Award races are tough calls
Rookie netminder Jimmy Howard deserves consideration for three awards
I believe there should be offensive and defensive awards for defensemen
Ryan Miller is clearly his team's MVP, but the Hart will likely go to Alex Ovechkin
"Hey kids! What time is it?"
I you remember where that line comes from, let's say you're far too old to relate to the kids who make up this year's talented pool of NHL rookies.
Yes, it's that time of the season where gnarly old sportswriters, several of whom have been around long enough to recall being on a first-name basis with Buffalo Bob Smith, Howdy Doody and Princess Summerfall Winterspring, are called upon to determine which rookie deserves the Calder Trophy for being the best of the bunch. Some seasons it's as easy as figuring out whether Buzz Lightyear can really fly, but if you look at the current lot, it's really rather complicated.
Should one go with Tyler Myers? The long, tall, gifted defenseman logs more ice time (23:47) than any Sabre and plays more effectively at age 20 than his more experienced blueline mates, including respected captain Craig Rivet, Toni Lydman, Henrik Tallinder and Steve Montador. Myers ranks third in scoring among all rookies, including the much-touted John Tavares of the Islanders and the polished, well-rounded Matt Duchene who led a crop of kids disguised as the Avalanche into the playoffs when virtually no one thought it was possible.
Myers makes plays and puts the puck in the net, and has seemingly mastered the finer points of the defensive game, playing against top forwards and racking up the kind of minutes usually reserved for a Nicklas Lidstrom or a Brooks Orpik. As of this posting, Myers has 47 points with three games left and leads all rookies with 36 assists. No small accomplishment on a team that is not known for its overall goal-scoring.
Myers has a more than respectable 11 tallies, but is perhaps best known for his solid plus-minus (+15). That matches Nashville's Cody Franson, who is getting no love at this position despite the fact that he has adequate offensive numbers (21 points) for one of the most scoring-challenged teams in the NHL. Plus-15 is a remarkable number for any player asked to defend against the league's best every night, but when you measure it against others of his ilk, including the highly-regarded Mike Del Zotto of the Rangers (minus-20), it's a standout number that even the most talented veteran would be happy to own. Consider that future Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer of the Ducks has 48 points but is minus-12, and veteran Dan Boyle has 58 points but is only a modest plus-five.
While it's not supposed to factor in the voting, almost every experienced hockey person I've spoken to (omitting members of the Sabres team and organization) says this is just the beginning for Myers. They argue that he has the size, speed, temperament and ice vision to rise faster than the house in Up and he'll quickly become a good deal better. But if you go for Myers and the old adage that he's even more spectacular because defensemen normally have a longer learning curve than forwards, what do you do or say about Duchene?
He's just 19 and leads all rookie scorers with 24 goals and 55 points. Perhaps more importantly, he was front and center leading the Avs to a playoff spot in a season many thought would see them repeat at the bottom of the Western Conference. When the Avs stumbled and were in danger of surrendering their playoff spot to Calgary, Duchene scored the shootout goal against the highly respected Canucks (in Vancouver, no less) that nailed the berth. He's done things like that all season and, without a veteran presence like Joe Sakic to guide him, he's done them largely on his own.
Duchene was the third player drafted overall in 2009, but he's the one many observers (yours truly included) felt was the most NHL-ready. His success, coupled with the Avs', put a shadow over No.1 pick Tavares, a goal-scorer's goal-scorer on an exceptionally weak team. Tavares (22 goals, 49 points) is likely to follow the path of Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, who blossomed spectacularly this season, but the Islander rookie's minus-17 shows that, like Kings defenseman Drew Doughty last season, he may eventually be as good or better than advertised, but he's not likely to win the Calder.
In the eyes of many, Duchene won't win it, either, so it's a race between Myers and Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard, the elder statesman of this group. (He's 26, just under the age limit for consideraton.) Howard is also a Vezina threat. Red Wings fans no doubt feel he should be a firm candidate for the Hart Trophy, as well.
Howard has 35 wins in 59 starts and has been virtually unbeatable since his teammates got healthy and back to their usual all-around form. He's replaced Stanley Cup-winner Chris Osgood as Detroit's go-to goalie and has a solid. 923 save percentage. But the now-sainted Ryan Miller of Buffalo will win the Vezina in part because of his stellar play in the Olympics (which shouldn't count in the voting) and his brilliant, consistent regular season. Howard could well find his way into the final three despite the solid play of veterans Martin Brodeur and Ilya Bryzgalov. If he does, it's a good bet that Howard will receive even more Calder votes, a result that could push Myers to second place.
My choice: I've seen enough of Myers to know he's the real thing and worthy of the award, but I think it will be a close vote and Duchene, not Howard, is his real competition. Myers will win, but not by much.
Moving on to the Norris, the big news is the changing of the guard and wide-open field. Despite being left off the Canadian Olympic team, Washington's Mike Green is a reasonable, respectable candidate to break through as the top defenseman, especially if you put a high priority on points. There's no shame in making an offensive defenseman No. 1 at the position. Just ask Bobby Orr. In that regard, Myers should get a few votes, as will Doughty and Shea Weber (Nashville) who might be the NHL's best two-way defenseman this season. But if you accept Green as the best of the offensive defensemen, what about Chicago's Duncan Keith?
I've long advocated that there should be two awards for defensemen. But if I have to give my vote to one, it's Keith. He regularly shuts down the best forwards and, to me, that's harder and in some ways more valuable than a defenseman who acts as a fourth forward. Green is great offensively and getting better at the defensive side of the game, though you would never know it by watching the Capitals, but the trophy celebrates the game's best defenseman, and playing defense is the part that matters most.
The Hart Trophy is an annual problem. Do you vote for the best player in the game or, as the wording of the award states, the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team? Quite often that's one in the same, but every once in awhile it goes to the player who is his team's MVP. Problem is, if that's the case, shouldn't Miller win? Without him, the Sabres would be the equivalent of the Washington Generals on skates. One could argue the same for Miikka Kiprusoff of Calgary, especially if he had gotten the Flames into the playoffs, or even Martin Brodeur of New Jersey or Tuukka Rask of Boston.
On paper, the MVP is Alex Ovechkin, who is moving ahead of Sidney Crosby in numbers and head-to-head competition. I'm leaning toward Henrik Sedin who is, more than Roberto Luongo, the straw that stirs the Canucks in the most consistent way. Sedin has 29 goals, 107 points, an excellent overall game, and he's shown himself to be a leader -- no small accomplishment for a European in a North American-centric league.
That said, I believe Ovechkin will garner enough votes to win his third straight MVP in part because he's in the East where the majority of voters see him play, and also because he's so darn good. He has the goals (48) and points (106) and now the budding leadership skills to prove it. Sure, the Caps went 7-2-1 in games he's missed, a tribute to the talent and growth that now surrounds him, but take him out of that lineup for a good long time, and he can't be replaced.
Howdy Doody he is not.