Red Deer of the WHL to fill out his 175-lb. frame and gain more confidence and experience for the NHL. Instead, ‘Nuge’ registered 5 goals and 9 points over his first 9 NHL games, forcing Tambellini and Renney to keep the gifted youngster with the big club. Despite having missed the past 11 games with an upper-body injury, Nugent-Hopkins still ranks 1st among NHL rookies in scoring with 35 points – just one atop New Jersey’s Adam Henrique. Nugent-Hopkins should be nearing full health following the All-Star break, and a return to magic for Edmonton’s ‘Kid Line’ seems more than likely. RNH could be the first NHL-freshman to register a point-per-game since Evgeni Malkin in 2006-07; thus, he is entirely deserving of my selection for the Calder Memorial Trophy.
- Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (Best Sportsmanship) – Pavel Datsyuk – DET (49GP, 14G, 53P, +20, 12 PIMs)
I really wanted to give this award to Matt Cooke, whom I believe to be the most reformed player in the NHL in terms of pure sportsmanship; however, I chose to award the Lady Byng to Pavel Datsyuk for not only his irreverence for the penalty-box, but also his unheralded puck skills and offensive prowess. For an example of Datsyuk’s zany dangling skills, check out this shootout marker from 2006. Since the Lady Byng is awarded to the player who displays the “best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability,” there is perhaps no better candidate than Pavel Datsyuk. The mild-mannered Russian has only 6 minor penalties on the year, while holding down the 3rd overall spot in league scoring. Because there is no better ‘good guy’ in the whole NHL than Datsyuk, he is my selection for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy.
- Frank Selke Trophy (Defensive Forward) – Patrice Bergeron – BOS (47GP, 15G, 43P, +27)
Since recovering from a concussion that kept him out of action for much of the 2007-08 NHL season, Patrice Bergeron has achieved a true rebirth of his career. Many wondered whether Bergeron would ever make a full recovery, producing to his historic norm and playing two-way hockey at an elite level. While it may have taken him a couple seasons to shake off the rust, it seems that ‘PB37′ is back to his old tricks for the Northeast Division leading Bruins. Bergeron is tied for 22nd in league scoring with 43 points and boasts an NHL-second best +27 rating. Patrice Bergeron’s return to [potentially] award-winning form is proof positive that it’s possible for NHL players to make a full recovery from the devastating injury that is a concussion. In today’s National ‘Headshot’ League, Bergeron’s story gives everyone a reason to smile. Due to his defensive acumen and a rekindled scoring touch, Patrice Bergeron is my selection for the Frank Selke Trophy.
- Jack Adams Award (Best Coach) – Paul MacLean – OTT (52GP, 27-19-6, .577 Win%)
In a season filled with first-half surprises, none have been more unexpected than the strong play of the Ottawa Senators. Written off at the start of the season as a probable bottom-feeder, the Senators seemed poised for a lottery selection in the upcoming draft; but to everyone’s surprise, the Senators have rocketed out to a 5th place position in the Eastern Conference – guided by monster performances from Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek, and Erik Karlsson. A great deal of the credit must be given to MacLean, as well. He has allowed this young, developing team to gain confidence in a low-pressure atmosphere while playing an enjoyable up-tempo style of hockey. The first-year head coach, and product of Mike Babcock’s staff in Detroit, has the Senators buying in to the system 100% and they will only continue to improve as a team going forward. While a lengthy slump is by no means out of the question for this fresh Ottawa club, there is no question that Paul MacLean is in the ‘coach of the year’ discussion. Thus, he is my midseason selection for the Jack Adams Award.
- Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy (Perseverance) – Joffrey Lupul – TOR (49GP, 20G, 32A, +3)
There is, in my humble opinion, no better story in the NHL this season than that of Mr. Joffrey Lupul. Having dealt with major back injuries, and multiple subsequent infections that threatened his long-term health and NHL career, it is truly a miracle that Joffrey Lupul is again playing the game he loves. But not only has Lupul beaten the odds by walking again, rehabilitating his musculature after months of atrophy, and resuming his NHL career; Lupul has also been one of the most consistent offensive producers over the course of the season. Through 49 games played, Lupul sits 6th in league scoring – behind only perennial studs like Malkin, Stamkos, Datsyuk and Giroux. Joffrey Lupul’s struggle reveals to us all that life is most certainly bigger than the game of hockey. But maybe, just maybe sometimes the game of hockey can make one’s life truly ‘bigger.’ Such is the case with Joffrey Lupul and the ultimate display of resiliency in the face of long-term debilitation and loss of his career. The battle-scarred journeyman – now with his fourth NHL team – is without question my selection for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.