The midpoint of the 2010-11 season occurs on Saturday -- Tampa Bay visiting Ottawa marks the official NHL winter solstice, in case you were wondering -- but like the announced attendance at some rinks, let's just say we're close enough to present our midseason awards.
Considering the vast hockey landscape entering the season, some of these awards, such as Sidney Crosby for the halfway Hart, are humdrum. Others, such as Tim Thomas for the en-route Vezina, are spit-take stunning. But this is why they play the games -- except, of course, the Winter Classic, which is played for other reasons.
(Our final thought on the NHL's proven ratings winner: When the NBA wants to highlight its Christmas Day games as signature midseason events on the midseason calendar, it sticks dopey snowflakes on the players' uniforms. It doesn't make teams play on Rucker League courts. Thank you.)
Anyway, this is a snapshot of the NHL's best as teams prepare for the back nine of the regular season.
The annual bi-polar debate -- who ya got, Crosby or Alex Ovechkin? -- is on the shelf, at least for now. While the discussion of the league's best player seems to have expanded -- you can throw Daniel and Henrik Sedin in there with a heaping helping of Steven Stamkos -- it has also paradoxically contracted because Crosby has separated himself from his peers. He has blossomed as a goal scorer and become a conscientious defender as well as a first-rate faceoff man. He's also playing most shifts with Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, who are rarely confused with Mike Bossy and Clark Gillies.
The silliest notion advanced in the past month is that because Ovechkin is not scoring at his usual dizzying pace, he has somehow become a better defensive player. Washington has become a more conservative team in recent weeks, which helped pull it out of that eight-game losing streak. "Like 25 or so other teams," general manager George McPhee says with a twinge of regret. But Ovechkin hasn't exactly thrust himself into the Selke debate, you know?
Key stat: Ovechkin went 0-for-November and December on the power play. Maybe a structural reorganization -- say, Ovechkin at the left half boards -- is in order for a power play that is an inexplicable 12th overall.
After a middling 2009-10 season by his Elysian standards, the 40-year-old defenseman, who managed his first career hat trick last month, has ratcheted his level of play back up to superb and should win his seventh Norris. He currently lags two points behind Atlanta's Dustin Byfuglien, the surprise of the half-season, in scoring among blueliners.
Last May, Byfuglien was the winger San Jose
So while the metrics appear to favor Byfuglien, put in it another context: if your team were trying to protect a one-goal lead in the final minute, who do you want on the ice, him or Lidstrom? Thought so.
One other thought: arguably the smartest move by a GM last summer was Pittsburgh's Ray Shero allowing Sergei Gonchar to walk via free agency. Kris Letang, assiduously groomed to be the next Gonchar, has stepped into the extra minutes and the Norris discussion with 33 points and his plus-20. Now the Penguins are grooming Alex Goligoski to be the next Letang.
Our preseason pick was a Bruin. It just wasn't Thomas. Given coach Claude Julien's button-down system, we thought the Bruins' presumptive No. 1, Tuukka Rask, had a terrific chance at winning the award based on his numbers, those shiny things that mesmerize GMs, the fellows who vote on the award. But after a fallow year (despite being a member of the U.S. Olympic team), Thomas is playing like he did in 2008-09, when he won the Vezina. You can't really say he regained his form because he plays an amorphous style -- like snowflakes, no two Thomas saves are exactly the same. But his .945 save percentage, 1.80 goals-against average and five shutouts lead the league. He has been bulletproof.
In our perfect world, the Selke would go to a lockdown defensive forward in the model of Bob Gainey, Guy Carbonneau and Craig Ramsay, all early winners of the award. But Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, now injured, broke the mold because he matched his offensive creativity with the quickest stick and best positioning in the NHL. So that brings us to another two-way player, Kesler, a two-time Selke finalist who wins six of 10 faceoffs and is a plus-14. He hassles opponents while keeping his yapping to a minimum. (Kesler's offensive output -- 19 goals and almost a point per game -- should not be a factor, but we're only human.)
The 21-year-old Couture barely sneaked into the rookie category, having played 25 games last season. There is no asterisk needed, of course, but still he has an inherent advantage over his chief competitors among forwards: Edmonton's Taylor Hall and Carolina's Jeff Skinner are fresh out of juniors. Couture, who has 18 goals, has also benefitted from playing on a line with Ryane Clowe for the inconsistent Sharks, who develop talent at the AHL level as well as any team.
Watch for Hall, though. He could have a superb second half.
Although he is not among our finalists, Colorado defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk is especially noteworthy, surging ahead of our preseason Calder pick, Washington's John Carlson, and Montreal's P.K. Subban as the most precocious of the blueliners.
Often the award goes to the most, um, discreet, high scoring forward, but there is nothing shy or retiring about St. Louis, who won the honor last year after being a runner-up to Datsyuk the previous three. St. Louis is the fulcrum of the resurgent Lightning, a mentor to players like Steve Downie and a vital force in Stamkos' development. He plays with a chip on his shoulder that, incidentally, isn't five feet off the ground, which makes it all the more amazing that he has taken four minor penalties in 40 games. Our Selke preferences traditionally have tilted toward first-pair defensemen who play big minutes without spending a lot of time in the penalty box -- Lidstrom has just five minors this season -- but St. Louis' ability to play with a controlled rage gives him a slight edge.
Maybe he hasn't reinvented the wheel, but he certainly has hitched the horses to the wagon. The Lightning has been rejuvenated, buying whatever Boucher, one of the bright young mind's, has been selling. He's organized and upbeat, a breath of fresh air on a team that had grown musty. And now he actually has a goaltender in 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson. This won't shift the balance of power in the Eastern Conference -- even though the Lightning was nipping at Philadelphia's heels despite relying on the Mike Smith-Dan Ellis tandem for much of the first half -- but it should make Tampa Bay a difficult playoff out.