With the trade deadline passed and the stretch run to the NHL season beginning, it's time for Scott Cullen's latest update to the NHL Awards races.
On one hand, there are familiar names throughout, with previous Hart, Norris, Selke and Jack Adams winners named as best through three quarters of this season.
However, as we get more games in the file, the leading candidates begin to separate from the rest of the class. It's not to say that others can't mount a strong finish to alter the outcomes, but as the season gets closer to the end, there isn't as much wiggle room.
Anyway, here are my picks for awards through first three quarters of this season:
Winner: Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh
Runners-up: Ryan Getzlaf, C, Anaheim; Alex Ovechkin, RW, Washington
Comment: It's no surprise that a healthy Crosby is in position to win the award as the league's Most Valuable Player, because he's 14 points up in the scoring race and playing at the level to which we've become accustomed, when he's in the lineup. This year, he hasn't missed a game, and that is the biggest reason that Crosby at the forefront of the MVP discussion.
Getzlaf is scoring at a career-best rate of 1.17 points per game, leading the team that sits on top of the standings. While his possession numbers are solid, Getzlaf's line has been particularly fortunate in terms of shooting percentage, which leads to a dominant goal differential (57 for, 25 against) when Getzlaf is on the ice during 5-on-5 play. It's not the kind of thing that can be sustained long-term (as in year-over-year) but, this year, it puts him in contention for the Hart.
I recognize there may not be a lot of observers that would consider Ovechkin among the most valuable in the league this year, yet I do despite his deficiencies. Hhe's so far ahead of the rest of the league as a goal-scorer, that I can't ignore that contribution.
Right now, Ovechkin is on pace for a 57-goal season. Second-place Phil Kessel is on pace for a 42-goal season. The last player to win the goal-scoring race by 15 goals or more was Brett Hull, in 1991-1992, when Hull scored 70 and Kevin Stevens scored 54. (Incidentally, in 1990-1991, Hull scored 86 goals, 35 more than a trio of players -- Theo Fleury, Cam Neely and Steve Yzerman -- tied for second.) It's just not that often that the league's top goal-scorer is that far ahead of the field and, this year, Ovechkin is. Additionally, while he does plenty of damage on the power play, Ovechkin also leads the league with 26 even-strength goals, so it's not all one-timers from the faceoff dot with the man advantage.
Looking beyond those three, Kessel, Joe Pavelski and Jonathan Toews are among others who could warrant consideration.
Winner: Duncan Keith, Chicago
Runners-up: Erik Karlsson, Ottawa; Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay
Comment: This season hasn't been all that different from Duncan Keith's 2010 Norris Trophy-winning campaign. He's played his typically-strong two-way game, though he is down more than three minutes per game compared to his peak playing time, and has added more offence this season, scoring at the second-best rate of his carerr (0.79 points per game).
There are some that decry the play of the Senators' Erik Karlsson, because he's not a hard-hitting block of granite on the blueline and that's their vision of a defenceman, but Karlsson is a game-changer. He's a rare defenceman that can drive his team's offence and his negative plus-minus is more a function of relatively bad luck on percentages (both shooting and save) when he's on the ice.
After Keith and Karlsson, there are a number of worthy candidates, with my preferred choice being Victor Hedman, who has been great, while adding an offensive component that is far ahead of his previously established levels. I'm not sure that Team Sweden is on board with this vote, but that's their prerogative.
Some familiar names -- Shea Weber, P.K. Subban and Alex Pietrangelo -- are also viable candidates, close enough that a really strong finish could alter the outcome.
Winner: Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay
Runners-up: Tuukka Rask, Boston; Semyon Varlamov, Colorado
Comment: As a 27-year-old who had played 45 career games coming into this season, Bishop has been a major surprise, a rock for a Lightning team that has maintained its playoff position despite missing Steven Stamkos for a couple of months.
Rask has pretty much always been a top puck-stopper, with a .929 save percentage over the past three seasons, and he's played a career-high 46 games this year, handling a number one workload over a full season for, really, the first time in his career.
It hasn't been a smooth and steady road to the top for Varlamov, who has rebounded from a career-low .903 save percentage last season to post a career-best .925 save percentage this season. That might be a matter of arbitrary end-points, with Varlamov's real performance level somewhere between those two extremes but, for this season, his numbers warrant award consideration.
If not Varlamov, Carey Price and Jonathan Bernier have both had strong seasons, strong enough that an impressive finish could push them into the discussion.
Winner: Nathan MacKinnon, C, Colorado
Runners-up: Tyler Johnson, C, Tampa Bay; Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh
Comment: Having set the record for the longest point streak by an 18-year-old rookie, MacKinnon is already looking like the kind of game-breaking skilled forward that teams hope to get with the No. 1 pick in the draft. Nothing like having a great pedigree and living up to it.
MacKinnon's closest challenger may be Johnson, an undrafted, 5-foot-9, 23-year-old who has simply scored wherever he's played and when Stamkos got hurt, Johnson took on more responsibility and continued to play at a high level.
It's not easy for a teenage defenceman to step into the NHL and consistently play with poise, but don't tell that to Maatta, who has been a revelation for the Penguins. Injuries on the Pittsburgh blueline have forced the Penguins to use Maatta more than might have been initially anticipated, but he's risen to the challenge.
Bruins power play quarterback Torey Krug and Johnson's left winger, Ondrej Palat, are other contenders.
Winner: Patrice Bergeron, Boston
Runners-up: David Backes, St. Louis; Jonathan Toews, Chicago
Comment: This isn't an easy award to hand out, though there are some consistent performers that tend to be in consideration year after year. Here's a list of centres that face a decent level of competition yet still have strong possession stats. In addition to Bergeron, Backes and Toews, who have been at the top of my lists for past couple seasons at least, Anze Kopitar, Gabriel Landeskog and Alexander Steen are first-rate two-way performers that warrant attention.
JACK ADAMS AWARD
Winner: Bruce Boudreau, Anaheim
Runners-up: Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis; Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay.
Comment: It can be difficult to gauge exactly what a coach's role is in a team's performance, so there is some guess work involved here. One of the factors I try to take out of the equation, or at least minimize in importance, is goaltending, because great goaltending can mask all manner of shortcomings.
Anyway, I'm not sure that Bruce Boudreau has done anything revolutionary with the Ducks that allows them to score on such a high percentage of their shots, but getting strong contributions from so many throughout the lineup has to be considered in some way a reflection of Boudreau's approach. Oh, yeah, the Ducks are also first place in the standings, so he has that working for him too.
The St. Louis Blues play such a relentless, grinding game that I'm inclined to credit a coach that can keep his team playing that style so effectively. Enter, Ken Hitchcock.
Admittedly, Jon Cooper has the benefit of outstanding goaltending, thanks to Ben Bishop, but his team has survived without Steven Stamkos and has done so with a lineup full of young, inexperienced players playing significant roles. For that, Cooper gets my nomination.
There are many other qualified candidates. Patrick Roy's Avalanche are exceeding expectations, Mike Yeo and Mike Babcock have managed to get through significant injuries and Claude Julien keeps the Bruins rolling with a steady spproach; all of these coaches deserve credit for their work behind the bench this season.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.