Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
There are many things that differentiate the NHL from the other three major sports in the United States, but the one thing that particularly stands out among those is the emphasis on the end-of-season awards. Sure, MLB has the Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, and Bronze Batting Gloves (made that last one up), but when push comes to shove, no sport has quite the variety of trophies that hockey is blessed with.
With all of those awards come controversy, however. What really qualifies a player to win the Norris Trophy? Is it based solely on defensive skills, or do offensive statistics have to play a big factor? It’s arguments like that which make award season fun, and with everyone coming out with their big list of winners, I decided that it was high time that I weigh in with my choices.
Instead of doing each award with the entire league being eligible, I decided that I wanted to give out the six major awards to each of hockey’s six divisions. With that, here are the winners of the 36 trophies that I will be handing out (with my choices for the entire NHL highlighted in bold type):
Vezina (Best Goaltender): Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins
Thomas has been getting a lot of buzz this season, and rightly so. After being supplanted last season by Tuukka Rask, Thomas put his head down and worked extremely hard to grab the starting job back. The Bruins’ decision to give him the crease back has paid huge dividends, with Thomas leading the league in both Goals Against Average (2.02) and Save Percentage (.938%). There are plenty of arguments for other players to win the Vezina (which we will get to within the other divisions), but at least in my eyes, Thomas has earned this award throughout the league.
Selke (Best Defensive Forward): Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
Bergeron has been getting plenty of buzz for the Selke this season, and rightfully so. He has a +20 for one of the best defensive teams in the NHL, and when you factor in his stellar back-checking ability and his 56.6% success rate in the face-off dot, you have a recipe for a guy who can control the play in both zones and that is crucial to being a solid defender.
While Subban has rubbed a lot of folks throughout the league the wrong way this season, his play on the ice speaks to a huge amount for potential excellence. He has scored 14 goals, including three game-winners, and he has dished out 24 assists. He does need to cut back on his penalty minutes (124 PIM this season), but when you consider his physical style of play, offensive touch, and high energy that he brings to the ice, you can see the makings of an elite level defenseman in this league.
Norris (Best Defenseman): Zdeno Chara, Boston
Chara is a perennial contender for this award, and while most of his notoriety has come for the wrong reasons (see his hit on Max Pacioretty), he has had another stellar defensive campaign. He has racked up a very respectable +31 this season, and he has been equally effective on offense as well, scoring 14 goals and dishing out 29 assists. When push comes to shove, he will always be in the Norris conversation because of his body of work, and he is definitely in the upper tier of NHL d-men.
Whether dealing with injuries to key members of the squad, or with the team’s lackluster play in the first half of the season, the Sabres have maintained an even keel in large part because of the coaching of Ruff. The longest-tenured coach in the league has benefited greatly from having guys like Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller in the fold, but his hard-nosed style is still a huge influence on his players, and having that kind of pull after having been around the locker room for so long shows just how good a coach Ruff is.
This decision would have been a lot easier if Sidney Crosby had been healthy the entire season, but since he wasn’t the award seems appropriate to give to the man I feel is the most important Flyer. He has 75 points this season (25 G, 50 A), and his effectiveness is felt in all areas of the game, including on the power play and penalty kill. He is one of the best two-way forwards in the game, and while he may not get the notoriety his fellow Keystone State denizens do, he definitely deserves any recognition that he gets.
When discussing fantastic seasons by goaltenders, the conversation absolutely has to include the performance that “Hank” has put forth. His 35-26-5 record may not be the sparkling mark required to be a legit contender for the Vezina, but his 2.27 GAA and .923 save percentage definitely qualify him for that conversation. His 11 shutouts for a team not known for its defensive prowess is another spectacular figure.
Selke: Frans Nielsen, New York Islanders
Playing on Long Island isn’t exactly a surefire way to get attention in the NHL, but Nielsen’s defensive play has been hard to ignore this season. He is a +13 for a squad who didn’t have a prayer of getting into the playoffs by December, and his 63 blocked shots are a very solid number for a center. There’s also the matter of his solid contributions on the penalty kill for New York, where is he is particularly adept at intercepting the puck and rushing the other way, as evidenced by his seven short-handed goals this season.
Calder: Michael Grabner, New York Islanders
Amid what was a lost season for the Isles, Grabner was a huge breath of fresh air. Joining other talented youngsters like John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, Grabner is currently 10th in the NHL with 30 goals this season, and his six short-handed markers are second in the league behind the aforementioned Nielsen.
With the injuries to teammates like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, it would have been understandable if the Penguins offense had gone down the drain more quickly than Charlie Sheen’s sobriety. Letang didn’t let that happen, however, as he has bolstered their offensive attack with his 49 points. He has also played very solid defense, and if his numbers were just a bit higher, he would certainly be getting Norris consideration league-wide.
Adams: Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh Penguins
When your top two players get injured, it would be pretty easy to hang your head struggle to get into the playoffs. Bylsma did not let his Penguins do that, however, and showed why he has had such a great deal of success since coming into the NHL two seasons ago. Other coaches will get plenty of well-deserved kudos when it comes to making cases for this award, but Bylsma is at the top of the heap in my eyes.
Hart: Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning
One of the most under-the-radar contenders for the Hart this season, St. Louis has had a season to remember in Tampa Bay. His 65 assists are second in the NHL, and his 95 points are ranked third. He’s also had a flair for the dramatic this season, scoring seven game-winning goals for the Bolts.
If there is one player who can be given credit for the Canes still hanging around the playoff race, it has to be Ward. He has played an NHL-leading 72 games in net for Carolina, has a 2.56 GAA and is fourth in the league with 36 wins. Not a bad season for a guy whose team might miss the playoffs.
Selke: Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals
At first blush, this may seem like an odd choice. After all, Backstrom is better known for his passing ability and as a leader on Washington’s top line, but he has put up some very sneaky numbers on the defensive side of the puck this season. He has forced 73 takeaways, which is fifth in the NHL, and he has also blocked 64 shots. When you factor in his ability to win face-offs and his +24 plus/minus, you can make a solid case for him to win this award in the Southeast.
Calder: Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes
Speaking of youngsters with huge offensive upside, Skinner has been a real treat to watch this season. The youngest All-Star ever in any of the four major sports, Skinner has scored 30 goals for the Canes this season, and he has shown an ability to create on offense that is impossible to teach. He will be a force for many years to come in Raleigh, and it will be entertaining to watch him every step of the way.
Norris: Dustin Byfuglien, Atlanta Thrashers
Byfuglien’s first season in Atlanta started with a bang, and while it didn’t wrap up with quite the same furious pace of scoring, he is still one of the best offensive defensemen in the league. He has scored 20 goals and dished out 33 assists on the season, and his 342 shots are currently second most in the NHL. If he can improve his defense a bit, he’ll be a viable two-way threat on the blue line for many years to come.
Adams: Guy Boucher, Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning may have been picked by experts from all over the place to leap into the playoffs this season, but that shouldn’t take away from the job that Boucher has done in turning this team around. Having Steven Stamkos and St. Louis certainly helps matters, but his work in getting the most out of other less-heralded players needs to be recognized.
Playing in a city like Nashville, Rinne will never get the recognition that players like Thomas and Carey Price will get, but he deserves to be in the Vezina discussion. He has a 32-21-9 record, a GAA of 2.14 (3rd in the league), and a blistering save percentage of .929% (2nd in the league). His six shutouts also rank him 5th in the NHL, so it has been a great all-around season for Rinne.
Selke: Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
Toews pulls double duty on this list, and even though he isn’t getting a lot of publicity for the Hart, he certainly is getting some recognition for the Selke, and rightfully so. He wins face-offs at one of the highest rates in the league, has a very respectable +23 this season, and his back-checking makes him widely recognized as one of the top defensive forwards in the game. To have this kind of defensive reputation usually takes playing many years, but Toews’ maturity level has always been way more advanced than his 22 years would indicate.
Calder: Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks
Crawford is having one of the best seasons of any Blackhawks goaltender in recent memory, sporting a 33-17-6 record and becoming the first Hawks goalie since Jocelyn Thibault to win 30 games in a season. His 2.27 GAA is ranked 6th in the NHL, and he has established himself nicely in the league after a long time spent in the AHL.
Norris: Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings
While the 2010-11 season hasn’t been Lidstrom’s most spectacular, it is remarkable what he is doing at the age of 40. He has 62 points this season (16 goals, 46 assists), and he has remained one of the league’s top defensive defenseman as well. No one is sure if this will be Lidstrom’s last season in the Motor City, but even if it is his last rodeo, he has forever etched his name into the history of the game.
Adams: Barry Trotz, Nashville Predators
An argument can certainly be made for Mike Babcock in this spot, but the choice of Trotz has its upside as well. He has led Nashville to yet another playoff berth, and even though he isn’t often mentioned in the conversation of best coaches in the league, he has a knack for getting the most out of his time in a small market, and he is deserving of any praise that he gets.
After his twin brother won the award last season, Daniel has gone on to have a tremendous campaign this year. Widely considered a Hart favorite, he has scored 41 goals, picked up 61 assists, and he is the league leader in power play markers with 18. His flair for the dramatic in scoring 10 game winning goals has helped Vancouver to the President’s Trophy, and he is just one of the Canucks having a tremendous campaign.
Vezina: Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks
With a league-leading 38 wins, Luongo has been another spark plug for this elite bunch. He is currently second in the league in GAA with a 2.11 mark, and he is currently third with a save percentage of .928%. If he played on the East Coast, he would be getting a lot more kudos than he currently is, and he definitely belongs in the discussion of who the best goaltenders in the game are.
Selke: Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks
Kesler has been considered a Selke contender for many years now, but he has played in the shadow of Pavel Datsyuk for so long that he really hasn’t had a shot at the award. This season has been different, however, as Kesler as burst into the hockey community’s conscience with a tremendous offensive campaign, and his defense has helped him become one of the best two-way forwards in the entire league. If there was a year that Kesler could finally break through and win the Selke, it would be this one.
Even though he has missed a good number of games this season, Hall made a very good impression in his first season in Edmonton. He scored 22 goals and picked up 20 assists in 65 games for the Oilers, and his ability to contribute on the power play in scoring eight man-advantage tallies definitely puts him among the league’s best up-and-coming forwards.
Norris: Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames
While he may be an unconventional choice for this award, Giordano has had a quietly effective season for Calgary’s blue line corps. He has been solid offensively in picking up 33 assists, and he has also been extremely good on defense, blocking 191 shots and dishing out 138 hits. His minus-8 will be pointed to by detractors as a negative, but when you look at those other numbers, it’s hard not to consider his season a really good one.
Adams: Alain Vigneault, Vancouver Canucks
In a division where no team made the playoffs except for the Canucks, the winner of this award is a foregone conclusion. Vigneault took a team that has been a perennial playoff disappointment and led them to their best regular season in team history, and he has kept the team clicking even while their blue line group has been beset by injuries. If he can lead this team to a Cup championship, he’ll establish himself as one of the best coaches in the game today.
The only player to score 50 goals in the NHL this season, Perry has helped the Ducks stay in the thick of the playoff chase even as they’ve dealt with injuries to several key players, including their All-Star goaltender Jonas Hiller. He has had some good help from Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan, but when push comes to shove, Perry has stepped his game up to another level this year, and that’s good enough for him to be my MVP.
Vezina: Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
With six shutouts this season, Quick has firmly established himself as a member of a great group of American goalies (along with Thomas and Miller) who are giving hockey in this country a leg up internationally. He also has 35 wins for a team that’s in contention for the fourth seed in the playoffs, and he has the ability to single-handedly keep the Kings in games even when their offense is struggling.
Selke: Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings
Matt Reitz at Pro Hockey Talk said it best when he wrote that Kings coach Terry Murray is trusting Kopitar with some of the most difficult matchups on the ice on any given night. Kopitar is a plus-25 for Los Angeles, and while he may be known more for his offensive prowess, his defensive game is definitely worthy of attention.
Calder: Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks
Couture is mentioned along with Skinner as one of the top rookies in the game this season, and he has been a huge part of San Jose’s recent success that is carrying them into the playoffs. His 31 goals are particularly impressive, and he fits right into the Sharks’ system with guys like Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski to mentor him.
Norris: Keith Yandle, Phoenix Coyotes
Lubomir Visnovsky may be getting all of the publicity as a Norris candidate, but I’m going to buck the trend a little bit and put Yandle ahead of him. Not only does he lead the Coyotes in points this season, but he has also played on the defensive side of the puck effectively for Phoenix as well. It is always nice to have a guy like Ilya Bryzgalov in the crease behind you, but his ability to start the rush or to stay at home depending on the situation is a rare asset, and the Coyotes are lucky to have him.
Adams: Dave Tippett, Phoenix Coyotes
He was the Adams winner last year, and Tippett has made another strong case for the prize with his performance this season. His gritty defensive style has led Phoenix to the playoffs for the second year in a row, and the team is certainly headed in the right direction under his leadership. Some teams may chafe under a disciplinarian like Tippett, but if this bunch is doing that, they aren’t showing it with their play on the ice.