Never too early to make some predictions
We interrupt Gary Bettman's announcement for new uniform plans to bring you five people who are making more than a fashion statement ...
(Doesn't Gary have bigger fish to fry, like, um, the league's low attendance? But that's another column for another week!)
... we know the season is a long one, but I thought we'd have some fun and hand out some awards after the quarter pole.
I know there are fine lines to this most valuable player race, especially when you're looking at players at different positions. I've considered Marian Hossa and Rod Brind'Amour and Miikka Kiprusoff and Chris Pronger. Still, I have to go with Jaromir Jagr at this point. Here's why.
The Rangers are not a deeply offensive team. They have the same four playmakers: Jagr, Martin Straka, Michael Nylander and Brendan Shanahan. Jagr is the quarterback of the Rangers' top scoring line, he's arguably the top QB of any line in the NHL. He leads team -- and is second in the league -- in scoring with 12 goals and 25 assists in 25 games. Could you imagine if you took Jagr out of the Rangers' lineup? They'd be playing dodge ball with the Flyers in the Atlantic Division basement.
This was a tough call for me, being a former goalie and all. Most would go with Kiprusoff or Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Meanwhile, the Kipper's Flames are struggling at ninth in the West (there is only so much this guy can do). Giggy is having a strong season for the Anaheim Ducks, but it's still not enough for me.
My early pick for the top goalie award is Montreal's Cristobal Huet. Hang in here with me.
I know he hasn't started as many games as the others, but he's a solid 9-3 and is fourth in the league in goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.938). And he hasn't started as many games because Canadiens management had to justify their acquisition of David Aebischer from Colorado last March.
I wonder what kind of message that sent to Huet anyway -- "Hey, we don't know if you're for real or not, if you can carry the load for us." Yes, Huet had an up-and-coming season in the 2005-06 campaign, but he had a great postseason (you can't blame him for the Canadiens' postseason collapse vs. the Hurricanes). He does all of this while he knows Aebischer is there, too. He's beaten the Sabres, the East's best team, he's shut down one of the league's top offenses in Atlanta and he shut out the defending Cup champs from Carolina.
My pick for top rookie is a bit more predictable. I'm going with Evgeni Malkin.
He had a tumultuous offseason as he went into hiding from his Russian elite team to reach the United States so he could play for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then, in his first preseason game (and his Pens debut), he hurts his shoulder and misses the season opener. After that, his former Russian team went to court and tried to stop Malkin from playing in the NHL.
All that has happened, and yet he still has 22 points in 19 games. He's also been consistent -- those 22 points didn't come in spurts! He's only been shut out in three games this season. I know some people will make the early case for Anze Kopitar. The Kings rookie is a great player. But ...
Malkin and the Penguins are competing for a division crown (these are the first-quarter awards, so I am not going to tell you who's going to win the division!), we're looking at a player's impact. Malkin could help his team win the division. And he's doing that with other young players around him. What is Kopitar doing? His Kings are still taking baby steps toward improvement. For all of you Kopitar lovers, catch me at the All-Star break and we'll see what's up then.
While some will still make the case for Pronger for the Hart Trophy, he is hands-down my pick for top defenseman. He leads all defensemen in points (28) and assists (24) and he's doing it for arguably the best team in the NHL (don't argue with me Buffalo fans -- that debate is for another time for another week!)
This man has gone from bringing one team (Edmonton) to within one game of the Stanley Cup to leading another (Anaheim) to a strong start and likely playoff berth. (Yes, I know all of you Oilers fans are still feeling the pain.) But let's not forget how difficult it is to move to a new location, albeit it being beautiful Orange County, and still have to go out every night and perform with a new club. All Pronger has done since the season's start is help create a winning atmosphere.
Jack Adams Award
This one was the hardest for me.
I thought of Craig MacTavish. Many thought the Oilers would take a big dive without Pronger, but he has his team currently at the top of the Northwest Division.
But ... they are honorable mentions.
Sorry, but I have to go with Buffalo's Lindy Ruff right now as top coach. I don't know how he does it. His Sabres lead the Eastern Conference. Their style of play is the best of both worlds, combining old-school NHL (where guys work the corners) and new-school NHL (with speedy playmakers like Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and Thomas Vanek).
Every player on the roster wants to go through a wall for Ruff. Look at how many injuries they have, and the Sabres are still the best in the Eastern Conference. Ruff has this controlled emotion. Sure, he can lose it from time to time (hello, Mr. Hitchcock), but he's the antithesis of Tom Coughlin (he's not losing it every minute of the game). His players rarely take stupid penalties. This team rarely beats themselves.
It's a shame that the Sabres and Ducks can't face off this regular season. That's another column for another week!
Hooked on hockey, Linda Cohn is an anchor for ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS. She has been with the network since 1992 and promises a gluttony of glove saves in her weekly column.
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