My Picks for the 2009 NHL Awards
The NHL regular season is over, and now the real season is about to begin. With the grueling schedule, propensity for epic multiple-overtime games, and amped-up style of play, the Stanley Cup playoffs is a whole season in and of itself. But it cannot be discounted how teams got there, and that’s where the NHL Awards come in. The votes are likely already in, and winners will be announced after the playoffs. No matter what happens between now and then, the accomplishments of these players deserve the recognition that I am predicting them to receive.
Vezina Trophy for Best Goaltender: Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins
It’s been a long, arduous journey for Mr. Thomas to get to the top of the NHL goaltending chain. He had a great college career at Vermont (81-43-15 record), but was drafted very low and toiled in the minors and even Europe before making the Bruins roster. With the work he has put in, there’s no way he doesn’t deserve the accolades he has rightfully earned in his second full season as the Boston’s #1 goalie. He amassed 36 wins in just 54 games, and led the NHL in both goals-against average (2.12) and save percentage (.933). The argument against Thomas may be that he only started 54 games, while many other goaltenders started over 60. But I’d go with quality over quantity here. Nobody was more productive within their playing time than Thomas. Over 76 games, the amount of starts for wins leader Miika Kiprusoff, he would have won 51 games. And with plenty of rest throughout the season, he’ll be ready to go for the playoffs. This was truly Thomas’ year, as he never tapered off from his hot start and maintained his gaudy numbers throughout. In an off-year for elite goaltenders, Thomas really seized the day.
Other Nominees: Nicklas Backstrom, Minnesota; Miika Kiprusoff, Calgary.
Norris Trophy for Best Defenseman: Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins
I’m sure I’ll be accused of a bit of Boston bias for these first two picks, but it’s extremely hard to argue that neither of these men are deserving of these respective awards. Chara has a bit more competition for the Norris than Thomas does for the Vezina, but he took yet another step forward in staking his place in the NHL as one of its great blue-liners and team leaders. Numbers-wise, Chara wasn’t the best at anything, but many of the players above him were on non-playoff teams and/or didn’t hold the responsibility of serving as team captain. Chara scored a career-high 19 goals, reached 50 points for the second straight season, and finished sixth in the league in average ice-time. He hit 169 people, blocked 123 shots, and amassed a reasonably small 95 penalty minutes despite playing with a hard, physical edge throughout the season. He stepped up and fought when he needed to, and played great defense as evidenced by his +23 rating. Chara was an asset in all facets of the game this season, while all other defencemen faltered in at least one. Nicklas Lidstrom makes a very strong case for his seventh Norris Trophy, but history will also come into play here. Voters will likely feel Lidstrom has seen enough accolades, and this is Chara’s year to finally receive the highest individual honor for a defenseman.
Other Nominees: Lidstrom, Detroit; Mike Green, Washington.
Adams Award for Coach of the Year: Andy Murray, St. Louis Blues
I severely doubt that any respect hockey pundit actually picked the Blues to even make the playoffs this year, let alone reach the #6 seed in the Western Conference. But perceived powers like Dallas, Minnesota and Nashville faltered while the Blues went on an amazing hot streak, and much of the credit is due to Murray for keeping his young roster together. The Blues have a talented young core of players, including defenceman Erik Johnson and forwards Brad Boyes, Patrik Berglund, and T.J. Oshie. That core, combined with the excellent post-All-Star break play of goalie Chris Mason, earned the right to play beyond yesterday. To make the playoffs with such a largely inexperienced roster is a testament to Murray’s team philosophy and never-say-die attitude. It’s his time to be recognized.
Other Nominees: Todd McClellan, San Jose; Ken Hitchcock, Columbus.
Calder Trophy for Best Rookie: Steve Mason, Columbus Blue Jackets
This one is pretty much a landslide victory for Mason. The 20-year-old netminder took the reigns when original starter Pascal Leclaire went on the injured list, and never let go. He won 33 games, finished second to Tim Thomas with a 2.21 GAA, and led the league with 10 shutouts, the most for a rookie since Tony Esposito notched 15 for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1970. And, best of all, he led the Columbus Blue Jackets to their first postseason berth in franchise history. He will have a very tough matchup against Detroit in round 1, but the fact that he even got the Jackets to this point is tremendous. There were some impressive rookie skaters, like Kris Versteeg, Drew Doughty, Bobby Ryan and Blake Wheeler, but none were even close to the top tier of the NHL at their respective positions. Mason legitimately challenged for the Vezina trophy this season, but will have to settle for being the best rookie goalie in quite some time.
Other Nominees: Bobby Ryan, Anaheim; Kris Versteeg, Chicago.
Hart Trophy for League MVP: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
He didn’t win the NHL scoring title again, but Alexander Ovechkin did put together another fantastic season in his fourth in the league, leading all scorers with 56 goals and finishing second to Evgeni Malkin with 110 points. But that’s not all Ovechkin did. He led all top-25 scorers with 22:59 average ice time and 243 hits. He ran away with the league lead in shots-on-goal with 528, while nobody else had even 400! Eric Staal finished second with 372. Simply put, Ovechkin is the whole package of what you look for in a franchise winger. He’s out there to score and he knows it, as evidenced by his relentless shooting. He plays a solid all-around game, and plays to full energy on every shift. He is not afraid to hit people, whether along the boards or in open ice. He provides his team with an uncanny amount of energy and enthusiasm that undoubtedly rubs off on his teammates. He helped Nicklas Backstrom turn into a top-10 scorer, and takes plenty of scoring pressure off fellow Russian Alexander Semin. He is one of very few players in the league where the opponent needs to be totally aware of his presence on the ice at all times. Hurt by the voting process will be scoring champion Evgeni Malkin, who will inevitably lose votes due to being on the same team as Sidney Crosby. Fair or not, that will be the final factor in deciding on Ovechkin as MVP for the second straight season. Despite all the talent the Capitals boast, their playoff fate still lies in Ovechkin’s hands.
Other Nominees: Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh; Zach Parise, New Jersey.