NHL Award Races: Things heating up as season comes to a close

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Welcome back to Award Races. We will take a look at how the battles for the individual awards are shaping up periodically from now through the end of the season.

Believe it or not, we're down to the final month of the regular season in the NHL and like the playoff races, the battles for many of the awards are bunching up. In particular the Vezina race seems pretty open at the moment with a lot of goalies having great seasons, so many that a guy like Carey Price didn't make the cut here this week. Of course that can change quickly in the last 12-14 games of the NHL season, as can any of the races. Nothing is decided quite yet.

Note: We don't do the Lady Byng here because typically nobody cares much but we figured it should be mentioned that yet another Avalanche member might win that one, too. Ryan O'Reilly has been very good for the Avs this season and believe it or not he hasn't taken a single penalty this season.

Award watch
Hart Vezina
Sidney Crosby It's that time again where everybody is looking for reasons not to pick Crosby but they shouldn't. Not only is he going to run away with the Art Ross as the league's leading scorer (he has a 17 point lead) but he has led the Penguins through myriad injuries. Consider his point total and then consider he's been playing with guys like Tanner Glass and then remember the Penguins are on their way to a 100-plus point season. Tuukka Rask For years Henrik Lundqvist carried the title of Most Deserving Goalie Yet To Win The Vezina, now it's Rask's turn. The biggest obstacle he faces is the argument that he plays behind the Bruins and any goalie would look good and to an extent that's indeed true but he has been so consistently strong and a .929 save percentage is excellent no matter who you play for.
Ryan Getzlaf While it's still tough to see somebody other than Crosby winning, Getzlaf has an increasingly compelling case. Forget that he's second in the league in points (although it's a big part of the candidacy) he is the NHL's league leader in even-strength production, more than Crosby. Further, Getzlaf plays at both ends of the ice and on both special-teams units, a strong all-around player, not just a scorer. Ben Bishop Once upon a time it was looking awfully good for Bishop and the Vezina but it's not as clear any more. That doesn't mean he's lost it to Rask yet but a recent (some would say inevitable) dip has opened the door. But the Lightning's success this season will still be attributed to somebody and Bishop is as likely as anybody to get that recognition.
Claude Giroux It's funny to look back now and think that Giroux didn't make the Canadian Olympic team because after a slow start for he and the Flyers, he has been on a tear. Giroux has been the league's leading scorer since mid-December and is now in the top five in the league. The Hart is an individual award obviously but the team's surge in this case is helpful for Giroux the same as it helped Alex Ovechkin last year because of course he has had a major hand in that surge. Semyon Varlamov The argument could be made that the Avalanche have overachieved a bit this season given their possession numbers and how they're not in their favor and if that argument is made then even more credit must be given to Varlamov. He sees a lot of pucks (only Mike Smith has made more saves) and still the Avs are hanging tight with Chicago. Or you could just cite the .925 save percentage, that works too.
Tyler Seguin The Hart is an individual awards but realistically Seguin's hopes might hinge on the Stars making the playoffs. If they do it's hard to ignore what he has meant to that team this season as he has had the breakout that was anticipated when he was drafted No. 2 overall with 31 goals already and 39 assists. He and Jamie Benn have been as dynamic a duo as there is in the NHL sans Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Ryan Miller With how he was playing in Buffalo, Miller deserved some recognition in this conversation but it was very unlikely to ever come on the worst team in the NHL. Now that he's in St. Louis, though, and the team has been playing so well since he arrived? Well all of a sudden his .925 save percentage gets a lot more attention. Still, his hill is probably too tough to climb.
Phil Kessel The argument of "where would this team be without Player X" works pretty well in the case of Kessel. The Leafs are outshot and outchanced by significant margins on a nightly basis and yet they are one of the top scoring teams in the league despite the limited chances. That's because Kessel has been at his snipe-shooting best this season with 35 goals. Jonathan Bernier If Bernier gets back on the ice from his injury and the Maple Leafs start winning again to secure their playoff spot, Bernier will only go up here. Very few goalies have been asked to carry as heavy of a load as Bernier but he has been up to the task. Like Kessel, you ask where the Leafs are without Bernier and it's hard to say with how James Reimer has struggled at times as the backup.
Award watch
Norris Calder
Duncan Keith In the non-Erik Karlsson division, Keith is the leader in defenseman points with 54 so far this season with five goals and 50 assists, which are good for third in the NHL for any skater. But Keith is much more than just a point-producer on the blue line; he's also playing more than 24:30 per game, is eighth among defenseman with a plus-24 and perhaps most importantly his puck-moving skills not only prove useful on the power play but get the Hawks out of their zone well and keep them on the right side of the possession battle. Nathan MacKinnon When you're having a season where you are matching records set by Wayne Gretzky, you know it's a good season. Forget rookies, the season he's having would be great for a player in his prime. He is two goals off the Avalanche lead with his 23 and is fourth on the team in points with 53 despite playing less than 17 minutes per game. It's hard to see anybody giving MacKinnon a serious challenge when the season is all said and done.
Drew Doughty The Olympics aren't supposed to play a role in the award voting but it's hard not to have a lasting memory of how good Doughty was in Sochi for Canada. If nothing else, though, that just opened eyes to how strong he is for the Kings. He is sixth in the NHL with just a shade under 26 minutes per game, has very respectable offensive numbers with eight goals and 26 assists and is the best defenseman on a monster of a possession team. Ondrej Palat It's hard to pick who is the best rookie on the Lightning alone. Palat has a pretty good case going with 18 goals and 28 assists as he was one of the players tasked with filling in for Steven Stamkos while he was out. Not to mention that he has a rather remarkable plus-28. That stat is full of warts but that's a number that's tough to just ignore. Palat has been particularly strong of late and late-season pushes can never hurt.
Ryan Suter What Suter is doing this season in Minnesota is pretty crazy. He's averaging -- averaging -- 29:45 of ice time per game. When the Wild are playing, there is pretty much a 50/50 shot that Suter is on the ice. Of course he's doing something with all that ice time as well with six goals and 31 assists to his name as well as being one of the toughest defensemen to play against in the NHL. Torey Krug It can be hard to remember considering how big of an impact he had last postseason but Krug is still a rookie and a pretty outstanding one at that. He plays very sheltered minutes for the Bruins, starting a vast majority of shifts in the offensive zone but that's fine because it allows him to flourish offensively. He has 14 goals and 23 assists, which comes close to rivaling his forward competitors.
It still feels inevitable that Pietrangelo will win a Norris sooner rather than later with his combination of offensive and defensive abilities. He plays more than 25 minutes per game and along with his partner Jay Bouwmeester is the top D pairing for one of the league's best defensive squads. Plus he's sixth in the NHL among D with 47 points, a good majority of that coming at even strength. Tyler Johnson The other member of the Lightning with a chance to win, place or show, Johnson has probably been overtaken by Palat but shouldn't be forgotten. After all, as great of a season as MacKinnon has had in Colorado, Johnson has just one fewer goal at 22 this season. He has also had a bigger role than any other rookie forward (with more than 10 games) at almost 19 minutes a night, thrust into a big spot for Tampa Bay. It can't complain with the results.
P.K. Subban The reigning Norris winner seems to always be under some criticism for his game but more than anything else that might just be due to the high standards because there's not a lot to dislike about Subban's game. Few players on the back end have his offensive abilities (see: here) and he's one of only a handful of players on a negative possession team to be on the plus side with a 50.5% Corsi at even strength. Jacob Trouba There's no disputing the Jets have themselves a very good one for a long time to come in Trouba. He's been given a heavier workload than any other rookie, averaging 22:24 per game and he has handled it very well. Not only is his offensive game already rounding into form with eight goals and 18 assists but does it with unfavorable starting positions (more in the D zone) and even with a team save percentage of just 90.3% when he's on the ice he's still a plus-player.
Award watch
Adams Selke
Patrick Roy There's little reason to even hold the vote, might as well just hand the award to Roy now. Nobody, very likely Roy included, could have expected this kind of season from the rookie head coach. Just stop to consider a team that finished 29th in the league last season is neck and neck in the standings with the team finished first with a roster that didn't change much at all. The Avs are a completely different team this season and Roy will deservedly get much of the credit for that. Patrice Bergeron Barring some kind of collapse from the Bruins (not likely), the guess here is the best defensive forward is going to be Bergeron. He draws the toughest opponents almost every shift, takes the tough defensive zone draws, kills penalties, is the best faceoff man in the league and has the offense with 20 goals already. Such a great player.
Jon Cooper After a few dismal seasons the Lightning are almost certainly playoff bound and their transformation as a team is a big reason why. Cooper has a team that is more defensively sound and perhaps even more impressively is how they sustained the loss of Steven Stamkos and then Martin St. Louis' departure and all the while they just plug in rookies who take off without missing a beat. Anze Kopitar Playing way out West, the Kings feel they don't get the recognition they deserve and that includes Kopitar for the Selke. I'm not sure what more he could do because he's having a terrific season. Because the Kings are such a good possession team -- Kopitar plays a big part in that -- no player starts a majority of their shifts in the D zone but Kopitar comes the closest; he's who they turn to in their own zone and he also plays the best competition. All the while he leads LA with a pretty absurd 61.1 Corsi For percentage, indicating the puck is going the right way when he's on the ice. Not to mention he's an offensive leader for a team that doesn't score a ton with 57 points.
Craig Berube When the Flyers replaced Peter Laviolette with Craig Berube early this season, a lot of people laughed. A former enforcer as a head coach? Well maybe it was an inevitable change of fortune but after a couple of weeks under Berube, the Flyers took off and haven't really grounded since. We're talking about a team that started 4-10-1 and had just 25 goals in 15 games going 32-10-6 since with 170 goals in 48 games which is just a wee bit better. Jonathan Toews The reigning Selke winner will likely be in the conversation again, probably a finalist. Toews is another guy who plays the toughest competition on average and still is a monster plus-possession player as well as simply a force. It helps that he has a faceoff percentage near 57% this season and is a big offensive contributor with 65 points in 70 games.
Todd McLellan Perhaps it's tough to recall but there was a time not long ago that McLellan was on a hot seat in San Jose but a couple of changes on the staff and perhaps simply the fact that he is blessed with a lot of talent to use and the Sharks are playing for the Pacific Division title and look as strong as ever. David Backes With his linemates Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie, Backes' group leads the Blues at both ends of the ice. The trio sees the best competition on the opposing teams and in the case of Backes, only one player on the team has a higher percentage of D-zone stars (Ian Lapierre). Further, Backes' strong suit has never been in the faceoff circle but this season he's above 50 percent and has the requisite offense with 23 goals and 26 assists.
Todd Richards Like Berube, Richards saw his Blue Jackets get off to a very slow start but here they are in late March right in the heart of the playoff race on the strength of a fantastic couple of months. The difference from last season to this for the Blue Jackets has been stark, going from a team that had no support for Sergei Bobrovsky in net to a team that's 10th in the league in offense and that's with a lot of young players being worked in and growing. Sean Couturier It's probably not how everybody envisioned it when the Flyers drafted Couturier so high but he has become a bit of a defensive specialist because he's pretty darn good at it. Of the forwards that get regular ice time, Couturier begins the smallest percent of his in the O Zone (42.8 percent) and is still close to a neutral possession player. Not to mention that he and Matt Read are the go-to guys on the PK and the Flyers check in at seventh in the league.
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