So far this season, Lecavalier is all Hart
There has been no shortage of story lines as the season turns past the quarter pole.
The renaissance of the Carolina Hurricanes. Vincent Lecavalier's continued maturity as a superstar. Brent Sutter's bumpy NHL coaching baptism in the swamplands of New Jersey. Martin Brodeur's 500th win. Jeremy Roenick's 500th goal. The impact of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the revitalization of the Blackhawks. Buffalo's woes. The quiet climb of the Columbus Blue Jackets. A Hockey Hall of Fame class equal to any in memory.
There is plenty of road remaining for Sidney Crosby to outdo them all, for Iron Mike to melt down and for the Leafs to break a city's heart again.
Granted that the winds of change are ever-shifting, here are one onlooker's picks for early trophy frontrunners as the NHL season just begins to percolate.
Front-runner: Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay Lightning
When discussing Hart candidates, the argument is invariably the exact wording of the award -- "the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team" vs. the quote-unquote "best" player in the league.
Right now, Vincent Lecavalier is the most dynamic individual in the game. And that's good enough for the nod here. Yes, even factoring in El Sid. If Tampa Bay is to have a hope in reaching the playoffs, Vinnie's going to need to put up pinball-machine numbers. Say in the range of 125 points or so. Don't bet against him doing just that.
OK, the Bolts are furiously treading water at or under .500 so far. Lecavalier's numbers, though, speak for themselves -- 38 points in 23 starts and a plus-10. Only his team's mediocrity prevents Vinnie from snatching the laurels away from being the runaway winner.
Runners-up: Henrik Zetterberg (Detroit) and Daniel Alfredsson (Ottawa)
Until Lecavalier got hot, everyone was hunting down Zetterberg. He's the fulcrum that makes his linemates, Pavel Datsyuk and the mule-ish Tomas Holmstrom, go. Able to operate in the dirty areas or make fans sit up and gasp at his audacity, his value has always been underappreciated outside of Hockeytown.
Alfie just goes about his business, brilliantly. The Sens are brimming with ability, of course. Still, there's no denying the man wearing the "C" is the Beast of the East's emotional engine. The Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk, the Flames' Jarome Iginla and, naturally, Crosby are all worthy candidates, as well.
Front-runner: Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings
Slick Nick and the Norris are more comfortable together than Don Ho and "Tiny Bubbles" or prosciutto and melon. He'll be 38 on April 28 and there's no reason to believe Sweden's greatest import to North America since IKEA won't snare an unbelievable sixth Norris Trophy in seven seasons. The man's consistency, durability and polish border on freakish. Lidstrom eclipses any defenseman of his own era, and most of any previous. Another ho-hum first quarter for him would be a career-best outing for anyone else -- second in points by defensemen (21), minutes-played-per-game (28:29) and plus-minus (plus-14).
Runners-up: Sergei Gonchar (Pittsburgh) and Paul Ranger (Tampa Bay)
Gonchar's consistently fine offensive stats (he leads all blue-liners at 24 points) seem destined to take a perennial back seat to Lidstrom's unparalleled all-around game. At 34, he's an ideal complement backing up young talent in Crosby, Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin.
With Tampa Bay's top defenseman Dan Boyle on the injured list, Ranger has been a revelation given the additional responsibility. Not only has he recorded 15 points and playing nearly 26 minutes a night, his plus-10 is among the top 10 in the league.
Front-runner: Jonathan Toews, C, Chicago Blackhawks
Size, speed, skill, savvy. And he's only 19! That amazing goal he scored against Colorado, slicing through Avalanche veterans Milan Hejduk, Scott Hannan and Brett Clark before swooping around Jose Theodore like some huge bird of prey, has been viewed over 264,000 times on YouTube. Bet on him to be a regular fixture there over the next decade and a half. Linemate Patrick Kane may pip him for points at the quarter pole, but there's no doubting who is the wonder kid tagged to help pump oxygen into the lungs of a deflated franchise. Coach Denis Savard has already tagged Toews as the Hawks' future captain.
Runners-up: Kane and defenseman Tobias Enstrom (Atlanta)
Kane leads all rookies in scoring with 22 points. But his size, listed at a generous 5-foot-10 and 163 pounds, is against him. So far, he's shown a lot of guile by staying out of harm's way, but you wonder if at some point he won't be squashed like a gopher on the Trans-Canada highway heading out of Moose Jaw. A little more meat on those bones would go a long way.
Enstrom, playing in a hockey graveyard like Atlanta, has an arguable case here, even though only the most hardcore fans have heard of him. Defense is always a more problematical position to jump into at the NHL level, and here's a 23-year-old Swede, picked 238th overall in 2003, at plus-6, with 13 points and averaging 23:17 of ice time on a break-even team. Worth a round of applause.
Front-runner: Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
He's played in 22 of the Rangers' 24 starts and his 1,326:53 minutes played tops the league. His .931 save percentage is third overall and the 1.81 goals-against average trails only super-sub Chris Osgood of the Wings. Lundqvist's play is a major reason the Broadway Blueshirts have overcome a sluggish start to the season and he's received a lot less offensive support than most of his contemporaries.
Runners-up: Martin Gerber (Ottawa) and Evgeni Nabokov (San Jose)
Until a recent dip in form, Gerber's been nothing short of amazing on hockey's 1 or 1A team, depending on your fondness for the Winged Wheel. With Ray Emery unavailable to open the season, the doom-and-gloomers were carping about Ottawa's netminding. Not so now. Gerber's an astounding 13-2-1 with a .930 save percentage and 2.16 goals-against average. If he had played in more than 17 games up to this point, it'd be a tough call between him and Lundqvist.
Nabokov trumps Columbus feel-good-story Pascal Leclaire's 1.87 GAA on number of starts and minutes. He's started in 22 games for the Sharks, sporting a solid .914 save percentage and 2.02 GAA while logging 1,307:38 minutes.
Lady Byng Trophy
Front-runner: Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit
In a tight three-way race, Zetterberg receives the nod because he does much of his best work in the corners, fetching the puck out for the improvisational Datsyuk. Once the game's most under-known star, he's starting to be recognized for what he is -- one of the top three all-around players anywhere.
Runners-up: Ilya Kovalchuk (Atlanta) and Alfredsson
Either are fully deserving of the award, too. Kovalchuk's setting the goals pace at 19, and has drawn only 13 penalty minutes. Alfie, the inspirational Sens captain, has piled up 30 points and only two minors. Graded out over an entire season, that's Davey Keon good.
Frank Selke Trophy
Front-runner: Rod Brind'Amour, Carolina
Not only is he leading the Hurricanes in minutes-per-game and points at age 37, but he's one of the game's best at the faceoff dot and a consummate leader. Carolina's return to the upper echelons can be directly correlated to the play of their inspirational captain.
Runners-up: Jere Lehtinen (Dallas) and Zetterberg
Lehtinen, a three-time winner of this little token, has aided in a Dallas resurgence until a recent injury. Osgood has predicted Zetterberg will one day win the Selke. Don't let the point totals completely blind you to the fact he's as defensively aware as any, and affords Datsyuk the chance to roam.
Jack Adams Award
Front-runner: Mike Babcock, Detroit
Sure, the Wings are blessed with a parade of stars to match MGM in the '40s. Coaching gifted players is not always as easy as outsiders believe. The Wings are always at the top of the heap and that takes work, no matter how glittering your constellation.
Runners-up: Denis Savard (Chicago) and Guy Carbonneau (Montreal)
Yes, it helps having freshmen like Toews and Kane to send over the boards, but the Hawks are four games over break even despite missing their best player, Martin Havlat, for all but one game. They've been gutted by injuries, infested with rookies and still keep finding ways to win. In other seasons, Chicago teams would've packed up the picnic basket, folded the blanket and gone home by now. So, give Savvy his due.
Carbonneau, the antithesis of the flashy Savard during his playing career, has Montreal in the thick of things out East. The Habs finished out of the playoffs last season, plunging the province of Quebec into despair, and lost defenseman Sheldon Souray to Edmonton in the offseason.
A doff of the helmet, too, to John Paddock in Ottawa.
Best team: Ottawa; Runner-up: Detroit.
Worst team: Washington; Runner-up: Edmonton.
Most surprising team: Chicago; Runner-up: Montreal.
Most disappointing team: Buffalo; Runner-up: New Jersey.
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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