Small in stature, but lots of Hart
Lightning's St. Louis has completed journey from castoff to NHL MVP
The start of the playoffs offers hockey fans a thrilling subject to debate, as there as 16 different groups that believe that their teams will be hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup in June. But the end of the regular season also offers us the chance to heartily -- or Hart-ily, if you prefer -- kick around our thoughts on who deserves to win the NHL's seven major postseason awards.
The Hart Trophy has been won by six different players in the past six seasons, a big change from when Wayne Gretzky claimed it eight consecutive times from 1980-87. With Peter Forsberg out of the running this year, make that seven winners in the past seven seasons, unless Joe Sakic or Jose Theodore wins in a stunning upset.
Five of the seven major awards are voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, of which I am a nonvoting member. The voting has been expanded to 105 media members from 60 in the past, and they cast five votes for each of the following trophies: Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Lady Byng. Each of the five awards that the PHWA votes on receives points in a 10-7-5-3-1 format.
The Vezina is voted on by the league's general managers, who each submit three names with five points given for each first-place vote, three for second place and one for third place. And the Jack Adams is determined by the NHL broadcasters, with its voting also in a 5-3-1 format.
Here is a list of the NHL Postseason Awards, with links to the history and list of winners. Also, feel free to peek at last year's voting results and check out our 2003-04 NHL Expert Picks from the preseason to see how much has changed since we gazed into our crystal balls in early October.
Here are my picks for the seven major postseason awards at the end of the 2003-04 regular season. I have ranked my top 10 choices for each award and offered a brief comment on each.
1. Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay
St. Louis has come a long way in a short period of time since being cast off by the Flames and signed by the Lightning off waivers. The speedy winger emerged as the most exciting player in the NHL this season, and even though teammates Vincent Lecavalier (32), Fredrik Modin (29), Brad Richards (26), Cory Stillman (25) and Dave Andreychuk (21) each have 20 or more goals as well, St. Louis has been Tampa Bay's most consistent scorer. Iginla carried the Flames' offense this season and rebounded to his 2001-02 form, a season in which he was also the runner-up for the Hart. Sakic carried the Avs through key injuries to Forsberg, Paul Kariya and Alex Tanguay, as well as Teemu Selanne's subpar season. Elias played the best hockey of his career this season, and his 78 points while playing the Devils' defense-first system are an impressive feat. Naslund's offensive numbers are off from a year ago (especially on the power play), but he played a more complete game this season and helped lead the Canucks through an injury to Ed Jovanovski and Todd Bertuzzi's suspension. Alfredsson played at his usual consistently solid level, and his leadership helped the Sens through a rough patch in the first half of the season, when they slumped to the bottom of the Northeast Division. Thornton rebounded from a very slow start to captain the Bruins back near the top of the Eastern Conference. Sundin helped the Leafs to a team-record 16-game points streak in November and December, and he was the model of consistency once again, chipping in with scoring and all-around help at every point of the season. Luongo kept the lowly Panthers in the game on most nights, while facing more than 35 shots per game. Turco bounced back from a slow start caused by his short contract holdout to be the Stars' ironman in net, playing 4,299 minutes.
The scary thing about Luongo is that he still has room for improvement. He still has a tendency to give up soft goals when the Panthers are up, and he's so used to facing a ton of shots that his concentration can wane a bit in periods of inactivity. Once he gets a better defense in front of him, he'll get used to facing a sane number of shots per game, and the sky is the limit for this ultra-talented, incredibly fun to watch netminder. Even though Turco's goals-against average was slightly higher than his career mark, and his save percentage was slightly lower than his career mark, he still dominated games on a regular basis by recording a career-best nine shutouts. Brodeur had 10 shutouts as of Jan. 23 and looked like he could threaten Tony Esposito's single-season mark of 15, but he recorded just one in the final nine weeks of the season and fell off his early-season pace. Theodore rallied from his tough 2002-03 performance to -- at times -- recapture his Vezina and Hart-winning form of 2001-02. Raycroft wrested the Bruins' starting job from Felix Potvin early in the season and gave Boston its first settled netminding situation in years. Belfour wasn't initially on my list, but after pitching back-to-back shutouts in the Leafs' final two games, it's clear that this season was among the best of his storied career. Kiprusoff has been brilliant for Calgary, but his stint on the IR caused him to miss enough time that he's played in fewer than half of the Flames' games, and it's hard to see him winning the Vezina as basically a part-timer. Nabokov battled a groin injury early but recovered to find his Calder-winning form from 2000-01. Aebischer slumped a bit in the second half, but his first season as a starter still far surpassed the modest expectations that most people had for him. Weekes, similar to Luongo, was the shining light on a disappointing team, but his stellar play kept most of the Hurricanes' games close, and his value goes well beyond his 23-29-10 record. Dwayne Roloson, Tomas Vokoun, Nikolai Khabibulin and Chris Osgood all also enjoyed fine seasons in net.
1. Zdeno Chara, Ottawa
The Norris race is as wide open as at any point in the past decade, and that is likely to be reflected by Lidstrom's three-year reign coming to an end. Chara was on the cusp of becoming an elite blueliner for the past two seasons, but the strides he took this season have turned him into the best all-around defenseman. Niedermayer has been spectacular (and could easily win the award for his performance holding down the Devils' defense with Scott Stevens out for half of the season and Brian Rafalski out for a dozen games. Aucoin continues to be an ultimate minute-muncher and his career-best performance in points and plus-minus shows he belongs among the elite defensemen. McCabe put up a career-high in points despite missing time early with a minor knee injury. Schneider became the Red Wings' top option on the blueline, and taking that job from three-time defending Norris winner Lidstrom shows the high level that Schneider played at all season. Pronger gets kudos for holding together the Blues' defense with Al MacInnis and Barret Jackman out. Blake jumped out of the gate quickly but struggled in the second half with a surprisingly high number of mental lapses in his own zone. Lidstrom's string of three straight wins and six consecutive appearances as a Norris finalist could end, as his point total will be the lowest since the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season. Gonchar remains the top offensive-minded blueliner around, and his defense seemed to improve once he was dealt to the Bruins as was asked to play a more conservative style with a more talented crew of rearguards. Redden continued his steady all-around play, and boosted his goal total to a career-high 17.
This year's rookie crop was particularly solid, as evidenced by the fact that Eric Staal, Matthew Lombardi, Jason King and Marc-Andre Fleury aren't even on my list. Ryder and Hunter had exceptional seasons, but Raycroft will get support for the Vezina and could even garner a few Hart votes. The Habs are thrilled that Ryder was able to translate his AHL success from a year ago into NHL success as a rookie. Hunter's physical style was a blessing for the Islanders, who feature many forwards who don't care to mix it up. Zherdev could turn out to be the best of this rookie bunch, as the crafty playmaking Russian center offered some incredible individual moves that were made more impressive with the knowledge that he was fighting an arbitration case to stay eligible in the NHL. Malone became a cult hero in Pittsburgh as the first hometown-bred product to play for the Penguins. Ruutu got hot in the second half after struggling to adapt to the North American style. Pitkanen offered glimpses of why the Flyers traded up to get him in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. Liles was a surprise in training camp for the Avs, and he ended up playing so well that Colorado felt Derek Morris was expendable. Bergeron started out hot, but suffered a shoulder injury in late February and slumped in the second half. And Stajan played key minutes for the Leafs and showed impressive two-way awareness for a 20-year-old.
Jack Adams Award
1. Ron Wilson, San Jose
The San Jose Sharks will end up being the least likely of the six division champions. Both Ron Wilson and general manager Doug Wilson deserve a ton of credit for remaking the Sharks' roster in a hurry after last season's disastrous last-place finish. Tortorella kept the Lightning on edge with his brash, in-you-fact motivational style, and his tongue-lashing of Lecavalier turned out to be the seminal moment in Tampa Bay's season. Sutter quickly rebuilt the Flames in his image just one year after getting canned in San Jose. Murray was the muse behind the Kings hanging around the playoff race until the final two weeks of the season despite being without Jason Allison, Adam Deadmarsh and Ziggy Palffy. Julien would edge out Sullivan as the top rookie coach, only because the Canadiens didn't have as high of hopes for this season. But both Julien and Sullivan kept their players motivated to play in a team concept and focused on their defensive styles. Trotz remains the most underappreciated coach in the league while toiling in small-market Nashville. The Predators rarely get outworked and Trotz and his staff always get the most out of the player's individual talents while preaching a hard-working team system. Stirling brought a new sense of unity to the Islanders after the Peter Laviolette era, and New York bought into Stirling's system from the start of the season. Lewis performed his best coaching job in three years behind the Wings' bench, having to deal with the biggest goaltending controversy in recent memory and also juggle star players in and out of the lineup with injuries. Bob Hartley, Ken Hitchcock, Jacques Martin and Pat Burns also had notable performances behind their teams' bench.
1. John Madden, New Jersey
St. Louis led the league with eight short-handed goals, but Madden is the best defensive player on the top defensive team. It's fun to watch St. Louis buzz around the ice and disrupt passes with his speed and skating, but Madden has been the forechecking maestro for five seasons now and his career body of work will again be recognized. Draper had his career year largely as a result of getting more ice time with so many injured teammates. McCauley turned into the Sharks' star checker and inherited San Jose's lockdown defensive job from Mike Ricci. Linden continues to be an effective penalty-killer at age 33, and he may be the most positionally sound defensive forward. Blake and Peca team in the Islanders' PK, which ranks fifth in the NHL at 85.2 percent. Holik is the one Rangers player who gives an honest defensive effort on every shift, and he can still shut down No. 1 centers as well as anyone. Adams and Donovan both use their speed to forecheck with abandon and disrupt attempted clearouts on the penalty kill. Other players who deserve mention for their standout defensive work include Dallas Drake, Nils Ekman, Mike Knuble, Kirk Maltby, Shawn McEachern, Keith Primeau, Brian Rolston, Steve Rucchin and Wes Walz.
Lady Byng Trophy
Outside of knowing that Bertuzzi won't win it, picking the Lady Byng is a rather inexact science. The qualifications for the Lady Byng state the award should go "to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability." It helps to have a shy, non-confrontational personality that can let bad calls slide. Any of the 10 players listed here fit that criteria, though Hull is a world-class yapper away from the ice. Opting for someone like Lidstrom is a safe bet, considering that Gretzky used to often win the Byng in seasons where he wasn't given the Hart. It makes for a nice runner-up award for a good guy. Francis has won the Byng three times, so hearing his name called for a fourth wouldn't be a surprise at all. Youngsters Richard, York and Marleau all play impressive, clean hockey and never talk back to the officials.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.