Can a league's most valuable player come from a last place team?
It's a question asked from time-to-time in all sports, and it came up in connection with the heroics of Alexander Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals rookie, who now has 52 goals and 105 points, was not only scoring at a prolific pace from the get-go, he was providing an inordinate amount of his woeful team's overall offense.
Ovechkin heads into Tuesday's season finale having had a hand in 46.45 percent of Washington's goals. Ovechkin hasn't prevented the Capitals from being a draft lottery contender, so it's fair to question how valuable he really is.
The major awards will be voted on by writers, broadcasters and general managers over the next few days; winners of the Hart, Norris, Vezina, Selke, Byng, Adams and Calder honors will be announced in June, but we don't want to wait.
|Joe Thornton ignited the Sharks' season when he arrived from Boston. (AP)|
Still, Thornton set up seven of the 10 goals his team scored in winning the two games and beating out the Canucks for the postseason spot. It reflects how much of an impact Thornton has had since arriving from Boston in a stunning trade.
For much of the season, the Rangers' Jaromir Jagr has been seen as the front-runner for this award and it's hard to overstate the impact he has had in restoring credibility to a franchise that has been a laughingstock for too long. But the Rangers' retooled roster made things workable and smooth from the outset, as long as Jagr bought in. He did and the Rangers are having their best season in almost a decade, although they have struggled since the Olympics.
The Sharks, though, have gotten better, a turnaround that clearly began when Thornton got there Nov. 30. High expectations soured when the Sharks started poorly and seemed destined to miss the playoffs after the first two months of play. But with Thornton, they won their next six games and have since become one of the league's most dangerous teams.
Norris -- Best Defenseman: Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit
He was a perennial candidate and a three-time winner before the lockout, and in many ways, this was the most impressive season of Lidstrom's career considering the changes the team underwent.
Detroit had to make some challenging personnel moves because of the salary cap, but Lidstrom's presence along the blue line, more than any of the team's other returning veterans, ensured a smooth transition.
Scott Niedermayer also has had an outstanding season in Anaheim, and so have Dallas' Sergei Zubov, Edmonton's Chris Pronger and Nashville's Kimmo Timonen, but Lidstrom may be the key reason Detroit has been runaway good.
Vezina -- Best Goaltender: Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary
Kiprusoff gets a lot of support for MVP, but there's no category as clear-cut as this one. New Jersey's Martin Brodeur has been close lately, and Rangers rookie Henrik Lundqvist and Nashville's Tomas Vokoun were superb before getting hurt, but "Kippur" has been superb from the outset, and the biggest -- some might argue the only -- reason Calgary won its division title.
The Flames just don't score, ranking 27th out of 30. But they hit people, check tightly and then leave it to Kiprusoff to handle whatever gets through.
Kiprusoff has 10 shutouts, more than anyone else in the league, and is ranked first in overall victories and goals-against average. He's third in save percentage and the reason the Flames have a top seed for the playoffs.
Selke -- Best Defensive Forward: Rod Brind'Amour, Carolina
|Besides everything else he gives the 'Canes, Rod Brind'Amour is a faceoff wizard. (Getty Images)|
Brind'Amour was a big scorer earlier in his 16-year career, and he is putting up his best totals of the decade, but he has done a lot more to help Carolina run away with the Southeast.
Brind'Amour plays nearly 25 minutes a night, kills penalties and takes and wins most big faceoffs, and has generally been called on to shut down other teams' top forwards.
Lady Byng -- Sportsmanship: Simon Gagne, Philadelphia
This award is usually given to the player who combines a high point total with low penalty minutes, which is why two of the leading contenders are Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk and San Jose's Patrick Marleau.
My choice is Gagne, who has slightly fewer points and slightly more penalty minutes, but he plays in the Eastern Conference, where games tend to be more physical and create more opportunities to take penalties. Gagne has managed to control himself well and still produce big offensive numbers.
Jack Adams -- Top Coach: Lou Lamoriello, Devils
The New Jersey general manager won't win because he only spent half the season behind the bench, but what he did in that time was nothing short of amazing.
The Devils were a mess until Christmas, much of it because of the roster mistakes Lamoriello made, and it forced Larry Robinson to quit because of his health. New Jersey was not close to being playoff-worthy at the time, but Lamoriello stepped in and the Devils have been better than anyone in the second half and could well be the East reps in the Stanley Cup Final.
The full-season guys who will get the serious looks will be Carolina's Peter Laviolette, Buffalo's Lindy Ruff and Tom Renney of the Rangers, all of whom had great years.
Calder -- Top Rookie: Dion Phaneuf, Calgary
Bet you thought Ovechkin was my automatic choice for this. Or at least Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby. Well, there's more than the numbers when it comes to greatness.
You can't diminish 100-plus point seasons by first-year players like Ovechkin and Crosby, but when you play on bad teams with nothing to lose, there is an inherent benefit to your game. Phaneuf didn't have that, and more important, he's a defenseman, a position much more challenging for rookies than forward.
But Phaneuf made a seamless transition directly from the junior ranks, and not only made the starting lineup of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finalist, he became one of their top defensemen and a major contributor to a very successful team that lives and dies with defense. That's why he's the best, if not necessarily most exciting, rookie of the year.