It seems like only yesterday that the NHL season got underway in mid-January, but as we stand right now we are already nearing the completion of a third of the schedule. We’ve seen some crazy performances turned in by unexpected faces (Viktor Fasth, Thomas Vanek, the whole Montreal Canadiens roster) and we’ve also seen teams like the Washington Capitals and Los Angeles Kings struggle mightily. It seems as though the only rule for this shortened season is that there is no such thing as expected outcomes.
In that vein, the boys from Puck Daddy have been keeping a sharp eye on the prime contenders for the various NHL awards, which will be a bit more interesting with less information to work with this season. In the latest iteration of the piece, the group’s choices gave a lot of praise to the Central Division, and rightfully so. Three teams from that division are currently occupying the top five in the Western Conference standings, including the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks. The Detroit Red Wings are a shade out of the playoffs if they were to begin today, and of course there are the retooling Columbus Blue Jackets, who have already taken a cannon-blast sized shot to the foot with their sluggish start.
The question that needs to be asked about the PD rankings is whether or not they are accurate. Sure, there is going to be a ton of sway in the polling, just as there is when the blog does its nightly Conn Smythe watch during the playoffs, but with a third of the season already in the books, the picture is a bit clearer on the potential award contenders.
With that, let’s break down where the guys have ranked players and coaches from the Central in this week’s rankings:
1. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
4. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
It isn’t unreasonable to think that Kane should be among the top contenders for league MVP this year, and to their great credit, the voters do reflect just how tight this race should be. Kane only won by two points over second place Sidney Crosby, so it’s hard to be particularly critical of the choice.
The bigger point of contention is the placement of Rinne in the rankings. As Wyshynski said in the post, “Rinne is backstopping the worst offensive team in hockey at the moment.” The Predators, who are only scoring a shade over two goals a game, are still in the fifth spot in the West right now, and would possibly be even higher than that if they could get anything going in the shootout, which they have lost four of this season.
Rinne should more than likely be ahead of Vanek despite the Sabres’ sniper’s blistering start, and could even threaten the top two of Kane and Crosby if he continues to play the way he has in a season where people were paying close attention to whether or not he could thrive without Ryan Suter in front of him.
1. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues
3. Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis Blues
Before the season, a lot of prognosticators felt that Pietrangelo was going to not only be a key to the Blues’ defense of their Central Division title, but also a prime contender for the Norris. He has definitely lived up to that billing this season, with 12 points and a couple of power play tallies to his credit. He is a minus-2, but when you consider the struggles of Brian Elliott and the injury to Jaroslav Halak, as well as his nearly 26 minutes of ice time a night, that isn’t totally unexpected.
Shattenkirk is averaging nearly a point per game this season and is also a plus-3. He also recently recorded his 100th career point, and is making a strong case for inclusion on the 2014 US Men’s hockey team in the upcoming Sochi Olympics.
Both of those players are pretty fairly positioned in PD’s voting, but one player that could potentially make a case for inclusion is Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith. He won the award back in 2010 when the Hawks won the Stanley Cup, and this season has largely seen him return to form. His performance on Sunday afternoon against the Kings in Chicago was a great microcosm of his case for inclusion on this list, featuring several excellent passes to set up goals and some tremendous defensive plays as well.
2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
3. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks
The only award that Puck Daddy voters didn’t cede to the Central Division was this one, but with tremendous reason. Craig Anderson is single handedly keeping the Ottawa Senators in the playoff hunt, and his tremendous play not only has him in the driver’s seat for this award but also in serious consideration for the Hart as well.
Rinne is definitely the head of the class when it comes to goalies in the Central, but the question of including Crawford is a legitimate one. There isn’t a candidate who has a bulletproof case to oust him from his third spot in the rankings (although if Fasth continues his hot start with the Ducks, that could be the case in short order), but Carey Price of the Canadiens and Kari Lehtonen of the Stars both have at least solid arguments to take over Crawford’s slot.
One thing to keep an eye on here is whether the play of Ray Emery in net for Chicago will cause head coach Joel Quenneville to consider keeping Crawford on the bench when he heals up from an upper body injury that has sidelined him in recent games. Quenneville has been known to ride the hot hand (see Antti Niemi over Cristobal Huet, and Crawford over Marty Turco), so he could be posed with a dilemma if Emery continues to sparkle in net for the Hawks.
1. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues
This is probably going to be just as competitive of a race as the Hart contest this year, with several players providing stiff challenges to Tarasenko’s spot at the top. Cory Conacher has been outstanding for the Lightning, and Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers has been coming on strong of late as well. The Puck Daddy crew made the right call in giving Tarasenko the slimmest of edges over Conacher, but even if they hadn’t their reasoning would’ve been sound in such a tight race.
Jack Adams Award
1. Joel Quenneville, Chicago Blackhawks
5. Barry Trotz, Nashville Predators
This is one of the rare instances where the guys arguably both Central entries wrong. Quenneville’s club has gone 15 straight games with a point this season, the second best start in NHL history, but the fact of the matter is that Bruce Boudreau’s Anaheim Ducks came from out of nowhere to nearly keep pace with the Hawks’ blistering start. Boudreau is the Adams winner at this point hands down, but Quenneville is probably getting the nod on his team’s dominating performance alone.
As for Trotz, he deserves to be slotted higher than fifth. The system he has implemented has demonstrated its strength despite losing a key component of it in Suter, and you have to give his coaching style a great deal of credit for Nashville’s success this season.
James started out for The Hockey Writers covering the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009, and has also covered the Chicago Blackhawks, served as NHL Correspondent, and is now a Managing Editor and the site’s NHL Central Blogger. He also writes for The Golf Writers.