Awards will be bittersweet for many
LAS VEGAS -- Make no mistake: When the winners at this year's NHL awards are called to the podium Wednesday night, there will be joy and satisfaction and more than likely a few tears.
As there should be.
These honors are the bedrock of great players' legacies. Their names will be connected forever to the awards, connected forever to being considered the best at this moment in time.
But when the Stanley Cup is wheeled into the big ballroom at the Palms Casino here, there isn't a man among them who wouldn't trade all the awards hardware to have his name engraved onto that big boy.
Rookie or veteran, the feeling will be the same.
Regardless of how nice it will feel to hold the Norris Trophy or Hart Trophy or Calder Trophy, there will be at least a niggling feeling of disconnect for most of the nominees.
"Yeah, you wish you were at a Stanley Cup party and then coming to the awards show," Norris Trophy finalist Mike Green said Tuesday afternoon as the nominees gathered in Vegas for the second straight year. "That just puts it all together."
A few feet from the smooth-skating Caps defenseman was the prime illustration of the gulf that exists this year between personal recognition and the ultimate in team success: Duncan Keith.
Of all the players and coaches nominated for major awards this June, only Keith managed to play beyond the second round of the playoffs this spring. Only the Hawks defenseman will have recent firsthand knowledge of how it feels to hold the only trophy that really matters.
It's shocking, really, to consider how few of the game's elite players managed to enjoy even a modicum of success this spring.
All three Vezina Trophy candidates (Martin Brodeur, Ryan Miller and Ilya Bryzgalov), two of three rookie of the year finalists (Tyler Myers and Matt Duchene) and all three of the coach of the year candidates (Colorado's Joe Sacco, Phoenix's Dave Tippett and Nashville's Barry Trotz) were eliminated by the end of the first round.
Green was also gone after the Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals were the victims of one of the biggest upsets in decades, losing to eighth-seeded Montreal in seven games. Selke and Lady Byng finalist Pavel Datsyuk and the rest of the powerful Detroit Red Wings were gone five games into the second round. First-time Hart Trophy nominee and defending NHL scoring champ Henrik Sedin was ousted in the conference semifinals.
Maybe it means nothing that so few of those nominees managed to enjoy long playoff runs. Surely, it was an odd spring, with the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference (Washington, New Jersey and Buffalo) all taking a nosedive in the first round.
Still, this season is a marked departure from past years.
A year ago, for instance, the game's elite players were the ones driving their teams through the long playoff journey. Conn Smythe Trophy winner and defending scoring champ Evgeni Malkin was a Hart Trophy candidate. So was Datsyuk. Defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom was a Norris candidate. Chicago's Kris Versteeg was a rookie of the year nominee.
The awards will be especially bittersweet for Ovechkin, whose season started with such promise but ended with a series of disappointments, including the Russian team's disastrous turn at the Vancouver Olympics (it was eliminated by Canada in the quarterfinals), Washington's collapse against Montreal in the first round when the Caps blew a 3-1 series lead (a debacle made even more ironic because Ovechkin had made fun of Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak's "shakiness" early in the series) and Russia's loss to the Czech Republic in the gold-medal game at the world championships.
In some ways, Ovechkin now faces a no-win situation when the winner is announced Wednesday night. The Russian superstar, who finished with 109 points in 72 games this season, could become the first player since Wayne Gretzky to win the MVP award three straight seasons. (Gretzky won eight consecutive times starting in 1980.) If he does, it will merely reinforce the aforementioned chasm between individual recognition and team disappointment. If he loses, likely to Crosby, it would further illustrate the growing gap between the game's two biggest stars. It was Crosby, of course, who scored the overtime winner in the gold-medal game for Canada at the 2010 Olympics.
And although Crosby did not have a good series against Montreal, which eliminated Pittsburgh in the second round (he took a ghastly boarding penalty in the first minute of Game 7 as the Pens imploded at home), he still owns a Stanley Cup ring and has guided his team to eight playoff series victories in the past three springs. Ovechkin has guided the Caps to one.
"It's good when you have high expectations, but I think when you have high expectations, you want to do something more than that, and they sometimes kill you," Ovechkin said Tuesday.
Does it make an event like the awards ceremony more difficult?
"Yeah," Ovechkin said. "When you lose, especially in playoffs or in some big tournaments, you just want to forget about it and concentrate on next year."
The Washington star isn't the only player who arrives in Vegas with an unfulfilled feeling. Brodeur, a shoo-in first-ballot Hall of Famer, saw his personal playoff misery continue as he and the Devils were ousted in the first round by an injured Philadelphia team led by journeyman backup netminder Brian Boucher.
Brodeur, who has won four of the past six Vezina Trophies, has been ousted in the first round in three straight postseasons.
Jack Adams Award nominees often end up being coaches who got more than they should have out of their squads, and this year is no different. Tippett is the heavy favorite to win his first award thanks to the stunning turnaround of the Phoenix Coyotes under his tutelage.
Still, all three finalists held series leads in the first round only to end up on the sideline. The Coyotes lost in seven games to Detroit, and Colorado and Nashville exited after six-game sets against San Jose and Chicago, respectively.
"Would I trade this for playoff success? Absolutely," Trotz said. "Our franchise has to stay competitive, and we have done that. We seem to be the launching pad for Stanley Cup champions, it seems. At the same time, I would love to trade anything that we've done in the regular season for some postseason success because that really can solidify our franchise. But if we don't get to the playoffs, then it's not going to get solidified anyway."
It would be unfair to suggest the awards themselves are meaningless. Miller, one of the more eloquent players around, said it's important to remember how difficult it is to excel in the regular season.
"I just think there's so much value taken away from the regular season now that it's unfortunate," Miller said. "It's 82 games; it's a lot of work. To be consistent through that whole time, it does mean something.
"Yeah, I'm disappointed we didn't go further in the playoffs. We all want to win the Stanley Cup or else we wouldn't be doing this. But I'm not going to sit here and not feel some pride for what my team was able to accomplish in winning our division and what the guys were able to do. It can be more than that [just winning in the playoffs]. You have to enjoy every part of it. I want to win as badly as the next guy, but I put [so much] into my regular season, so I'm not going to discount it."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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