2008-09 NHL awards race: Midseason review
MVP RACE: OVECHKIN IN THE LEAD?Before the start of the 2008-09 season, our experts weighed in with their early MVP lists. Now, as we start the second half, Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun give us the latest expanded list of Hart Trophy candidates.
|1. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals: We thought long and hard on this. Actually wrote down Evgeni Malkin and then went to Ovechkin. Yes, Malkin boasted a 10-point lead in the NHL scoring race at the All-Star break, but Ovechkin is so crucial to the Capitals' success, so dynamic and so darn fun to watch, we went this way with our midseason vote. Ovechkin leads the league with 31 goals, has six game-winners and is plus-13 on a team that's been hurt badly by injuries. Ovechkin is the man. Period.||1. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals: The reigning Hart Trophy champion has his sights set on his second in a row. Last we checked on the emotional Russian at the quarter pole, he was just coming on after a slow start, which was affected by his grandfather's illness back home. The man has been on fire ever since. Not only is he challenging for another Rocket Richard Trophy, but he's among the league leaders in game-winning goals. The man is clutch.|
|2. Evgeni Malkin, Penguins: There's been no slippage from Malkin during the regular season after last year's disappointing turn in the Stanley Cup finals. Malkin, who has 70 points in his first 48 games, has been one of the lone bright spots on a Pittsburgh team that has been beset by injuries and has fallen beneath the playoff bubble. He is the real deal and, barring injury, should win his first NHL scoring title.||2. Joe Thornton, Sharks: The 2005-06 Hart Trophy winner may be playing his best hockey ever. Not only are the points piling up, as usual, but his physical play also is quite noticeable. He looks dialed in on the chase for the big prize. Perhaps the addition of veteran leaders like Dan Boyle and Rob Blake has taken a bit of pressure off him to lead. Now he's just doing his thing, and doing it well.|
|3. Sidney Crosby, Penguins: Tied for second in NHL scoring as of Wednesday morning, Crosby has revealed a bit more of a human side this season as the frustrations of the Pens' uneven play has bubbled to the surface a few times. No matter -- he remains the key to the Penguins' long-term success. His work ethic continues to surpass that of virtually every other NHL player, and in the end, that will see the Penguins get to the playoffs for the fourth straight season. After that? Anything is possible with Crosby.||3. Pavel Datsyuk, Red Wings: Here's a guy who often gets overlooked -- on his own team. Henrik Zetterberg was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner last spring, and Nicklas Lidstrom is a six-time Norris Trophy winner. But this season, Datsyuk has fueled the Wings' surge after a slight bit of Cup hangover early on. He's among the leaders in points, but that only tells half the story. His defensive play continues to be the best among NHL forwards, which is also why he'll likely defend his Selke Trophy.|
|4. Pavel Datsyuk, Red Wings: Every time you watch Datsyuk, he seems to do something magical with the puck or throws a check at a guy who outweighs him by 40 pounds. He's a machine and, with all due respect to Henrik Zetterberg, has become the straw that stirs the Red Wings' Stanley Cup drink.||4. Steve Mason, Blue Jackets: We will repeat our long-standing belief that we don't like goalies for the Hart, but you can't ignore what this rookie has done to save the Jackets' season. With injuries piling up and hope fading, Mason took his team on his shoulders.|
|5. Zdeno Chara, Bruins: One of the great turnaround stories in the NHL, the Bruins have a sizeable lead in the Eastern Conference thanks to inspired team play and great defense. The leader of that defensive corps is the towering Chara, whose name should be at the top of many voters' lists for the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman. He may end up on more than a few Hart Trophy ballots, too.||5. Zdeno Chara, Bruins: The two goalies on this team get most of the attention, and yes, Marc Savard and David Krejci are having huge offensive seasons. But the Z-man is the heart of this team. He leads the Bruins in ice time and is among the league leaders in the category, an imposing force at both ends of the ice.|
|6. Joe Thornton, Sharks: Sometimes it's easy to overlook an individual on a team as balanced and dominant as the Sharks. But someone has to be leading the charge for the league's most impressive team, and it's Big Joe, who is tied for sixth in league scoring and is a whopper plus-24.||6. Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks: Patrick Kane is the offensive leader, but Toews is the catalyst for the young-and-gun Hawks. That's why he wears the "C." Oozing character, like a young Steve Yzerman, Toews puts the team on his shoulders, and his teammates follow.|
|7. Jarome Iginla, Flames: The Flames are back in the high-rent district of the NHL, looking more like the Stanley Cup finalist team from 2004 than at any point since the lockout. Credit coach Mike Keenan, but, as always, it's captain Jarome Iginla, tied for 10th in scoring as of Wednesday, who's driving the bus. If they're to escape the first round for the first time since the end of the lockout, it will be with Iginla leading the way.||7. Evgeni Malkin, Penguins: Hey, he leads the NHL in points, right? The Russian star center has been an offensive machine all season long. We'd like to see a more consistent defensive commitment from him, however. But if his nemesis, Ovechkin, takes the Hart as expected, maybe Malkin can at least keep the Art Ross Trophy for himself.|
|8. Steve Mason, Blue Jackets: Holy phenom, Batman, the kid who was just last season tending goal for the Canadian junior national team has almost single-handedly kept the Blue Jackets in the playoff hunt. We don't think they've got enough to sneak into the postseason, but if they do, watch for Mason to sneak onto more than a few Hart Trophy tickets.||8. Sidney Crosby, Penguins: It's been a pretty good offensive season for Sid the Kid, but he'll be the first to tell you he'd like to see just a bit more. No one cares more about winning on his team than the 21-year-old captain, and we suspect the best is yet to come from the 2006-07 Hart Trophy winner in the second half. Of course, it would help if he had a decent winger to play with.|
|9. Zach Parise, Devils: Yes, Scott Clemmensen has been terrific filling in for the injured Martin Brodeur in goal, but the Devils have been a surprisingly potent offensive squad this season, and a lot of that is due to the breakout season Parise is enjoying. Tied for sixth in league scoring with five game-winners, Parise has emerged as the Devils' go-to guy as the squad has climbed into the Atlantic Division lead.||9. Niklas Backstrom, Wild: With Marian Gaborik basically out of the lineup for most of the season, it's the Finnish goaltender that's carried this team. His All-Star nomination was fully deserved. The Wild are hanging on to their playoff hopes at midseason in large part because of the man stopping pucks for them.|
|10. Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks: Yes, the Ducks have been up and down all season (mostly down heading into the All-Star break), but on a team that struggles to score, Getzlaf carries a heavy burden and has shown he's capable of accepting the heavy lifting. Fourth in NHL points, he has emerged as a top-flight point producer.||10. Patrick Marleau, Sharks: The San Jose captain has already surpassed his points total from last season. Perhaps an even better indicator of his turnaround is his plus-minus. He was minus-19 last season. He was plus-22 as of Wednesday morning. First-year coach Todd McLellan reached out to Marleau last summer, and the captain has responded.|
WATCH: EXPERTS' PICKS
Burnside: Steve Mason, Blue Jackets. He leads the NHL in goals-against average (2.04), and his play has kept Columbus in the playoff hunt in the West. Others to consider: Tim Thomas, Niklas Backstrom and Miikka Kiprusoff.
LeBrun: Steve Mason, Blue Jackets. We feel strange giving such a prestigious award to a rookie, but with the injuries to Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo, Mason is the best goalie at midseason in a wide-open race that also includes Evgeni Nabokov, Backstrom, Thomas and Henrik Lundqvist.
Hradek: Steve Mason, Blue Jackets. You can tell me the kid has played in just 31 games, but I can't overlook his numbers. Plus, he isn't exactly working behind the 1977 Canadiens. Others to consider: Backstrom, Thomas/Manny Fernandez and Kiprusoff.
Burnside: Zdeno Chara, Bruins. The big man is one of the main reasons the Bruins are at the top of the East. Tough with good offensive skills, Chara can shut down the best opponents throw at him. Others to consider: Dan Boyle, Shea Weber, Andrei Markov, Brian Rafalski and Mike Green.
LeBrun: Zdeno Chara, Bruins. Let's put it this way: If the NHL held a leaguewide dispersal draft at midseason for all 30 teams, which defenseman do you think would go first? Yes, we thought so. Honorable mentions to Boyle; Weber; and Mr. Norris himself, Nicklas Lidstrom.
Hradek: Zdeno Chara, Bruins. There will be others with more points or a better plus-minus rating, but this guy changes the game for the Bruins and their opponents. Runner-up: Lidstrom. Other candidates include Boyle, Green and Weber.
Burnside: Claude Julien, Bruins. It was one thing coaxing an injury-riddled Bruins team into the playoffs last season; it's quite another to use that as a springboard to what looks like will be a top seed in the East come April. Others to consider: Todd McLellan, Wayne Gretzky and Brent Sutter.
Hradek: Claude Julien, Bruins. A dramatic improvement in the team's defensive play has propelled Boston to a marvelous season and the guy behind the bench deserves a huge amount of credit. He's got competition from Joel Quenneville, Gretzky, McLellan, Mike Babcock, Guy Carbonneau, Ken Hitchcock and Bruce Boudreau.
Hradek: Brent Sutter, Devils. When star-stopper Martin Brodeur went out with injury, the Devils' season figured to go down with him. But Sutter wasn't ready to let his team surrender. Now, the Devils sit atop the Atlantic. Runner-up: Julien. Others to consider include McLellan, Babcock and Boudreau.
Burnside: Steve Mason, Blue Jackets. The kid may end up getting votes for the Hart Trophy, the Vezina Trophy and rookie-of-the-year honors. Not bad for someone who didn't figure into the Blue Jackets' immediate plans back in training camp. Others to consider: Kris Versteeg, Bobby Ryan and Drew Doughty.
LeBrun: Steve Mason, Blue Jackets. It's a no-brainer at midseason. But don't overlook what the Kings' Drew Doughty has done as an 18-year-old defenseman in the NHL. Still, Mason's mind-boggling numbers have saved his team's season.
Hradek: Steve Mason, Blue Jackets. The lanky stopper looks a little like a young Tom Barrasso, who earned both the Calder and Vezina trophies in 1984. At the break, Mason seems to be a lock. Runner-up: Doughty.
Burnside: Samuel Pahlsson, Anaheim. No one spends more time on the ice killing penalties in the NHL than Pahlsson, who remains one of the top shutdown forwards in the game and ranks fourth in faceoff wins. Others to consider: Pavel Datsyuk and Mike Richards.
LeBrun: Pavel Datsyuk, Red Wings. Next time you watch a Detroit game, try to notice how many times Datsyuk comes back in his own zone to break up a play or steal the puck. It's uncanny how often he does it in a game.
Hradek: Pavel Datsyuk, Red Wings. If this guy isn't the most underrated superstar in the league, I don't know who is. Datsyuk works equally hard in all three zones and can also be trusted with a key draw. Runner-up: Henrik Zetterberg.