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The Sideline Observer

Sports and Culture Commentary

Midseason NHL Award Races: Stars Young & Old Impress in First Half

It’s time to start looking at who’s winning the races for NHL awards so far in the season as the All-Star break approaches. We’ve included three finalists for each award (in alphabetical order) and then our own individual picks for who comes out on top.

Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP)

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning are dominant this year, with a ten-point lead in the President’s Trophy race. That dominance starts with Nikita Kucherov. The Russian right winger leads the league with an eye-popping 78 points in 49 games, putting him on pace for 131 points this season and making him the quickest player to reach 70 points since 1992-93. The last player to finish an NHL season with 130+ points was Mario Lemieux in 1996.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

Let’s just say that the last time either the Colorado Avalanche or someone on the Avalanche was relevant, I wasn’t even a hockey fan yet. Fortunately, Nathan MacKinnon is here to defrost the cold streak. The 23-year-old has made a distinct name for himself this season.

Although he was a finalist for this award last year, the continued growth of MacKinnon and the Avalanche is making people truly pay attention. MacKinnon, who has 70 points (27 goals), will have to continue to carry Colorado towards the playoff if he wants a chance at the Hart trophy this time around.

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

Connor McDavid is simply the best player in the NHL. That’s an indisputable fact. The award, though, is intended for the player most valuable to his team this year. Though McDavid is fourth in the league with 72 points, his Oilers sit one spot out of the playoffs. If the Oilers do make the playoffs, McDavid will be the only reason why. Regardless, there’s an argument to be made that he’s more valuable to his team than anyone else in the league.

Our Picks:

Shane: Connor McDavid will find a new level of production given the playoff battle he is in and will take the Oilers back to the playoffs for only the second time in 13 seasons. If he does this, McDavid getting the Hart trophy is a lock. Also, look for McDavid to lead the NHL in both points and goals by the time the 2018-19 season comes to a close.

Tiger: I’m not necessarily a fan of just handing the MVP award to the scoring leader every year, and part of me expects McDavid to catch Nikita Kucherov in the scoring race anyway (like he did last year). But for right now, Kucherov is on pace for the best statistical season in the history of the modern NHL. That can’t be ignored.

James Norris Memorial Trophy (Best Defenseman)

Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks

It seems to be a certainty to see either Brent Burns or Erik Karlsson on this list, and this year they happen to play for the same team. Of the two, Burns stands out, solely due to Karlsson’s at times rocky assimilation into the Shark’s system. Burns leads NHL defensemen in points (52) and remains a force to be reckoned with on defense, whether blocking shots or delivering devastating hits. If Burns is looking to claim his second Norris Trophy in three years, he needs to continue his incredible scoring pace and lead the Sharks to a comfortable playoff berth. Karlsson could easily earn this spot if he continues his recent play.

Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames

Giordano sits tied with Burns in points and has already beaten his career high point total — as a 35-year-old only halfway through the season. He also leads the NHL with a +36 rating. In the process, he has captained Calgary to first place in the loaded Pacific Division and the NHL’s second best record. He’s also second in the league in point shares, an advanced stat that attempts to translate a player’s contributions into the number of points he’s earned his team in the standings.

Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

Morgan Rielly has been a consistently dominant two-way player for Toronto, the Eastern Conference’s second-best team. He leads all defensemen with 13 goals, without letting that distract from his steady defensive work, he stands at third in points (48). Rielly is on pace to break the Maple Leafs’ single-season points record for a defenseman (79), and if he does so, look for him to be a top contender for the Norris Trophy. While it’s not easy to stand out on this Maple Leafs team, Rielly is the clear driving force behind the league’s seventh-ranked defense.

Our Picks:

Shane: The Calgary Flames continue to fly towards the best record in the Western Conference, and 35-year-old Mark Giordano wins his first Norris Trophy after never placing above sixth.

Tiger: It’s a bit of an unlikely choice, but I think it’s finally time for Mark Giordano to win his first Norris. He’s so important to Calgary’s success right now and has quietly turned into an elite two-way defenseman, and those contributions deserve to be recognized.

Vezina Trophy (Best Goalie)

Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs

Freddy Andersen has been a rock for the talented Leafs. At age 29, he is tied for third in save percentage among goalies who have played 20+ games (.922), Andersen is having his best season yet. He is also third in goals saved above average (+15) and leads all starters in quality win percentage (.667). If Freddy Andersen is keen on contending for his first Vezina trophy, he needs to continue to stand out in the second half of the season.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights

Fleury has played in an incredible 43 of Vegas’ 50 games so far (for comparison, he played only 46 all of last season) and has logged 200 more minutes than any other goalie. He’s picked up six shutouts, three more than anyone else, and 27 wins, five more than anyone else. This workhorse’s save percentage and goals against average aren’t spectacular, but they’re not bad enough to remove him from contention. In terms of value to his team, Fleury is unmatched among goalies.

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks

John Gibson was running away with this trophy only about two or three weeks ago. Since then, Anaheim lost 12 straight games and see themselves one game out of a playoff spot. The reason they are only two points out… John Gibson, who faced more shots — and made more saves — than any goaltender through the first half of the season. With the Ducks looking more and more like a less-than-mediocre club, Gibson can generate more Vezina noise if he continues to carry them.

Our Picks:

Shane: I want to say Gibson, but the Ducks are hideous. I even want to say Freddy Anderson or Andrei Vasilevsky, but their teams are too stacked to correctly measure each player’s value. In order to pick a Vezina winner, voters go with the player that stands out. It’s time Marc-Andre Fleury wins his first Vezina at age 34 while carrying the Vegas Golden Knights to back-to-back playoff berths.

Tiger: Great stats plus backstopping one of the top teams in the league is a tried-and-true recipe for a Vezina, so I give it to Frederik Andersen. He’s been injured lately, but he’ll come back and pick up right where he left off; being a brick wall for the Leafs.

Calder Memorial Trophy (Rookie of the Year)

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres

At the beginning of the season, the Calder seemed destined to go to 2018 first

overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, one of the best defenseman prospects in recent memory. Dahlin entered the league with plenty of comparisons to the great Swedish defenders that preceded him like Nicklas Lidstrom and Erik Karlsson (no pressure there). Indeed, the 18-year-old has been fantastic and — at least so far — lived up to his hype, racking up 26 points and a +6 rating. He’s on track to be an elite defenseman in the NHL, making him an obvious lock for a Calder finalist.

Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars

Miro Heiskanen, the Stars’ 3rd overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, has all the tools to be an all-time great two way defensemen. In his first season in the NHL after two  years in the Finnish league, Heiskanen has translated his elite skating and vision to the NHL without a hitch. While Heiskanen has only a slim chance to lift the Calder trophy, he has lived up to the Texas-sized expectations through the first half of his first NHL season and looks to be a staple for the Stars in the future.

Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks

Elias Pettersson wasn’t considered a future superstar when Vancouver picked him 5th in a weak 2017 NHL Draft. A year and a half and several overzealous Gretzky comparisons later, Pettersson is one of the best prospects we’ve seen in a while. After leading the Swedish Hockey League in scoring last year as a 19-year-old, and setting several records in the process, Pettersson hasn’t missed a beat in his first NHL season. He’s averaging more than a point per game with 44 points in 39 games, leading all rookies in scoring despite missing 11 games with two separate injuries.

Our Picks:

Shane: The NHL will include finalists for this award, so we did the same. Elias Pettersson will walk away with the Calder trophy barring a major injury.

Tiger: This one is barely a competition. Unless something major changes, Elias Pettersson will win the Calder unanimously.

Jack Adams Award (Coach of the Year)

Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning are the best team in the NHL, and it’s really not close. While it is tough to separate Jon Cooper’s true coaching ability from the All-Star caliber team he coaches, winning 37 out of 49 games is no small feat. Tampa is ninth in team defense and first in scoring, and all signs point to them running away with the Presidents’ trophy. If so, look for Jon Cooper to gain consideration for this year’s Jack Adams.

Bill Peters, Calgary Flames

After struggling with an often-underperforming Carolina Hurricanes team for the past four seasons, Bill Peters is leading the best team in the Western Conference and possibly the most surprising team in the NHL. Peters brought fellow former Hurricanes Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin (both vital pieces) with him to Calgary, and he now has the Flames on pace to obliterate last year’s point total with plenty of games remaining.  

Barry Trotz, New York Islanders

Trotz took over an Islanders franchise reeling after losing John Tavares to free agency. Most experts predicted them to be a bottom-dwelling team without Tavares, but Trotz has steadied the ship and transformed the Islanders into a potential playoff team. Trotz has brought defensive stability to the Islanders, as he has with every team he’s coached.

He’s made a legit starting goalie out of Robin Lehner, whose stats have been excellent so far. He’s also continued the development of 2018 Calder winner Mat Barzal, which is good to see, given how little faith Trotz showed in talented young players when he coached the Caps (see: Jakub Vrana).

Our Picks:

Shane: After stalling for four seasons with my Carolina Hurricanes, Bill Peters has established his worth in the NHL, proving every Caniac’s theory of bad puck luck. Peters  has taken the Calgary Flames (Lindholm and Hanifin included) to a new level this season, and while he might not have the league’s best team, he is certainly leading the league’s most pleasantly surprising team. If Calgary continues to lead the West, Peters will be the clear favorite for the Jack Adams trophy.

Tiger: It pains me to do this, but I also have to go with my team’s former coach: Barry Trotz. It’s not that I have hard feelings toward Trotz — it was really the Caps who moved on from him rather than the other way around — it’s just that I miss his presence on the Caps bench. The Islanders have no business being as good as they are, and he’s made them genuine playoff contenders.

General Manager of the Year

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs

In his first year as GM of the NHL’s most scrutinized franchise, the 33-year-old Dubas has come through on all the moves fans expected —and turned the Leafs into a Cup favorite in the process. He successfully wooed John Tavares out of free agency this summer, signing him to a long-term contract. He also re-signed William Nylander after an extended contract holdout. If he adds inexpensive defensive depth at the deadline and the Leafs continue to have success, Dubas could take this award in his first year.

Brian MacLellan, Washington Capitals

Brian MacLellan earns his spot on this list because he managed to keep together almost all of a Stanley Cup-winning team. Long-term contracts to John Carlson, Michal Kempny, and Tom Wilson seem to be turning out fantastically so far, with all three having career years. MacLellan also brilliantly kept Brooks Orpik by trading him with Philipp Grubauer to Colorado and then re-signing him for much cheaper after Colorado bought him out.

He managed to not waste money on an experienced backup goaltender, as some suggested he should after trading away Grubauer. Pheonix Copley has proven a capable and cheap option at that position, and MacLellan was right to trust him.

Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks

Wilson’s most impressive move to this point was picking up Erik Karlsson from the Senators without giving up any essential pieces in return. Wilson also locked up Evander Kane on a long-term deal and Joe Thornton for another year. If he picks up another asset at the deadline and the Sharks finish the season strong, he’ll certainly look like the favorite for this award.

Our Picks:

Shane: Kyle Dubas has one of the NHL’s toughest and most scrutinized jobs, yet he ran his first offseason as a general manager to near perfection. Signing Tavares and finally getting Nylander penned have the Maple Leafs looking like clear Stanley Cup contenders for years to come.

Tiger: This is a tough one because it depends heavily on deadline deals and late season success. But I see Doug Wilson making one or two smart moves at the deadline and sending the Sharks deep into the playoffs.

Most of these races are wide open at this point, in part because it’s tough to know what will happen over the second half of the season. Let us know who you’ve got!

-Tiger Bjornlund & Shane Simmons

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