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Posted: Friday November 20, 2009 12:56PM; Updated: Friday November 20, 2009 12:56PM
Allan Muir
Allan Muir>INSIDE THE NHL

Early awards contenders, Hawks cap squeeze, a sticky issue, more

Story Highlights

The surprise is how many of the usual contenders are out of the major awards mix

Blackhawks fans will likely have to wait a while before three core stars are signed

Composite sticks cost teams big; did Sharks co-owner reveal the Balsillie truth?

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Sidney Crosby, with his composite stick, is not yet in the running for the Hart Trophy, but you have to believe he will be soon.
AP

The NHL schedule officially hits the quarter-pole when the Sabres tangle with the Bruins on Nov. 20, and that milestone that has us itching to rank the season's top performers.

The big surprise of the early going? How few of the players routinely in contention for the major awards -- Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Lundqvist come to mind -- are in the mix. Of course, it's likely we'll see some of those familiar faces work their way into contention before the season's over. So think of this not so much as a prediction of who'll win the awards, but as a recognition of the players who have a head start in the race.

Here's how the major awards stack up:

HART TROPHY (MVP): Anze Kopitar

Alexander Ovechkin would have a decent head start on his third consecutive Hart if not for the six games he was sidelined by a shoulder injury, so his down-time makes it impossible to overlook Kopitar. The Slovenian sensation hasn't looked quite as intimidating since running buddy Ryan Smyth went down with an upper body injury, but Kopitar's breakout season, and the impact it's had on the surprising Kings, give him the edge on a crowded field.

Much has been made of a concerted effort over the summer to improve Kopitar's conditioning, and that's clearly played a large part in a fast start that sees him leading the league in scoring with 32 points. Never the most physical player despite his 6-4, 220 frame, he is also starting to assert himself down low, winning battles along the boards and doing a more effective job of positioning himself and protecting the puck. Those elements, along with a total commitment to his defensive responsibilities, have made him the focal point for a team finally on the cusp of respectability.

In the mix: Ovechkin, Rick Nash, Craig Anderson, Ryan Miller

VEZINA TROPHY (best goalie): Ryan Miller

While several of the usual suspects -- Lundqvist, Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo -- have yet to play their best hockey, Miller has clearly established himself as the game's most dominant stopper. He leads the NHL in wins (12) and is second in goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931). Tougher to measure is the confidence he imparts to the Sabres with his on- and off-ice leadership, but the fact that the team most pundits had missing the playoffs is leading the Northeast Division hints at his impact. Miller's hot start is good news for Team USA. Fact is, with him in net, they have to be recognized not just as medal contenders, but medal favorites.

In the mix: Anderson, Martin Brodeur, Evgeni Nabokov

CALDER TROPHY (best rookie): John Tavares

Victor Hedman performs with the certainty of a player who is 10 years older, and Michael Del Zotto's crisp passing and power play savvy have been just as key to the offensive revival of the Rangers as the finishing touch of Marian Gaborik. But Tavares has done it all virtually on his own. He leads both his team and all rookies in scoring, and he attacks each shift with a competitive gusto that has set the tone for the feisty Islanders. He's even helped transform Kings castoff Matt Moulson into this generation's Warren Young. Tough to argue with that kind of magic.

In the mix: Hedman, Del Zotto, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Myers

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Chris Pronger's impact in Philadelphia makes him the early Norris Trophy favorite.
Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

NORRIS TROPHY (top defender): Chris Pronger

Even if perennial contenders like Lidstrom and Zdeno Chara were performing up to expectations, Pronger would still be pulling away from the field. Despite walking onto a fairly stout Philly blueline, he became the team's go-to guy the moment he slipped on the orange and black. He leads the league in average ice time (nearly 27 minutes a night) and ranks third with his +14 rating. And while he'll be hard pressed to keep it up, he's on pace for the best offensive season of his career, with 17 points in 18 games. Not yet convinced? Just look at the trouble Anaheim has controlling its own end with Pronger out of the picture. The guy is a monster.

In the mix: Dan Boyle, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith

JACK ADAMS AWARD (top coach): Barry Trotz

The truth is you could pick any one of 10 coaches and make a solid argument on his behalf. And that number may be conservative. Think about it:

Dave Tippett arrived halfway through training camp and immediately sold the hard-luck Coyotes on his disciplined defensive system. Jacques Lemaire returned to a Devils room reeling from a series of off-season defections (including his predecessor, Brent Sutter) and has them playing a consistent 200-foot game that's rocketed New Jersey to the top of the Eastern Conference. Dan Byslma's insistence on organizational adherence to his system has allowed the Penguins to survive a catastrophic rash of injuries on the blueline. Joe Sacco took an Avalanche team that most observers expected to be struggling through a rebuild and has it contending for the Northwest crown. Todd McLellan took the bold step of stripping Patrick Marleau of the C, and has seen the veteran respond with the best hockey of his career.

Lindy Ruff, Terry Murray, John Anderson...all have guided their teams beyond expectations. But nobody does more with less on a consistent basis than Barry Trotz, and after watching his undermanned Predators win eight of 10, it's about time he got the credit for it.

In the mix: McLellan, Bylsma, Lemaire, Sacco

And for the completists in the crowd, let's install Marleau and Jordan Staal as the early leaders to take home the Lady Byng and Selke, respectively.

Jamming The Crease

Rumors that Chicago is close to signing long-term deals with core stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith have the team's fans anxious for closure, but they might have a long wait ahead of them.

At issue is the tagging rule, which stipulates that a team can't commit to salaries for an upcoming season that exceed the current year's cap figure. Based on the numbers being floated around for the star trio, that will be an issue. It leaves the Hawks two options: The new contracts could be agreed upon in principle but not signed until after the season's end; or the team could be forced to ship out a couple of current players to clear their salaries off next season's cap total. That, however, seems like a non-starter. Not only could that approach hamper Chicago's ability to challenge for the Stanley Cup this season, a distress sale would make it impossible for the Hawks to get fair value for any assets.

Look for Chicago to use the delay tactic. Fans may not appreciate the uncertainty, but it beats the alternative.

STICKY ISSUE

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These days in the NHL, it's a snap to suddenly find yourself playing without a stick.
Andy Devlin/Getty Images

Don't feel too flinty-hearted if you're having trouble working up sympathy for general managers who are complaining about the expense of composite sticks. After all, the rising cost of equipment is part of doing business, just like the rising cost of beer and popcorn is the bane of the live-game experience. So, despite the cries of poverty coming from teams hoping to weasel out of footing the bill (estimates run up to $500,000 per year for some clubs), these post-modern twigs aren't going away.

But it won't be long before a smart team simply bans their use in critical situations like the penalty kill or the protection of a late lead, and at this point you'd have to think the Boston Bruins might want to show that initiative. The B's were victimized last Saturday when Patrice Bergeron's stick disintegrated as the team clung to a one-goal lead in the dying seconds of the contest against Pittsburgh. No surprise that the Pens capitalized on Boston's disadvantage and scored the tying goal with .4 seconds on the clock. Even less of a surprise is that they carried that momentum into OT where Pascal Dupuis sealed the unlikely comeback.

It's understandable why players love the modern one-piece marvels. Even Sidney Crosby finally converted to one this season, and he's off to his best start ever as a goal-scorer. But examples of the risk inherent in their use can be seen in every game when a shattered stick negates a scoring chance or, worse, creates one for the other team. Mandating a switch to old-fashioned wood for key defensive postures just makes sense. And if teams manage to save a few bucks as a result, then it's a win-win.

Maybe they'll even pass along the savings at the concession stand, right? Right?

BALD TRUTH ABOUT BALSILLIE?

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The big question: Exactly who keeps slamming the NHL door on Jim Balsillie?
AP

If you aren't yet familiar with the name Kevin Compton, chances are you will be soon. In an interview with Sports Business Daily that focused primarily on technology geared to enhance the fan experience, Compton, a typically taciturn part-owner of the San Jose Sharks, channeled his inner Mark Cuban and broke ranks with the NHL and its reportedly unanimous opinion of would-be owner Jim Balsillie as an undesirable element.

"Jim loves hockey," Compton told the paper. "Jim's got a lot of money. Jim's got a lot of passion."

Okay, less than judicious perhaps, but not too bad. Compton wasn't done there. He guaranteed himself a trip to the wood shed by stating he was 100 per cent certain that Balsillie would become an owner at some point in the future. Then, when asked why the owners had rejected Balsillie, he replied, "Owners [didn't]."

Whoops. That opinion, to the surprise of few, flies directly in the face of Gary Bettman, who last week told MacLean's magazine it was "the owners [who] decided they didn't want [Balsillie] as a partner."

Clearly someone isn't playing straight. But if an owner contradicting the commissioner isn't compelling enough, there's this subplot to chew on. Compton and Balsillie aren't simply a pair of obscenely wealthy guys who share a passion for hockey. Among the corporate boards on which Compton sits is Kodiak Networks, a company that in Jan. 2007 signed a massive global licensing agreement for its Push-To-Talk technology with, you guessed it, Balsillie's Research in Motion.

Now, it's entirely possible that the two men never crossed paths as a result of these dealings, but it's also possible that a shared business venture allowed Compton to see Balsillie as something other than a barbarian determined to crash through the NHL's gates.

Is Compton alone in his views? Probably not. After all, extremely wealthy men tend to be pragmatic, and while they may take umbrage at Balsillie's methods, their appetite for assuming the massive losses in Phoenix can't be great. Now that Compton has breached the cone of silence, it'll be interesting to see if anyone else has the stones to widen the crack in a door that might yet open for Balsillie.

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