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Handicapping the NHL hardware

I'm starting to think that the NHL might have a bit of a security breach.

Just days after that whole Alexander Ovechkin Hart leak fiasco -- "Our licensees prepare product for all possible outcomes," NHL spokesman Frank Brown explained after T-shirts commemorating AO's impending MVP win were briefly offered for sale on the league's Web site -- comes the shocking revelation that factory workers in China were furiously knitting dubbelmossas with an image of Nicklas Lidstrom and an inscription in Swedish that translates to "Conn Smythe, 2009."

We'll have to wait a bit to see if those hats ever hit the market, but the Ovechkin shirts should be online for good shortly after the NHL's awards are presented Thursday night in Toronto. He's the safest bet among a slate of fairly predictable winners.

If you can't stand the drama, or embarrassment of seeing your favorite NHLers stumble through a teleprompter reading, here's a look at who we expect to see walk away with the hardware.

The nominees: Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla

The winner will be: Ovechkin. He's a sure thing, and not just because of the shirt. This award is driven by numbers and AO's were better than any we've seen in some time. He was the first to score 60 goals in a season since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr turned the trick 12 years ago. He led the league in points (112), power-play goals (22), game-winners (11) and shots (446). He ranked among the game's most punishing forwards (his 220 hits were ninth overall) and his plus-28 rating (seventh) only hints at his ability to be a force in all three zones.

Along the way to racking up these ridiculous numbers, Ovechkin forged a reputation as the most dynamic player the game has seen since Eric Lindros' MVP season in 1995.

The nominees: Nick Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara, Dion Phaneuf

The winner will be: Lidstrom. The only question here is why Detroit's captain wasn't a finalist for MVP ahead of Malkin or Iginla. Though the voting was completed long before Lidstrom led his Red Wings to another Stanley Cup, his consistency throughout the playoffs added to the growing mound of evidence that he wasn't simply the finest defender this season. It's time to throw his name in the argument for the second-greatest defenseman of all-time, along with Ray Bourque, Doug Harvey and Eddie Shore.

The passing of time has had no obvious effect on the play of the 38-year-old Swede, who'll walk away with his sixth Norris in seven seasons and it looks like only lack of desire can keep him from topping Bobby Orr's career mark of eight. Lidstrom's 70 points led all blueliners, as did his plus-40 rating. Chris Chelios called him "the perfect player" and GM Ken Holland says, "He never has a bad game." Those could be read as biased superlatives about any other player, but they seem almost faint praise for the ageless Lidstrom.

The nominees: Martin Brodeur, Henrik Lundqvist, Evgeni Nabokov

The winner will be: Nabokov. Only once in the past 13 seasons has a Western Conference goaltender taken home the Vezina. That hasn't had as much to do with the oft-referenced East Coast bias as it has the dominance of Dominik Hasek and Brodeur, the winners of nine Vezinas in that span. Nabokov should capture one for the West this season after winning a league-leading 46 games, including 26 that featured one-goal margins of victory. "At one point this season we were on pace to score 50 fewer goals than we scored last season," former Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. "And when you look back, the guy who carried us was Nabber."

The nominees: Patrick Kane, Johnny Toews, Nicklas Backstrom

The winner will be: Kane. This is the one pick 'em of the night. Backstrom made his mark with a strong finish during the Capitals' mad dash to the Southeastern title, scoring 17 points in his final 16 games. His league-leading 55 assists earned him the second spot in the rookie race. Toews was the best all-around performer, assuming a leadership position with the Blackhawks and playing an exceptional two-way game. If not for the sprained knee that cost him 18 games, he might have led all rookies in points along with goals (24).

But Kane gets the nod by virtue of his consistency. The first-overall pick last summer stepped right into the lineup at 19 and led all rookies and the Hawks in scoring with 72 points in 82 games, keying a remarkable turnaround season for the franchise. He also scored seven goals on nine shootout attempts, including three game-deciding goals.

Thenominees: Mike Babcock, Guy Carbonneau, Bruce Boudreau

The winner will be: Boudreau. As much as the game has improved thanks to an influx of remarkable young talent, it is also experiencing a Golden Age of Coaching. Whether that's to the detriment of the sport is debatable, but the noteworthy efforts of at least a dozen bench bosses testify to the quality and quantity of today's stewards.

All three finalists are worthy, with Babcock being the most deserving for the magnificent leadership that steered the Wings to another Cup. But this one will be won not just on merit but sentiment, and Boudreau earns high marks in both categories. The journeyman player/coach who guided the young Caps from worst to first in the Southeast is the year's best story, and that's a hook that the broadcasters who vote for this award simply can't ignore.

And now, no offense to the honored finalists, on to the lesser awards:

The nominees: Pavel Dastyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, John Madden

The winner will be: Datsyuk. Zetterberg also is worthy, but Datsyuk's career-high 97 points (fourth overall) and league-leading +41 give him a slight edge over his linemate.

The nominees: Datsyuk, Martin St. Louis, Jason Pominville

The winner will be: Datsyuk. Pominville's game doesn't get enough national attention, and St. Louis's overall game wasn't good enough to stop Datsyuk from taking home this third consecutive Lady Byng.

The nominees:Jason Blake, Fernando Pisani, Chris Chelios

The winner will be: Chelios. All three candidates offered great stories, but the ability of Chelios to contribute at a high level at the ripe age of 46, the second-oldest ever behind Gordie Howe, defies explanation. This might be the last chance to honor him before the Hall of Fame calls, so odds are he'll get the nod.

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