With the San Jose Sharks locked into the second spot in the Pacific Division and a couple of largely meaningless regular-season games remaining, it is time to hand out the THW awards for the Sharks. But before we start, we’ll cover the two Sharks who will challenge for league-wide awards.
Brent Burns is a likely finalist for the Norris Trophy. And while he’d be a deserving winner, sentiment seems to favor Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames. Joe Thornton is going to get votes for the Masterton Trophy for his comeback season after two major knee surgeries. He’d be a very deserving winner. This is a very tricky award to predict and there are other deserving candidates such as New York Islanders goalie Robin Lehner who overcame mental health challenges to lead his team to the playoffs.
Now onto the Sharks’ team awards.
Most Valuable Player: Brent Burns
Candidates: Brent Burns, Tomas Hertl, Joe Pavelski, Timo Meier
A close call. The Sharks are a team where several top players make important contributions. Meier and Hertl are the team’s top even strength scorers. The Sharks are a power-forward-driven team; Hertl and Meier are power players other teams struggle to handle. We’ll cover both players in more detail later in the article.
Pavelski leads the team in goals and it seems like every one comes at a key moment. His absence and the Sharks’ sharp downward turn coincided, adding to his case.
Ultimately, the winner is Burns. He’s been playing huge minutes, while juggling partners for much of the season. He is the rare defenseman who leads his team in scoring, he leads all NHL defensemen in scoring and he’s a solidly plus-player. While Drew Doughty was right, Burns does make defensive mistakes, he’s simply too big a force to deny. He plays on all three units (he’s genuinely good on the penalty kill), and his presence changes the way opponents match up.
Best Newcomer: Erik Karlsson
Candidates: Erik Karlsson, Radim Simek, Lukas Radil
Last season’s winner: Evander Kane
This one sorts out easily. We’ll discuss Simek and Radil more in the rookie category, but this award goes to Karlsson. It hasn’t been an easy or pretty season for him. He struggled the first couple months with Marc-Edouard Vlasic as his partner. Far too often he was seen chasing odd-man rushes the other way, and on Dec. 1, he was a minus-11 after his return trip to Ottawa.
A change in partner to Brenden Dillon and a change in mindset changed everything. For the next quarter of the season, he played like the league’s most valuable player. He averaged 1.5 points-per-game, was a plus-18 and the Sharks went 16-3-2 during the stretch. Alas, the stretch ended with an injury that largely ended Karlsson’s regular season. It is worth noting how important this stretch was, the Sharks have been an average team over the rest of the season (28-24-7). Karlsson made a brief and less than compelling return (for some reason, paired again with Vlasic, not Dillon), but it only lasted four games before he was injured again. He’s been shut down since.
Most Improved: Brenden Dillon
Candidates: Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, Tomas Hertl, Brenden Dillon, Tim Heed, Marcus Sorensen
Last season’s winner: Timo Meier
It is good to have a lengthy list on this front. Each candidate took significant steps forward. At the start of the season, I wasn’t sold on Kevin Labanc. He is having a solid season and is sixth on the team in scoring (helped by top unit power-play minutes), though he remains a defensive liability. Still, his improvement is noteworthy and it is no longer a shock when he wins a puck battle. Linemate Marcus Sorensen is also in the discussion. His 28 points have all come at even strength and his 16 even-strength goals are sixth on the team. Last season, he was a part-time player on the fourth line, he is now a fixture on the third line. And he is a solid plus-nine.
A pair of power forwards both took big steps this season. Meier, the winner of this award last season, continued to improve this season. He reached the 30-goal mark for the first time, nearly doubled his point total and leads the Sharks forwards at plus-10.
The injury to Erik Karlsson opened up an opportunity for Tim Heed and he took it. Vlasic had a disappointing season, but when Heed entered the lineup, the pairing worked and Vlasic’s second half was much improved over his first half. Heed has chipped in solidly on the offensive side (his forte), but has also been reasonably good defensively His plus-11 rating is among the team’s best.
Hertl was a very good player before this season, but my goodness, he was often the best player on the ice this season. He put up career-best numbers, by a bunch, in goals and assists, but neither tells the full story. Hertl took on the big assignments and delivered. One can argue whether he’s the Sharks’ top line center, but he is the team’s best forward.
His highlight reel for the season is incredible, from the opening-night goal against the Anaheim Ducks (voted the NHL’s best in the first half of the season) to the goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins (he knocks over one defender and kicks the stick away from another) to a goal he didn’t even get a point for against the Vegas Golden Knights (taking two defenders and the goalie out of the play to set up the score).
The winner is Dillon because he’s simply been very good across a lot of situations. He’s been sort of a Swiss Army knife, tasked to play with a variety of partners. Dillon’s improvement really began a year ago, but he has taken full flight this season. His plus-18 rating leads the team and when he was paired with Erik Karlsson in early December, the pairing was the best in the league. In a season with plenty of very good candidates, Dillon stands out.
Rookie of the Year: Radim Simek
Candidates: Radim Simek, Lukas Radil
Last season’s winner: Joakim Ryan
Though neither technically qualifies as a rookie by NHL standards (they are too old), they are both first time NHLers, and really the only two which deserve consideration. Both have had solid seasons.
Radil stepped into a fourth-line role, and while he’s been in and out of the lineup, he’s managed close to half a season’s worth of games. He uses his big body effectively and makes the Sharks’ fourth line a tough matchup.
Simek gets the nod because he was an excellent partner for Burns; the pair dominated once Simek took over for Joakim Ryan. Unfortunately, Simek’s season ended with torn knee ligaments. Defensively responsible, he finished a very respectable plus-seven and contributed nine points, all at even strength. He also provided a physical presence which added to the Sharks’ game.