Holiday hockey awards: Best gifts, biggest lumps of coal from 2017-18 NHL season

It's the holiday season, and the NHL is skating into the new year.

Rosters have been "frozen" until Dec. 28, but the teams are still on ice as the 2017-18 campaign rolls toward its third month -- one closer to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Playing Santa Claus, let's call out some of the best gifts -- and the biggest lumps of coal -- from the NHL season thus far:

Best gifts

Steven Stamkos: Nikita Kucherov is the man on fire for the Tampa Bay Lightning, as his 23 goals are tied for best in the league alongside a guy you might've heard of, Alex Ovechkin. But we cannot overstate Stamkos' value to a team that's been sitting comfortably as the NHL's top dog for weeks -- no, months -- on end.

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Steven Stamkos' resurgence has been a big force in Tampa Bay. USATSI

Don't forget that his 45 points are tied for second in the NHL behind only Kucherov. His presence alone after 2016-17's untimely injury would've been a gift, but his evolution as the -- dare we say -- ace sidekick for Tampa Bay is a big reason the Lightning are so explosive, setting the tone for the rest of the league.

Vegas Golden Knights: There was a lot of talk about the NHL's newest expansion team being a little feistier than most first-year clubs, especially after a favorable summer setup. But did anyone really equate feisty to a 22-9-2 record entering Christmas Eve weekend? The Golden Knights have been a gift to Vegas, obviously, but they've also been a gift to the NHL. For goodness sake, these guys are a couple of points out of first place in a division that was supposed to give us the Connor McDavid Show, and they're a feasible postseason projection (yes, really) despite losing Marc-Andre Fleury and three -- count them: three -- other goalies to injury.

Nico Hischier: Across the league, there are plenty of arguments to be made for other players and teams, like the Nashville Predators. But Hischier has been the definition of a gift for New Jersey. He was hyped as a draft prospect, sure, but so was Nolan Patrick. In large part due to his addition, the Devils have outraced time, showcasing themselves as elite scorers at least a season ahead of schedule. Even if the rest of their season falls apart, no one had them in first place at the end of December, and Hischier has been the centerpiece of a dynamic young core.

Biggest lumps of coal

Winter Olympics: Really? We had to go here again? Well, yes. Because of all the lumps of coal from this season, this is the absolute biggest and dirtiest.

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There won't be any NHL players on Olympic ice in February. Getty Images

The NHL had no qualms about talking up its China Games preseason experiment, and that's fine and dandy, but all of it becomes a harder sell when the league refuses to send its overly eager stars to the biggest stage on Earth. It's fine to be concerned about injuries, but if the league's true concern about partaking in the PyeongChang Games was breaking up its February schedule and taking eyes off its product, don't you think the league would also think about, you know, putting its best talent on prime-time TV? By not allowing players to go to the Olympics, the NHL has left Team USA barren of recognizable names -- names that may very well have helped offset Russia's own outright ban from the Games.

Edmonton Oilers: This lump of coal might be useful for a fire, because the Oilers are finally starting to see things click as of late. A three-game win streak has them up from the cellar in the Pacific, and Cam Talbot has really found himself in the net. It's hard not to call them a holiday disappointment, though, considering we're about to hit January and they sit behind all but one team in the Western Conference. That's a lot of ground to make up. Maybe McDavid and Co. teased us with their run into the 2016-17 playoffs, but you would've been hard pressed to find someone who didn't think the Oilers at least had a shot at going all the way to the Final. Now? On paper, they're still only better than the Arizona Coyotes in their own division.

Expansion process: We know Vegas is a big gift, so the NHL paving the way for another franchise to land in Seattle isn't inherently bad news, especially when you think about all the cool names a Washington team could have. But there also comes a point when you have to wonder whether this future expansion process isn't a bag of coal in disguise. Houston and Quebec City are also on the lookout for teams, and there have been whispers that commissioner Gary Bettman could ultimately try to take this thing to 34 teams. Again, that's gossip. Nothing more. But even if it's just Seattle in the fold, at what point does the NHL realize it's already diluting its product with pedestrian markets in Arizona, Carolina and Florida? Vegas worked, but an over-expansion probably will not.

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