A lot has changed since we last considered the contenders to take home this season’s most coveted hardware.
The New York Rangers have abandoned their defensive principles, crushing the Vezina Trophy hopes of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and Adams Award aspirations of coach Alain Vigneault. The Washington Capitals have revealed themselves to be the deepest and most dangerous club in the Eastern Conference, elevating netminder Braden Holtby into contention for both the Vezina and the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP, and Nicklas Backstrom into the Selke Trophy mix. And the Toronto Maple Leafs have slowly morphed into a cohesive, purpose-driven unit, setting coach Mike Babcock on course to finally claim his first Adams.
In a year when Leo Komarov can be selected as an All-Star, it’s a good bet that the leader board will see more changes as the second half of the season unfolds. But based on what we’ve seen to this point, here’s our take on the top candidates to claim the major awards in June.
Hart Trophy (MVP)
BRADEN HOLTBY, CAPITALS
Remember when Carey Price was an easy choice as the MVP of the 2014-15 season? Holtby has been every bit as good as the Canadiens netminder was ... and by some measures, even better. Holtby is coming off a month in which he went 9-0-1 with a shutout, a 1.69 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage. It has been 19 games since he last lost in regulation, the longest such streak in five years (and that one was a 1–0 loss to the Red Wings). And he’s on pace to become the first goalie in NHL history to record 50 wins in a single season. There are other important players out there, but Holtby is the single best reason to believe that his team can win the Stanley Cup. Top that.
Norris Trophy (best defenseman)
DREW DOUGHTY, KINGS
You can make a pretty good case for Ottawa's Erik Karlsson here. He’s putting up eye-popping numbers; better, in fact, than the ones he posted on his way to winning this award in 2012 and 2015. But there’s more to the Norris (or at least, there should be) than offensive excellence, and Doughty’s play to this point has served as a reminder of the absurdity that he has yet to win one of these things. He’s been a defensive force, leading all blueliners with a +16 rating while his 58% Corsi rating ranks second. He’s third in ice time at 27:56. He hits, he blocks shots, he makes consistently good decisions ... and yes, he even scores a little: seven goals and 24 points through 39 games. There is bound to be some sentiment involved about righting past wrongs, but that’s not in play here. Doughty’s simply been that good.
Calder Trophy (rookie of the year)
DYLAN LARKIN, RED WINGS
It’s safe to say that we’ve moved past the novelty of Larkin being the first teenager to crack Detroit’s roster in 15 years. Now, we can simply marvel at the high-end offensive skill and maturity that have made him one of the most consistent two-way forces in the league. Larkin is averaging 1.25 goals per 60 minutes played at five-on-five (per War-On-Ice.com), second only to Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars, and he ranks seventh with 2.58 points per 60. And while his defensive poise is tougher to quantify, it might be his instinctive ability to read and react to the play that really sets Larkin apart as the premier rookie of the first half.
Vezina Trophy (best goaltender)
BRADEN HOLTBY, CAPITALS
No room for debate here. Holtby is leading the league in wins (25) and his goals-against average (1.93) and save percentage (.932) are tops among netminders who have appeared in at least 20 games. Add in that he has steadied the Caps while they’ve been playing without mainstay defensemen John Carlsson and Brooks Orpik and he's clearly the class of the field.
Jack Adams Award (coach of the year)
MIKE BABCOCK, MAPLE LEAFS
Few expected to hear from the rebuilding Leafs before the trade deadline when they started to clean house. I guess we all neglected the Babcock Effect. The veteran bench boss has worked a miracle in Toronto, molding a patchwork lineup of long-term losers and roster fillers into one of the league’s hardest working and most detail-oriented teams. His influence is obvious in nearly every element of the Leafs’ game. Their puck possession is up, from 46.4% last year (27th) to 50.3% (13th). Their power play has improved from 15.9% (26th) to 19.6% (13th). They’re winning more draws. They’re allowing fewer shots, and with a 7-2-2 mark in their past 11 games, they’ve overcome a lousy start (and some brutal goaltending by Jonathan Bernier) to land squarely in the mix for a wild card spot. Falling short of that cut-off would seriously impair Babcock’s chances of winning this award, but viewed strictly by how he’s transformed this group, this might be the finest coaching job we’ve seen in a decade.
In the mix: Gerard Gallant (Panthers), Jeff Blashill (Red Wings), John Hynes (Devils)
Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)
PATRICE BERGERON, BRUINS
The three-time winner is building on his legacy as the game's top two-way forward. There might be others with better fancy stats, but the eye test reveals Bergeron's supremacy. His defensive reads, his consistency and his competitiveness, along with a breakthrough offensive start that includes leading Boston's top-ranked power play, make him the obvious choice.
Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play)
RASMUS RISTOLAINEN, SABRES
Only three defensemen have ever won this award and one, Brian Campbell, has claimed it since Red Kelly bagged it in 1954. In just his third year in the league, Ristolainen, 21, has emerged as the workhorse of the Sabres’ defense, tasked with all the toughest assignments. He does his job cleanly (logging just a single minor penalty through his first 40 games) and effectively, ranking 11th among the league’s backliners, with 26 points.
In the mix: Ryan O'Reilly (Sabres); Loui Eriksson (Bruins); Mike Hoffman (Senators)