We’ve reached the quarter pole in the NHL season, which means two things: It’s too early to start drawing conclusions and throwing around awards, and we’re going to go ahead and do those things anyway. So dig your tuxes and gowns out of the closet, because we’ve got a dozen early-season awards to hand out.
Most Valuable Player: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Ho-hum. Crosby won the award last year, he was the overwhelming favorite to win it this year, and so far that looks like it’s exactly what he’s going to do. He’s not running away with the scoring title, which is a mild surprise. But all the guys keeping pace with him come from struggling teams, and the Hart Trophy basically always goes to someone from a Cup contender. So it’s Crosby by default, which is basically too boring to spend any more time on.
Most Valuable Player Who Isn’t Sidney Crosby: Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers
That’s better! And we’ve got several candidates to consider, like Voracek, who’s tied with Crosby for the lead in points, and Tyler Seguin, who leads in goals scored. Steven Stamkos has been fantastic, Vladimir Tarasenko has owned the highlight reels, and Rick Nash’s hot start left him carrying basically the entire Rangers offense.
And that’s just the forwards, which is … well, which is probably all we need to talk about, since defensemen and goalies rarely win the Hart.1 Besides, we’ll get to those guys in a minute.
Only two goalies have won in the last half-century, and only one defenseman has won since the days of Bobby Orr.
I’m going to go with Voracek, who’s recorded a point on over half of the Flyers goals this year, and is basically single-handedly keeping them in the playoff picture. Will it last? No, not at his current pace, but that shouldn’t matter. We’re trying to recognize the first quarter of the season here, not predict the rest of it, so Voracek has earned the right to pick up Crosby’s scraps.
Least Valuable Player: The Backup Goalie, New Jersey Devils
Do you know his name? I didn’t know his name, and apparently neither did Devils coach Peter DeBoer until the weekend, when he finally gave him his first start of the season in the team’s 21st game. Before that, Cory Schneider had gotten the nod each and every time, becoming only the third goalie in the salary-cap era to make that many starts in a row to begin a season. That streak ended on Saturday, when DeBoer remembered that he had a second goaltender on the roster.
The guy’s name is Scott Clemmensen, by the way. That probably sounds familiar, since the journeyman has been backing up around the NHL since 2001, including three separate stints in New Jersey. He got his first start of the season against the Flames in Calgary. He lost. LVP! LVP!
Best Rookie: Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators
An easy call; he’s running away with the rookie scoring title, racking up nine goals and 22 points in just 20 games. The 20-year-old center has been productive all season long, never going more than two games without a point, and he’s had five multipoint games in November alone. While guys like Johnny Gaudreau, Aaron Ekblad, and Tanner Pearson have been good, Forsberg’s been on another level.
All of which leads to the question: Where does the Forsberg-for–Martin Erat trade rank among the worst of the salary-cap era? The Capitals took Forsberg with the 11th overall pick in 2012, then traded him for veteran winger Erat and prospect Michael Latta before he’d even played an NHL game. Erat lasted less than a year in Washington, scoring two goals in 62 games before being traded to Phoenix.2
Latta is still developing, but so far hasn’t been much better; he has one goal in 33 career games as a Capital.
I mean, that’s awful, right? And that’s not just 20/20 hindsight based on Forsberg’s hot start; nobody seemed to like the trade when it was first made, and they hated it even more before Forsberg broke through. Now that he looks like a legitimate star, the Erat trade has to at least be knocking on the door of Rask-for-Raycroft and McDonagh-for-Gomez territory, doesn’t it?
Best Defenseman: Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames
Another easy choice, as Giordano has been one of the league’s best stories so far. Heading into the season, Giordano was one of the league’s better-kept secrets, a first-pairing stud who didn’t get enough credit because he was stuck on a rebuilding Calgary team. Stats guys loved him thanks to his fantastic possession numbers, and he even earned some Norris love last year, but for the most part he was considered a notch or two below the Charas and Webers of the league.
That’s coming to an end, largely thanks to his offensive numbers. His 23 points lead the league in blue-line scoring, and those are the sort of numbers that get you onto the radar no matter where you play. He won’t keep that pace up, but that’s fine — if you’re new to the Giordano bandwagon, just understand that he’s not quite as good as you think offensively, but probably even better in his own end.
It may be a year late, but the Giordano hype train is finally here, and while that’s inevitably going to lead to some people going overboard, it’s mostly deserved. The guy is good.
Most Annoying Pedants: Everyone Who’s Mad That I Used the Term “Quarter Pole” in the Opening Paragraph
Yes, we know, that’s not what the horse-racing term means. I did that on purpose just to annoy you. I bet you’re already yelling at me on Twitter right now.
Best Goaltender: Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
With all due respect to Roberto Luongo, Brian Elliott, and even Marc-Andre Fleury, this one came down to a two-man race: the Kings’ Jonathan Quick and the Predators’ Rinne.
Quick has been fantastic, posting the league’s best save percentage among undisputed starters. And the Kings have needed every one of those saves, as the team has struggled through an uncharacteristically bumpy defensive stretch. Quick has always had his critics, and his massive contract still looks like a mistake, but there’s no question that he’s been fantastic this year.
But I’m going to give a narrow edge to Rinne. His even-strength save percentage is slightly better than Quick’s,3 and he’s doing it behind a team that few expected to be very good this year. He’s also a nice story, having come back from a serious hip injury that derailed his career. You know me, always a sucker for the sentimental story.
Best Coach: Bob Hartley, Calgary Flames
ES SV% tends to be a better measure of how a goalie is really playing, since their special teams are so heavily influenced by teammates and systems.
There are plenty of excellent candidates in this category. Willie Desjardins has done a great job in Vancouver, Peter Laviolette has turned the Predators into contenders, and Mike Johnston has steadied the ship in Pittsburgh. But each of those guys is in his first year with a new team, and guys in that situation inevitably dominate the coach of the year voting. When in doubt, I always try to give a little extra credit to those who’ve been on the job for a while and are still getting results.
And so my pick is Hartley, who’s managed to take a Flames team that was supposed to be a contender for dead last and lead them right into the thick of the playoff race. It’s unlikely to last — all the underlying numbers say that the Flames are due to slip back to the pack — but Calgary has been one of the league’s best stories. For a guy who plenty of us have had penciled in for a pink slip going on two seasons, that’s some impressive work.4
Dumbest Controversy: The Thing With the Stick Salute, Toronto Maple Leafs
Using the same criteria, an honorable mention goes to Islanders coach Jack Capuano.
Here’s the background if you were fortunate enough to miss out on last week’s soap opera: The Leafs seem to be on their way to yet another middling season, the fans aren’t happy about it, and they’ve shown it, with methods ranging from the typical (booing) to the extreme (jersey tossing) to the indefensible (going after family members on social media). After being given another rough ride during an embarrassing 9-2 loss to the Predators, the Maple Leafs players apparently had had enough. At some point,5 they decided to send a passive-aggressive message by skipping the traditional post-win stick salute to the fans.
Reports differ on whether they made the call in advance.
That doesn’t sound like much, but this being Toronto, it turned into front-page news. It was a manufactured controversy, to be sure, with few fans even noticing the snub when it first happened. But here’s the thing: It was a controversy that the Leafs players brought on themselves, and it was completely unnecessary. They know what the Toronto market is like, and they had to know how the move would be received. But they went ahead and did it anyway, like petulant teenagers who just have to get in one last word during a fight with Mom and Dad. Don Cherry called the players’ move “dumb,” and he was absolutely right.
The next day, Maple Leafs players were forced into PR crisis mode, pretending that the move wasn’t intended as a shot at the fans (nobody believed them) and vowing that the salute was well and truly dead. Then, one day later, they backed down and did it anyway. The whole thing was ridiculous, and you just lost 20 IQ points reading about it.
With 60 games left to go, the favorite for every other award in this post is probably going to change a dozen times before the end of the season. But the race for this one is already over; the Leafs players may one-up themselves, but nobody else is going to catch them.
Best Offseason Acquisition: Ryan Kesler, Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks acquired Kesler in a trade with the Canucks, and they certainly got him cheap. He hadn’t topped 50 points in three years, and had looked worn down at times during Vancouver’s disappointing season. More importantly, he’d basically forced the trade, leaving the Canucks in a position where they had to take what they could get.
So maybe you want to put an asterisk on this one, especially if you’re a Vancouver fan. But the fact remains that Kesler has been everything the Ducks were hoping for. He’s settled in as an excellent no. 2 center behind Ryan Getzlaf, playing a defensive role while chipping in consistent offense. That’s helped the Ducks to first place in the conference, and a healthy Kesler gives Anaheim the kind of center depth they’ll need to compete with the West’s other top teams.
Worst Offseason Acquisition: Ales Hemsky, Dallas Stars
The Stars’ big offseason move was trading for Jason Spezza. Like Kesler, he forced the move and came cheap, and he’s been just about what you’d expect for Dallas. The team recently signed him to an extension, so you’d have to say that move worked out just about right.
But you couldn’t say the same for the other forward that Dallas landed. That would be Ales Hemsky, the longtime Oiler (and then briefly Spezza’s teammate in Ottawa) who signed a three-year, $12 million deal as a free agent. At the time, it looked like a solid move, maybe even a bargain. Hemsky had never really lived up to expectations in Edmonton, but he’d never played alongside the sort of firepower that the Stars were ready to roll with, and he’d certainly displayed some occasional flashes of elite-level skill. Even if he could put up only borderline top-six numbers, he’d be worth the money.
Instead, he’s barely put up fourth-line totals. He doesn’t have a goal yet, and has just five assists in 20 games played. At one point, he was even a healthy scratch. He’s been better lately — three of his assists have come over the last two games — but it may already be too late for a heavily hyped Dallas team that’s barely keeping up with the playoff race.
There were worse signings — Brooks Orpik’s deal with Washington and Dave Bolland’s with Florida will be far worse in the long run. But Orpik has been OK and Bolland has been hurt, so we’ll give him a pass. We’re just looking at the first quarter of this season, and on that basis, Hemsky’s been the biggest bust of them all.
Most Intriguing Story Line to Watch Over the Second Quarter: The Race to the Bottom
Every year, a handful of teams drop out of the playoff race early and are forced to write off their season. They become sellers, the supply line that feeds useful players to the rest of the league’s teams that have a chance to contend, or at least think they do. And most years, those sellers wait until the trade deadline to start unloading their wares, because that’s when prices are higher.
But this year is different. This year, sure-thing superstars Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are waiting in the 2015 draft, which makes the bottom of the standings very valuable real estate. And that could lead to a change in philosophy for hopeless teams like the Sabres, Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, and Oilers: Why wait until the trade deadline when you could start selling now?
Sure, you could probably get a better deal if you wait a few more months. But is it really worth it to squeeze every drop of value out of that second-line winger if there’s a risk that he’ll win you a few extra games between now and then? The race for last place looks like it could be tighter than anyone expected, and every loss counts. The sooner your tank gets rolling, the further it can carry you.
Valid theory? Or the delusional rantings of a fan who’s just desperate for some decent midseason trades for once? You decide. Then check back in six weeks, as we all change our minds about everything based on 20 more games.