My picks for the 2012 NHL awards:
HART TROPHY (most valuable player): Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins
It's not just that Malkin won his second scoring title, or that despite missing seven games, he did it by 12 points. It's that he led the Penguins to the second-best record in the Eastern Conference as they slogged through another injury-plagued season. Crosby played only 22 games. Still, the Pens had the best player in hockey.
Healthy again and motivated more than ever before, Malkin was dominant. He was better than he was in 2007-08 and '08-09, when he was the runner-up for the Hart in back-to-back seasons, and his teammates benefitted. While Malkin set a career high with 50 goals and nearly another with 109 points – four short of his total in 2008-09, when he played a full schedule – winger James Neal blew away his previous highs with 40 goals and 81 points.
Honorable mentions: Steven Stamkos reached sexy number 60 to win the goal-scoring race by 10, though the Tampa Bay Lightning didn't make the playoffs. Claude Giroux's emergence allowed the Philadelphia Flyers to trade captain Mike Richards and sniper Jeff Carter, changing the makeup of the team and creating cap space to sign goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Giroux's play elevated linemates Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr. Two goaltenders were especially valuable: Without Henrik Lundqvist, the New York Rangers wouldn't have won the East. Without Jonathan Quick, the Los Angeles Kings wouldn't have made the playoffs.
SELKE TROPHY (best defensive forward): Patrice Bergeron, Boston BruinsBergeron led the league with a plus-36 rating, and that is not at all deceiving. He won faceoffs, killed penalties, played hard minutes against top opponents and contributed his share offensively.
Though he took the fourth-most faceoffs (1,641), he still ranked second in winning percentage (59.3) – only a tenth of a point off the lead. He averaged 1:48 on the PK and helped anchor the league's sixth-best defense.
The Selke is supposed to go to "the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game." There is no mention of offensive ability in the description. But it helps that he also played on the power play and scored 22 goals. His 64 points were his most since his 70 in 2006-07 – when he was minus-28.
Honorable mentions: Ryan Kesler's numbers were down across the board after hip surgery, but the reigning Selke winner was still a defensive stalwart and his Vancouver Canucks ranked third in goals against. The Detroit Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk, a three-time Selke winner, ranked third in takeaways with 97 despite missing a dozen games. The Chicago Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews, the league's top faceoff man, deserved to be in the conversation again. And don't forget St. Louis Blues captain David Backes, the leader of the league's stingiest team.
Karlsson's numbers are just too overwhelming, and his defensive game is just good enough. He didn't only lead defensemen in scoring with 78 points. He led defensemen in scoring by a 25-point margin – giving him almost 50 percent more points than the next-closest guy.
No one had led defensemen in scoring by 25 points or more since 1988-89. Only three men had done it before: Bobby Orr (six times), Paul Coffey (four) and Denis Potvin (two), according to STATS, LLC. They won the Norris 10 times in those 12 seasons. Coffey went 2-for-4 but was runner-up the two times he didn't win. The first time, he lost to Rod Langway, the reigning Norris winner. The second time, he was minus-10. Karlsson was plus-16 this season.
Normally the Norris would not go to someone who averages only 33 seconds on the penalty kill, let alone a 180-pounder who doesn't intimidate anyone in the defensive zone. But Karlsson averaged 25:19 of ice time, played against top opponents at even strength and led defensemen with 67 takeaways. He used his quickness to get to loose pucks and send them the other way.
It isn't that the best defense is a good offense. The best defense is puck possession – and the title of best all-around defenseman can tilt toward offense when someone produces to such a great degree.
Honorable mention: There are strong, do-it-all candidates: Chara (52 points, plus-33), the Blues' Alex Pietrangelo (51 points, plus-16) and Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber (49 points, plus-21). Lidstrom, the Red Wings’ captain who won his seventh Norris last year, slipped to only 34 points, a career-low for a full schedule. But he played 70 games, also a career-low for a full schedule, and was still plus-21 at age 41.
VEZINA TROPHY (best goaltender): Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
Quick had little room for error playing behind the second-lowest scoring team in the league. He lost nine games in which he allowed only one goal. But he led the league with 10 shutouts, and he ranked second with a 1.95 goals-against average – first among goaltenders who played at least half of their teams' games. His .929 save percentage wasn't too shabby, either.
That is the biggest reason why the Kings are still alive today, and that is why he should have the slight edge in an incredibly competitive category. It remains to be seen whether he will win it, however, with so many voters seemingly ready to crown King Henrik.
Honorable mention: Lundqvist's numbers were almost identical to Quick's – 1.97, .930. But he played in 62 games while Quick played 69, and the Rangers’ goalie had that famous shot-blocking defense in front of him, too. No one faced more shots (2,153), made more saves (1,987) and won more games (43) than Pekka Rinne did for the Predators. Mike Smith's eight shutouts and .930 save percentage helped the Phoenix Coyotes make the playoffs.
And then there are the Blues' two: It's amazing that Brian Elliott posted nine shutouts in only 38 games, but he played only 38 games. As jaw-dropping as his other numbers were – 1.56, .940, both No. 1 – he sat behind Jaroslav Halak 46 times and watched him post a 1.97 and .926. Elliott and Halak can't share the Vezina, but at least they can share the Jennings for fewest goals against.
LADY BYNG TROPHY (most gentlemanly player): Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings
I have written it before and I'll write it again: The Lady Byng should be renamed for Lidstrom. It is supposed to go to the player who has "exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability." But it isn't taken as seriously as it deserves – frankly, because of the "Lady" in its name – and voters usually just look for high point totals and low penalty minutes. Some quietly equate it to the best, soft player.
Lidstrom has never won the Lady Byng, and his points-to-penalty minutes ratio was 34 to 28 this season – nothing that will stick out to voters. But he has been the runner-up five times and personifies the spirit of the award.
He rarely takes a penalty even as a defenseman, and when he does, it's never for something unsporting like slashing or elbowing or roughing. He never loses his cool, never lashes out, always plays the right away, always plays the same way. He plays with grace, and it is that very grace – intelligence, anticipation, positioning, intelligence, skill, calm – that has made him one of the most consistently great players the NHL has ever known.
Honorable mention: The Florida Panthers' Brian Campbell ranked second among defensemen in scoring with 53 points and had only six penalty minutes. Other notable points-to-penalty minutes ratios: the New Jersey Devils' Patrik Elias (78 to 16), the Lightning's Martin St. Louis (74 to 16) and the New York Islanders' Matt Moulson (69 to 6).
CALDER TROPHY (rookie of the year): Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche
Landeskog was the best all-around rookie in an excellent class. He did everything for the Avs as they competed for a playoff spot until the final week of the regular season, playing in every situation, even becoming a vocal leader at 19 years old.
Most impressive, he performed the net-front role on the power play – a man's job that takes courage, concentration and discipline; strength, skill and savvy – and he protected late leads. He was plus-20, which was plus-nine better than any of his teammates. He tied for the rookie scoring lead with 52 points and was second in goals with 22.
Honorable mention: The Edmonton Oilers' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had 52 points in 20 fewer games. The Devils' Adam Henrique was only one point behind. The Flyers' Matt Read led rookies with 24 goals, while the Rangers' Carl Hagelin was tops at plus-21.
JACK ADAMS AWARD (coach of the year): Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis Blues
The Blues were 6-7-0 when they fired Davis Payne. They were expected to contend for a playoff spot, but not the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's best regular-season team. In came Ken Hitchcock, a respected coaching mind and Stanley Cup champion, but a man known for plugging it up under the old NHL rules and yelling at players with an old-school style.
Hitchcock made an immediate impact. He showed he had evolved, and the Blues finished second in the Western Conference, only two points behind the league-leading Vancouver Canucks. Hitchcock bonded with Backes, toned down his act and convinced the team to buy into his philosophy – go hard, keep it crisp, stay structured. The Blues were short on stars and finished 21st offensively, but they won with team defense, allowing the fewest shots (26.7 per game) and fewest goals against (1.89).
Honorable mention: Paul MacLean entered a toxic environment in Ottawa and cleared the air, communicating well with his players. The Senators, expected to finish as low as last in the league, made the playoffs. Kevin Dineen melded a mishmash of acquisitions, led the Florida Panthers from last to first in the Southeast, won the franchise's first division title and ended the league's longest playoff drought. Dave Tippett continued to make the best of the league-owned Coyotes and won the franchise's first division title. John Tortorella instilled a strong blue-collar identity in the Rangers and took them from the playoff bubble to the top of the East.
GENERAL MANAGER OF THE YEAR AWARD: Dale Tallon, Florida Panthers
Some GMs say they're going to rebuild on the fly. Others do it. Tallon tore apart the Panthers and put them back together in less than two years. Yes, he gave a lot of money to free agents who didn't deserve it based on their production. But he had cleared so much salary that he needed to reach the floor, he had to convince players to come to a team that hadn't made the playoffs since 2000, and he wasn't doing it haphazardly. He grabbed guys with experience and character, and he continued to make moves during the season.
All of it paid off. The Panthers are back in the playoffs, even if they stumbled down the stretch and benefitted from a down division. Making the playoffs is vital for a selling the game in the Florida market. Though it remains to be seen if this particular roster is built to last, the future is bright. The Panthers have a lot of top prospects in the pipeline.
Honorable mention: Bryan Murray made some smart changes and turned around the Senators more quickly than even he thought he could. Doug Armstrong made the right call to bring in the coach he did when he did, and he obviously has a good mix of players. Paul Holmgren made some tough, controversial decisions over the past year, but the Flyers are right in the thick of it again and have a strong stable of young players for the future. David Poile put the Predators in position to contend, then made bold moves to give them a better shot at the Cup. But the true test of his work is coming up.
Note: Members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association vote for the Hart, Selke, Norris, Lady Byng and Calder. Members of the NHL Broadcasters' Association vote on the Jack Adams. The NHL's general managers vote on the Vezina. The GMs vote on the GM of the year, along with a panel of league executives and media.