By Stu Hackel
The NHL hands out its regular season awards on Wednesday evening in Las Vegas, a venue that just oozes hockey history and tradition. Actually, the "nominees-winner" Academy Awards-style format is as artificial as Vegas glitz because the "nominees" are not nominees at all but actually the top three vote-getters from the April balloting (here's who SI.com's Michael Farber chose) after the votes are tabulated. So the winner has already been determined when the nominees are announced. This format transforms the known into the suspenseful, so maybe Vegas is the right venue after all.
Still, the voters almost always get it right and only rarely does a more deserving player not get the trophy. This is despite the ongoing criticism over the years that the voters in the Professional Hockey Writers Association don't always see enough of some of the players who are nominated and just go by stats or perhaps the recommendations of a friend who has seen the player in question. And this year there's the added uncertainty caused by the voting boycott by some members of the PHWA who are protesting the Islanders' thin-skinned revoking of Chris Botta's media credential after he wrote blog posts critical of the club. The writers are also upset at the NHL's reluctance to effectively intervene in the matter.
We didn't have a vote, but that doesn't mean we don't have a point of view on who we would have chosen, so here's the Red Light selections for the 2011 NHL Awards -- and feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section. Remember, these awards don't include playoff performances.
Calder Trophy (outstanding rookie): Logan Couture (Sharks), Michael Grabner (Islanders) and Jeff Skinner (Hurricanes). This will be a tight race between Couture and Skinner, made more interesting by Skinner's outstanding late-season scoring (13 points in his last 11 games) as the 'Canes drove for the playoffs (and fell short). Similarly, Couture carried the Sharks early in the season when their big forwards went missing and he stayed consistent until the end of the campaign. The two were close in goals, but Skinner had more assists. Couture had a better plus-minus. Some considered Skinner to be more of a "real" rookie since he didn't play the previous season and was the youngest player in the league, while Couture had played the previous year and in the 2010 playoffs. Those factors, combined with Skinner's late surge could well end up making him the winner. These guys are equally deserving, and its too bad both can't win. We were impressed by Couture from the outset and we'll stick with him, but won't be disappointed if Skinner wins.
Frank J. Selke Trophy (outstanding defensive forward): Pavel Datsyuk (Red Wings), Ryan Kesler (Canucks), and Jonathan Toews (Blackhawks). This is one of those awards where many people suspect the voters just look at the stats (in this case, plus-minus combined with offensive production) and go from there. Again, each of the three nominees are very deserving. As we stated during the season, Datsyuk really has no peer in this game for his all-around play, but the main reason we'd take Kesler, who had a breakout campaign, is that he did it for a full 82-game season while Pav missed substantial time with an injury.
James Norris Memorial Trophy (outstanding all-around defenseman): Zdeno Chara (Bruins), Nicklas Lidstrom (Red Wings), and Shea Weber (Predators). If this included the playoffs, Chara might be our choice, but Lidstrom and Weber were even better during the regular season. Lidstrom had a truly remarkable campaign, forgetting the fact that he was 40-years-old, but he didn't finish strongly. Weber, on the other hand, is the cornerstone of one of the NHL's best (and most unheralded) defense corps and he played a truly impressive all-around game on the blueline. He's our winner.
Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct: Loui Eriksson (Stars), Nicklas Lidstrom (Red Wings), and Martin St. Louis (Lightning). Defensemen are almost never among the vote-getters for this award. In fact, no d-man has won it since 1954 (Red Kelly, Red Wings) and it's only been captured by blueliners four times since 1925 (Kelly three times and Red Wing Bill Quackenbush once) because it's nearly impossible to play defense in a gentlemanly manner. You're going to plow into guys, they're going to plow into you, and unsportsmanlike conduct is almost a necessary result. So the fact that Lidstrom just gets consideration is itself amazing. And that's why, as clean a game as both St. Louis and Eriksson play (and St. Louis's clean game is especially remarkable for such a small guy), we'd pick Lidstrom for this one. It doesn't hurt that he's a true gentleman off the ice, but it's impossible to imagine this difficult position being played with a better combination of dignity and excellence.
Vezina Trophy (outstanding goaltender): Roberto Luongo (Canucks), Pekka Rinne (Predators), and Tim Thomas (Bruins). The NHL GMs choose this one and each of the top three netminders had an outstanding regular season. Luongo finally had the kind that Vancouver had hoped for after re-signing him. Rinne was brilliant backstopping a team that has little offense and allows him little room for error. But Thomas's play (which he even improved upon in the postseason) was truly exceptional. He makes stops no other goalie can and has very few off-nights. His regular-season save percentage of .938 was mind-boggling. Forgetting stats, just watching him play regularly provided enough evidence by April to think he was the best in goal this year.
Jack Adams Award (outstanding coach): Dan Bylsma (Penguins), Barry Trotz (Predators), and Alain Vigneault (Canucks). This one is selected by the NHL Broadcasters Association and it's another one that's tough to determine just who is most deserving, and that includes some guys who aren't among the "nominees." Jacques Lemaire certainly did a truly amazing job turning around the Devils, for example, and he's actually our choice even though he's not one of the top three vote-getters. Among those named, Trotz gets more out of his team year-in and year-out than perhaps any of his peers and he did it again this season. Vigneault pushed all the right buttons getting the Canucks to finish atop the league, but Bylsma managed to keep the Penguins highly competitive even though they were decimated by injuries, especially to their top three centers: Jordan Staal for the first part of the season, then Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the second half.
Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy (perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey): Ray Emery (Ducks), Daymond Langkow (Flames), and Ian Laperriere (Flyers). Always one of our favorite awards and it doesn't matter who wins, mostly because all the guys involved didn't give up despite serious injuries. This year's field is complicated by Emery's inclusion because he not only overcame hip surgery to correct a serious condition, his wild man act brought about his exile to the KHL a few years ago. Laperriere is a curious inclusion because he wasn't able to come back from his injury and is effectively retired, although his courageous comeback and selfless play in the 2010 playoffs was one of last season's highlights. Langkow's determination to return from a fractured vertebrae is inspiring.
We have to agree with Yahoo Puck Daddy blogger Greg Wyshynski's touting of Minnesota's Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who battled concussion problems for roughly a season and a half before returning in December. Bouchard should have been among the top three. The Kings' Willie Mitchell, who also overcame a serious concussion and returned this season, deserved consideration as well. Every team submits a nominee for the Masterton and a good many of them would be worthy recipients.
General Manager of the Year: Mike Gillis (Canucks), David Poile (Predators), and Steve Yzerman (Lightning). This is a relatively new award that the GMs themselves select. The Tampa Bay turnaround engineered by Yzerman was one of the top stories of the season and he'd be a fine selection. Gillis's aggressive signings and trades built the Canucks into the Presidents' Trophy-winners and he'd also be a very deserving choice. But Poile doesn't' have the resources the others have and somehow manages to cobble together a winning team each season. This one was no exception and he's our pick for top GM.
Hart Memorial Trophy (most valuable player to his team): Corey Perry (Ducks), Daniel Sedin (Canucks), and Martin St. Louis (Lightning). Perry's late-season surge may carry the day, although he was actually a consistent scorer all the way through. Watching him in the season's last few weeks as the Ducks drove for the playoffs was to watch a very special performance. Sedin was the leading scorer and best player on the league's best team and you can't go wrong with picking him, either. But what Marty St. Louis did for Tampa Bay while being the team's de facto on-ice leader during a strong turnaround season, selling the novel game plans of coach Guy Boucher to the troops and mentoring Steven Stamkos, all while racking up 99 points (five behind Daniel) defines most valuable to us.
Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding player in the NHL as voted by fellow members of the NHLPA): Corey Perry (Ducks), Daniel Sedin (Canucks), and Steven Stamkos (Lightning). It's tough to say how the players will vote on this one, but Sedin was mesmerizing this season and makes those around him better. Perry might be the winner as well, and he was an unstoppable force. Stamkos set a blistering pace early on and overshadowed almost everyone else in the league, although he sagged in the second half. It's hard to choose between Sedin and Perry, a coin flip really. Each played on a very dynamic and productive top line and perhaps the only separating factor is Daniel's excellent defensive play. He was plus-30 this season (Perry, plus-9). So we'll give it to Sedin, but it's really close.