Wednesday November 28th, 2007

Although we're only at the quarter pole of the 2007-08 campaign, players are beginning to distinguish themselves as contenders for the NHL's season-end hardware. Here's a look at the Fall favorites:

No knock on the defending champ, but there are more compelling candidates in the early going than Sidney Crosby. Among them: Vincent Lecavalier, Daniel Alfredsson, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jarome Iginla and Rod Brind'Amour.

Alfredsson would earn a lot of voter support for his exemplary two-way play (three shorties among his team-leading 16 goals). Kovalchuk has revved up his snarl since being unmuzzled by the dismissal of Bob Hartley. He has 21 points so far in November, and his 11 goals on the road top the circuit. The struggling Flames would be completely out of the picture were it not for Iginla, a traditionally slow starter who is on pace for a career year. And the ageless and underappreciated Brind'Amour continues to amaze in Carolina with his timely scoring and ferocious effort at both ends.

The edge: Lecavalier, whose league-leading 38 points and gritty leadership (exemplified by two fighting majors) are keeping a Tampa Bay team that's missing its top defenseman and a legit No. 1 goalie in the thick of the playoff hunt.

Two of last season's four finalists -- Martin Brodeur and Miikka Kiprusoff -- have vacillated between fair and spare through the first quarter. A third, Roberto Luongo, started poorly but has rediscovered his playoff form lately, illustrating that you shouldn't discount any of the classics before this season is over.

But to this point, the preseason favorites have been roundly outplayed by Henrik Lundqvist, Martin Gerber, Tim Thomas and, most surprisingly, Pascal Leclaire.

Gerber's finally giving Ottawa the goaltending they paid for when they signed him as a free agent in the summer of 2006. With playoff hero Ray Emery rehabbing on the sidelines, Gerber usurped the starter's job with his 13-2-1 start. The lunchpail-lugging Thomas, who was supposed to back up Manny Fernandez in Boston, has emerged as his team's best option. Playing behind a non-descript but improving defense, Thomas has stolen more wins than any other netminder. He'll never star in a how-to video, but he never stops battling, as evidenced by his league-leading .941 save percentage.

The edge: Leclaire. Lundqvist probably deserves Hart consideration for his work in New York, where he's been the savior (1.81 GAA, .931 save percentage) while his teammates struggle to get the offense on track. But as good as he's been, it's impossible to ignore the magnificent start of Leclaire, whose superlative play has been the key ingredient in Columbus' surprising transformation from speed bump to brick wall. While he's benefited from the adherence of his teammates to Ken Hitchcock's strict defensive system, Leclaire's also given them the confidence that he can be the go-to guy he was expected to become after he was drafted eighth overall in 2001.

The easy thing to do would be to cede this one to the defending champ. Nicklas Lidstrom still has the big numbers (20 points, +14), but it's the ageless reliability of his game that ranks him among the early favorites.

Brian Rafalski is bound to be overlooked as Lidstrom's second banana, but he deserves serious consideration. He's eating up big minutes and displaying an offensive side that was muted in New Jersey. Chris Pronger has elevated his game after a slow start and amped up the nasty, physical edge that makes him such an imposing presence in his own zone.

The edge: Sergei Zubov. As good as those other three have been, give the nod to Zubov who is playing his best hockey in years. The Dallas blueliner is the league's ultimate weapon in transition, effortlessly offering up the trap-busting passes that other defenders wouldn't conceive, let alone dare attempt. Some might be put off by the absence of a physical game, but positioning and experience make Zubov an elite presence in his own zone as well.

He may be mired in a four-game scoring drought, but 19-year-old Patrick Kane is putting some distance on the competition. He's been Chicago's best player almost from the moment he put on the uniform, giving the 'Hawks the elite offensive centerpiece they've lacked since losing Jeremy Roenick. The return of veteran Martin Havlat should only enhance Kane's effectiveness, along with that of running mate Jonathan Toews. The duo hold down the top spots in the rookie scoring race, and together they've rejuvenated the hopes of the franchise.

Although he's unlikely to put up the numbers he'd need to out-poll Kane, Atlanta defender Tobias Enstrom is making just as significant an impact. He leads rookies and the Thrashers in time on ice, a workload he's earned by playing virtually mistake-free hockey. As his confidence grows, his offensive game is becoming more prominent. He might make a race of this yet.

On the fringes: Andrew Cogliano and Sam Gagner of the Oilers; David Perron of the Blues; Montreal stopper Carey Price, who could challenge the leaders if he assumes a larger chunk of playing time by the All-Star break.

Brind'Amour and Alfredsson earn their MVP acclaim by being as reliable on the defensive end as they are on the attack. Sami Pahlsson of the Ducks and the Senators' Mike Fisher -- a defensive specialist who demonstrated his offensive flair while replacing the injured Jason Spezza on Ottawa's top unit -- also deserve consideration.

The edge: Henrik Zetterberg. The engine that drives the league's most prolific offense, Zetterberg trails only Lidstrom as Detroit's defensive conscience. His ability to make an impact with and without the puck is reminiscent of Sergei Fedorov a decade ago.

This award tends to overlook the work done by established coaches of strong squads in favor of those whose undermanned teams exceed expectations. So let's give a quick tip of the cap to the fine work of John Paddock (Ottawa) and Mike Babcock (Detroit) before moving on to the men who've made silk purses out of sow's rears: Atlanta's Don Waddell, Andy Murray of the Blues, Ken Hitchcock of the Blue Jackets and Ted Nolan of the Islanders.

Waddell stepped behind the bench on Oct. 17 after firing the 0-6 Hartley. Since then, the Thrashers have played a more wide-open style that better suits the talent on hand, resulting in an 11-6 mark under his command. Murray has the Blues playing five games over .500 and right in the middle of the playoff race. Nolan has seamlessly integrated a raft of new, mostly low-profile players into his demanding system while keeping a team with a popgun offense afloat in the extremely competitive Atlantic.

The edge: Hitchcock. The award has to go to Hitchcock, who has taken one of the league's least talented groups and molded it into a cohesive, single-minded unit with legitimate playoff aspirations.

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