Tough calls as usual on my 2010-11 NHL Awards ballot
The members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association vote for the following NHL postseason awards, a curious exercise in making the news instead of merely reporting it. The writers, of course, also help make history. When the Hall of Fame committee meets each June, the number of Hart, Norris or even Selke trophies that a player wins during the course of his career often helps frame the deliberations or even tips a candidacy in one direction or the other, changing the life of a player if not the course of human events.
In context, this exercise in hockey-writing democracy is meaningful. The larger issue is whether journalists should even be part of this process, but that is a question for another day.
The smaller issue is who the voters think are worthy of NHL hardware.
This year was a particularly difficult vote, but I think that every season. Like Zenyatta making a late charge on the outside, Anaheim's Corey Perry zoomed into the Hart Trophy race in the final month. (His hat trick against San Jose to reach 50 goals seemed less an achievement than a coronation.) Then there is the best defenseman of his generation, and one of the best five in the history of the sport, who ranked second among blueliners in scoring and still didn't make the top of my ballot. The Calder Trophy was too close to call, and I'm not sure I got it right.
Anyway, these are the votes that I sent off this morning. They include my reasoning or justification or, in at least one case, rationalization.
There has been a tendency to twin the Art Ross and Hart Trophies, like "Matt Cooke" and "head shot." Since 2003, all but one Ross winner has piggybacked the Hart. (The exception was 2009 when Evgeni Malkin led the NHL in points, but Alexander Ovechkin won his second straight MVP.) Daniel Sedin could complete that double as well while making it a family twin killing, taking the two awards one season after brother Henrik won both.
Perry, the NHL's only 50-goal scorer, probably edged Sedin at the wire, in a late charge that was vaguely reminiscent of one Joe Thornton made in 2005-06 (the season in which Boston traded him to San Jose) to catch Hart favorite Jaromir Jagr of the Rangers. (The difference: Thornton passed Jagr by two points to win the scoring crown but had 25 fewer goals. I voted Jagr.)
The Hart is supposed to go to the player adjudged most valuable to his team, which, if taken literally, would annually tilt this heavily in favor of a goaltender, say Pekka Rinne in Nashville, Carey Price in Montreal or Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers, but that strikes me as over-thinking it.
So is Daniel Sedin or Corey Perry more valuable to their respective teams? This is a tougher call than a knee-jerk "Perry," even though the Canucks were stacked. Perry was superb when Ryan Getzlaf missed more than a month at midseason and again late when goalie Jonas Hiller was felled by vertigo. He also cavorted with Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan on the NHL's best line. Sedin missed regular linemate Alex Burrows early in the year and was uniformly superb throughout the season. Sedin had Ryan Kesler to provide secondary scoring, while Perry had a resurgent Teemu Selanne. So I went with Sedin, whose play helped make Vancouver the NHL's best regular-season team.
So who demonstrated the greatest "all-around ability" at the position, as per the Norris description? In a season in which the wave of young defensemen mostly disappointed, the best all-around blueliner was Nashville's Shea Weber.
Away in the dusty recesses of Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, a minor miracle took place this season. Michael Grabner -- whom Florida, hardly a fountain of hockey talent, waived last October -- scored a rookie-best 34 goals. Of those, only two were scored on the power play. Two. Now a goal is a goal is a goal, to borrow from former California Golden Seals fan Gertrude Stein, and one has no more intrinsic value than any other, but even-strength goals generally seem to have more hair on them. The swift Grabner also scored six short-handed goals for the Islanders, which is awfully heavy lifting. He was also a commendable plus-13 on a team that allowed 35 more goals than it scored.
Of course, Grabner is no ingénue. He is 23. He played 20 regular season and nine playoff games for Vancouver last season, which is similar to Logan Couture, 22, who had 25 regular season and 15 playoff games with the Sharks in 2009-10. The NHL rookie rules are, um, expansive, but should Couture, a terrific three-zone player, and Grabner be penalized just because they are not as young or as dazzling as Carolina's Justin Bieber, the 18-year-old Jeff Skinner, who led rookies in points and ultimately could be the best player in this class outside of Edmonton's Taylor Hall?
Generally, I lean toward defensemen for the Calder -- the position is more difficult to play at an elite level at a young age -- but I can't see it this year. Washington's John Carlson, our preseason choice, has developed into a top-pair blueliner with Karl Alzner, but he is a rank outsider.
One of the Canucks will win this award -- but not the one who topped my ballot. Ryan Kesler, the 2009-10 runner-up, is the lock of these awards. He is a relentless player, an excellent face-off man who centers the second line and often faces difficult matchups. He will be a worthy winner in June. But the spirit of the award should not be "best two-way player" but the modern Bob Gainey, the forward who most excels "in the defensive aspects of the game." That's Manny Malhotra. Before the award drifted away from the likes of Gainey, Steve Kasper and Guy Carbonneau, Malhotra -- plus-nine despite recording just 30 points; second best in the NHL in face-off percentage -- would have been the hallmark.
The question is not Malhotra's defensive bona fides. The question is number of games. Because of the eye injury he suffered last month, he missed 10 games, roughly an eighth of the season. Is that enough to disqualify him? Unlike the concussions that shut down Sidney Crosby in the second half of what had been developing into a truly special season, my answer is no. (Pavel Datsyuk, the skating pickpocket, made my ballot despite playing just 56 games.)
A final bias: defensemen, especially first-pair defensemen, play the hardest minutes. They are matched against top lines. They play a position that essentially requires them to take penalties. Yet, since Red Kelly in 1961, the award has always gone to the forward who has best combined achievement with gentlemanly play. (Nick Lidstrom has been a four-time runner-up.) Although Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis is a cinch to repeat -- given his intensity, it is astonishing that he took only six minors this season -- the elegant Lidstrom, with 20 penalty minutes, deserves the award. Again.