By Stu Hackel
The NHL hands out its annual individual player awards tonight in Las Vegas during a glitzy, star-spangled gala that's a far cry from the afternoon luncheons in Montreal that were hosted by Clarence Campbell.
Just as the regular season and playoffs were hard to predict as a result of the league's parity, it's difficult to try determining who the voters selected for some of the hardware, and there may be some controversial choices among fans who will believe that the wrong guy won. You have to keep in mind that the voting was done at the conclusion of the regular season and the award recognizes only that aspect of the players' performances. The playoffs are not a factor.
One circumstance that may be a factor in voters'' thinking about some of the winners is their track record in previous years. Sometimes a player who has finished second or third and maintained a high level of performance while never winning is rewarded by voters when it's a close call between him and a newcomer to the balloting. That may or may not be fair, but that's the way it can be some years.
Also, when the NHL announces that three players are "finalists" for an award, that doesn't mean that a second round of voting then takes place to determine which of the trio gets the prize. There's one round of voting and the top three vote-getters are named "finalists," but in reality, the guy who came in first is already the winner and the runner-up and third-place finisher are added as a little window dressing, to add some suspense to the proceedings.
With that in mind, here are the "finalists" for each award, along with who might get the silver.
HART TROPHY (Most Valuable Player): Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers; Evgeni Malkin, Penguins; Steven Stamkos, Lightning. Selected by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. A good case can be made for all three. Even though Stamkos scored 60 goals, he most likely didn't get first place consideration from some voters because his team didn't make the playoffs and, the thinking goes (as we wrote in early March) , how valuable can he be if his team didn't qualify? Some voters could be reluctant to select a goalie as the Hart winner -- only six have ever won it -- unless he is overwhelmingly dominant, believing that the Vezina is the proper way to acknowledge his performance. Twice a runner-up, Malkin likely gets the nod, not just because he was the league's top scorer (50 goals, 109 points), but for carrying the Penguins in the absence of Sidney Crosby, who missed three-quarters of the season. Malkin would be a worthy choice.
NORRIS TROPHY (Top Defenseman): Zdeno Chara, Bruins; Erik Karlsson, Senators; Shea Weber, Predators. Selected by the PHWA. Although Chara had another good season, his best ever offensively, the buzz seems to be that this race came down to Weber and Karlsson. No one disputes Karlsson's excellent offensive abilities -- he was tied for 10th in scoring among all players, quite a feat for a blueliner in this era, his 78 points signifying that he was in on nearly one-third of all the Senators' goals this season. The knock on him is his defensive game, which is still developing. That hasn't always dissuaded voters in the past (as we wrote in February) when they selected a similar player, Paul Coffey, for the Norris three times during his career, recognizing the special nature of his talent. But he was denied the trophy early in his career even though he had some amazingly productive seasons. Weber, on the other hand, plays a rugged, all-around game. He doesn't reach all the offensive heights that Karlsson does, but the two blueliners were tied in goals and he's a very strong defender, leading his team in plus-minus, hits and blocked shots. Expect Weber, runner-up last year to Nick Lidstrom, to get the trophy on the strength of his more complete game, although either would be a good choice.
VEZINA TROPHY (Top Goalie): Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers; Jonathan Quick, Kings; Pekka Rinne, Predators. Selected by the General Managers of the NHL clubs. You'd be happy with any of these guys in goal for your team, and on any given day, one can outduel the other. Statistically, Lundqvist and Quick are very close in save percentage and goals-against average (.929, 1.95 for Quick; .930, 1.97 for Lundqvist) while Rinne led the league with 43 wins. No one who watched Quick in the playoffs should have any doubt that he's emerging as perhaps the game's top goalie and, while that has no bearing on the voting, he played at that level all season for a team that just couldn't score for most of it. Both he and Rinne may have gotten fewer top votes from the GMs, however, because Lundqvist has been a "finalist" four times but he's never won. Although Quick has a decent chance, don't be surprised if King Henrik takes home the trophy this time.
CALDER TROPHY (Top Rookie): Adam Henrique (Devils), Gabriel Landeskog, Avalanche; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oilers. Selected by the PHWA. All three are excellent young talents who played important roles in their teams' offenses. Henrique centered the Devils' top line while Travis Zajac was injured, Landeskog also got top line duties, and Nugent-Hopkins helped turn around the Oilers' power play. They finished nearly identical in point totals (51 for Henrique, 52 for the others). One of the points of differentiation, strangely, may be how much the winner played in his first NHL season. Henrique didn't make the Devils out of training camp, but was recalled very soon after the season started. Nugent-Hopkins was injured and missed 20 games. Landeskog played all 82. Another consideration might be their comparative plus/minus stats: Landeskog was plus-20, Henrique plus-8, Nugent-Hopkins minus-2. All three are deserving, but Landeskog might win on the basis of his durability and statistically better all-around game.
SELKE TROPHY (Top Defensive Forward): David Backes, Blues; Patrice Bergeron, Bruins; Pavel Datsyuk, Red Wings. Selected by the PHWA. Datsyuk, a three-time winner and one of our favorites here at Red Light, actually had a bit of a drop-off defensively as the season wore on (most of his teammates did as well), and that's largely attributable to his knee injury that required surgery. Still, his stats boast a very respectable plus-21 and at his best, no one surpasses him. Both Backes and Bergeron had exceptional seasons. The top center on the league's best defensive team, Backes played against top opposing centers all season. He had been a minus-player for much of his career until the last two campaigns, and coach Ken Hitchcock praised his adjustment, saying Backes has sacrificed points for a better defensive game. But it was Bergeron who, all season, got the buzz for the Selke among the writers. His plus-36 topped the league, his face-off prowess is formidable, and his penalty killing first-rate. He should be the winner.
LADY BYNG TROPHY (Most Gentlemanly Player): Brian Campbell, Panthers; Jordan Eberle, Oilers; Matt Moulson, Islanders. Selected by PHWA. When my friend Rick Carpiniello, who writes for the New York suburban paper The Journal News, picks his trophy winners each year, he always writes "Who cares?" when he gets to the Lady Byng and leaves it at that. For advocates of physical hockey, this award has little meaning, but it is remarkable how some NHLers are able to play well and yet stay consistently clean with their emotions in check. Any of these three would be worthy winners; Eberle had 10 penalty minutes, the others had but six. But it's especially impressive when a defenseman can keep his totals low, as Campbell has done, while still playing an effective two-way game. No defenseman has won this award since Red Kelly of Detroit, who did it in 1954 (he won it again playing for Toronto in 1961, but played center for the Leafs that season). Campbell could well be the first to do it since then.
MASTERTON AWARD (Dedication and Perserverence): Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa; Joffrey Lupul, Toronto; Max Pacioretty, Montreal. Selected by PHWA. These three players overcame various injuries and physical ailments to have excellent seasons and whoever wins this award is deserving, no more so than the other 27 who were nominated by the rest of the league, one from each team. If Alfredsson gets it because of his long and distinguished career, no one should have a problem with it but, really, all 30 deserve recognition.
JACK ADAMS AWARD (Coach of the Year): Ken Hitchcock, Blues; Paul MacLean, Senators; John Tortorella, Rangers. Selected by the NHL Broadcasters Association. Again, all three of these guys did masterful jobs. A first year head coach, MacLean changed the entire culture in Ottawa and guided a young team that finished 13th in 2010-11 to an 18-point improvement and into the playoffs. Tortorella, who won this award in 2004, led the Rangers to a 16-point improvement and their first conference title since 1994. But Hitchcock took over the Blues when they had a 6-7-0 mark and transformed them into a team that nearly won the conference, going 43-15-11 the rest of the way. He changed their style of play, instilling confidence where little existed before and making good on the promise that many of the young talented Blues had never realized -- all without the benefit of a training camp. He should win his first Adams after being a "finalist" three times.
They'll also hand out the Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding player as selected by his peers; candidates are the same for the Hart), Messier Leadership Award (Dustin Brown of the Kings, Ryan Callahan of the Rangers, Shane Doan of the Coyotes), NHL Foundation Award for commitment, perseverance and teamwork in the community (Mike Fisher of the Predators, John-Michael Liles of the Maple Leafs, Matt Moulson of the Islanders) and General Manager of the Year (Doug Armstrong of the Blues, David Poile of the Predators, Dale Tallon of the Panthers), which the GMs vote on themselves.
So that's what you may see tonight -- unless the only reason you'll watch is to see the greatly despised Nickelback. Is that really the best the NHL could do? Why not this group?