On Thursday evening (7 p.m. eastern, VERSUS), the NHL will hold its annual awards gala, as the game's top players gather in Las Vegas to look back and acknowledge the best of the best for the 2008-09 season. Coming off my recent clean sweep prediction of the Eastern Conference playoff series, I feel reasonably comfortable taking a crack at who I think will win the six major categories:
Candidates: Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin
Three Russian-born and trained players vying for the league's MVP honor give this category an intriguing twist. Malkin was magnificent in leading the NHL in scoring. Ovechkin was dynamic in lighting the lamp 56 times -- the only 50-goal scorer in the league this year. The wonderfully gifted Datsyuk showed his commitment with and without the puck by placing fourth in the league in scoring while also having the best road plus/minus rating, finishing third overall.
Prediction: Ovechkin is the incumbent MVP and when it comes to defining a team and being most valuable to his club overall, he is essential for the Washington Capitals.
Candidates: Zdeno Chara, Mike Green, Nicklas Lidstrom
This is an interesting category in that if I ask myself who is better than Lidstrom, the NHL's reigning Norris-winner, my only answer is the Lidstrom of seasons past. Not that he faltered in 2008-09, but he did get off to a slower start than usual, yet still finished the second half in top form. He may suffer from comparison to his own past standards, opening the door for Chara to win his first Norris. Chara will benefit from being on a Boston Bruins team that had such a strong campaign. Meanwhile, Green's game is about skating and offense and to that end, he had a marvelous season.
Prediction: Green may not be considered complete enough -- fairly or unfairly -- when compared to Lidstrom and Chara. In the end, this might just be Chara's year to claim the top award for blueliners and deny Lidstrom his seventh in eight years and a tie with Doug Harvey for second-most all time.
Candidates: Niklas Backstrom, Steve Mason, Tim Thomas
Backstrom (37-24-8) played much of the season with hip pain (he needed surgery in April) and ranked third in goals-against (2.33), but the Wild failed to qualify for the playoffs. Mason was sensational as the Blue Jackets reached the postseason for the first time in their history, but only four rookies have won this award, the last being Ed Belfour in 1991.
Prediction: The award has to go to Thomas. He led the NHL in goals-against (2.10) and save percentage while the Bruins reached the top of the Eastern Conference. Maybe the most telling stat is that Thomas lost two games in a row in regulation only once all season. It was in mid-February and the second defeat was a 1-0 shutout, underscoring his consistently high level of competency all season long.
Candidates: Pavel Datsyuk, Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards
This award is hard to peg. Is the priority a top scorer who is also defensively responsible -- like Datsyuk, the 2008 recipient? Or should more weight be given to an all-purpose performer like Richards, who led the NHL with seven-shorthanded goals, one of which came in a two-man down situation? Then you have a case like Kesler, a heart-and-soul type of player whose offense rose to match his work without the puck. What's the preference when measuring effectiveness? Tough call.
Prediction: With that, I find it hard to say the fine seasons of Richards and Kesler were enough to unseat Datsyuk's diligent contributions to the team that went on to win Western Conference title and come within one victory of its second successive Stanley Cup.
Candidates: Steve Mason, Bobby Ryan, Kris Versteeg
Versteeg raced out early with first-year offense (22 goals, 31 assists) for the Chicago Blackhawks that got everyone's attention. Mason took over the starting goaltending job in Columbus in November and led the league with 10 shutouts -- the first rookie to do so since Tony Esposito in 1970. Ryan began the season in the AHL, yet still ended up leading all rookies in scoring (57 points) while becoming the only first-year player to reach the 30-goal plateau in 2008-09.
Prediction: Mason's contributions are too massive to ignore. He was the catalyst in Columbus and should be recognized as the top rookie in the NHL.
Candidates: Claude Julien, Todd McLellan, Andy Murray
Julien and McLellan led their respective teams to the top of the league, with Julien's Bruins finishing atop the Eastern Conference and McLellan's Sharks winning the Presidents' Trophy. As impressive as their seasons were, nothing compares to the turnaround by Murray and the St. Louis Blues.
With a mostly young and developing roster and a lineup riddled by key injuries to stars like captain Eric Brewer and Paul Kariya, Murray's group pushed to make the playoffs with an amazing second half surge, They rallied around goaltender Chris Mason once the organization decided to send veteran starter Manny Legace to the minors in January. Murray kept his charges moving forward, astonishingly finishing sixth in the Western Conference.
Prediction: Midway through the season, Murray's job was rumored to be in jeopardy. This weekend he should garner the Adams. Such is the coaching profession.
No matter who ends up with the hardware, congratulations to all on making the 2008-09 season a memorable one.