By the end of the weekend, all the NHL teams will have crossed the quarter pole in their schedules, which is the time of year when everyone starts to assess things. We're doing the same by looking at the early choices for the league's official awards.
MVP: If this keeps up, the Hart Trophy voters will have a tough time figuring out who deserves the hardware. Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg blasted out of the gate with a 17-game point streak and as a result, so did the Western Conference-leading Detroit Red Wings. Meanwhile, another Henrik, the New York Rangers' Lundqvist has kept his offense-challenged team alive with brilliant goaltending. Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk has been nearly unstoppable since the Thrashers made a coaching change after six games and turned themselves around, but the choice is Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier, last season's goal-scoring leader whose fists, finesse and offensive firepower has almost single-handedly lifted the Lightning out of their early funk and probably saved their season.
|San Jose's Devin Setoguchi is one of several quality rookies in this year's class. (Getty Images)|
Best defenseman: Nicklas Lidstrom is an automatic candidate when it comes to the Norris. The Red Wings veteran is showing no signs of slowing down at age 37. He has 20 points in 22 games, gets more than 28 minutes of ice time per game and has a plus-14 rating. You have to be impressed with the emergence of Montreal's Andrei Markov and the fact that Sergei Zubov, who is only a couple of months younger than Lidstrom, has managed 19 points for a Dallas team that doesn't score much, but this is still Lidstrom's trophy.
Best rookie: The conventional wisdom, and with good reason is that the Calder Trophy race will be fought out be the two super young Blackhawks stars, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. We don't disagree, however there are several other young freshman who shouldn't be dismissed. One is Thrashers defenseman Tobias Enstrom, who was taken 239th overall in the 2003 draft and has become a workhorse and an offensive force for Atlanta. Another is San Jose's Devin Setoguchi, who has a nice finishing touch around the net, and the Rangers' Marc Staal has been showing more signs of maturity with each passing game on the New York blue line. Still our choice is Kane, the first overall pick last June who has made an incredibly smooth transition from junior hockey and leads the rookie scoring race.
Best coach: As a rule, the Adams award goes to a coach whose team made a notable improvement in the standings after failing to make the playoffs in the previous season. Using that criteria, one might be tempted to look at Chicago's Denis Savard or Columbus' Ken Hitchcock, who took over teams that were in shambles midway through last season and are currently contending for playoff spots. I like the job Ted Nolan has done so far squeezing the most of an Islanders team that isn't overloaded with talent, but the nod goes to Nashville's Barry Trotz, who has kept a team that went through a major fire sale together and has them playing like one of the league's best.
Best defensive forward: Selke has been Rod Brind'Amour's award since the lockout and remains that way at this point. The thing about the Carolina captain is that his game seems to be so much about offense because he tends to lead the Hurricanes in scoring as he's doing this season. Yet he is always out there against opponents' top lines, killing penalties, taking key faceoffs in his own end and in the last minute of play. You can make a case for New Jersey's John Madden, Detroit's Kris Draper and maybe for Anaheim's Sami Pahlsson, who was injured to start this season and is still slowly getting his game back, but Brind'Amour is the leader of this pack as well.
Sportsmanship: The Lady Byng Trophy goes to the player who puts up good offensive numbers and stays out of the penalty box. The winner doesn't have to feature the best numbers in either category, just a pretty good balance of the two. Zetterberg definitely qualifies because he has 32 points and only eight penalty minutes, while Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis has only six minutes and 27 points. Carolina's Ray Whitney has only one minor penalty so far and 22 points, but Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson, who has 30 points and only four minutes, should win the award.
Comeback: This is what the Masterton Trophy is for although it is technically defined as an award for perseverance. In Philadelphia, third-year player Mike Richards has bounced back from a disastrous sophomore season and has already surpassed his best career goal total, while in San Jose, the production of Jeremy Roenick may be the biggest surprise of the season. But no one went through the kind of season Ottawa goalie Martin Gerber did last year, when he signed a big free-agent contract, and crumbled under the pressure of playing in a hockey hotbed. Gerber was on the bench for much of the season and during the Senators' run to the Finals, making many wonder who would take him off Ottawa's hands in the past offseason. Instead, he reclaimed the No. 1 job from Ray Emery and is among the leaders in all key categories for the league's leading team.
Executive: The NHL doesn't officially honor its top general manager but it should because the job is a lot tougher than it ever was before the salary cap. It's easy to make mistakes and many GMs do, but the rights choices make a difference. Take Carolina's Jim Rutherford for example. He could have given in to temptation to blow things up when his team missed the playoffs last season after winning the Stanley Cup, but he stayed patient and believed that his team could get back to where it was once key players were healthy. So far he's been right. Chicago received some luck in recent seasons by drafting high and well, but GM Dale Tallon augmented the young talent and is getting good results. But our choice is Philadelphia's Paul Holmgren, who has given his peers a clinic in working the current salary cap system. Granted he had a lot of budget space to work with after last year, but he used it extremely well and has turned a team that finished last overall into an instant competitor.