November 26, 2011
When the New York Rangers and the San Jose Sharks finish their respective games on Saturday, every team in the National Hockey League will have played in at least 20 contests. Hence, it's time for the logical leaps and hasty projections that we reach at the quarter pole.
(And yes, we agree that it's more in keeping with hockey to do reviews at the third-pole. Consider this a game that ended in the four-on-four. Or a tribute to the NBA's players bending over for ownership lockout apparently ending.)
Here are some awards and superlatives for the first quarter of the 2011-12 season.
Phil Kessel(notes), Toronto Maple Leafs. After 23 games, Kessel was leading the NHL in points (30) and goals (16); knowing the awards voters' thought process, that'd pretty much make him a lock for the Hart. His goals have been significant: He has 12 at even-strength, two that led off the scoring and three game-winners. Best of all: He overcame his usual November swoon with 12 points, six of them goals. Imagine where the Leafs would be if their solution in goal after James Reimer's(notes) injury wasn't to stretch wet toilet tissue between the pipes …
Nikolai Khabibulin(notes), Edmonton Oilers. A competitive field, but the nod goes to the Bulin Wall for one specific reason: The team playing in front of him. Tim Thomas(notes) has incredible numbers with the Boston Bruins (1.85 GAA, .936 save percentage through 15 games). Jimmy Howard(notes) has been stellar for the Detroit Red Wings (1.91, .929 through 18 games). Niklas Backstrom(notes) has reclaimed his game with the Minnesota Wild (1.97, .935 in 14 games). But the Bruins and Wings are veteran teams that know their defense, and the Wild are trapping. Khabibulin (9.4-2, 1.87, .936) has done more with less protection. He's trailed off a bit in November, but was incredible in October.
Shea Weber(notes), Nashville Predators. Weber should have won the Norris last season and has reminded everyone of this for most of the season. He has 15 points in 21 games, skating 26:18 a night to an NHL-best plus-16. Erik Karlsson(notes), Kris Letang(notes), Zdeno Chara(notes) and Dion Phaneuf(notes) are right there with him. Brian Campbell(notes) wins the Phil Housley Award for best offensive D-man.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins(notes), Edmonton Oilers. If you predicted the Nuge would have 24 points in his first 22 NHL games … here's a blank lottery ticket, please fill in the numbers for us. His 10 goals in 22 games lead all rookies too. Matt Read(notes) of the Philadelphia Flyers (9 goals, plus-9), Craig Smith(notes) of the Nashville Predators (16 points) and Luke Adam(notes) of the Buffalo Sabres (14 points) are also giving a push. Gabriel Landeskog(notes) and Adam Larsson(notes) need to pick up the pace or else it's the RNH prize this season. Just to don't ask him to win a faceoff (37.1 percent).
Jonathan Toews(notes), Chicago Blackhawks. Along with being a stealth Hart candidate, Toews has done everything he can to be the Selke front-runner. He's a plus-8, he's fourth on the team in shorthanded ice time (although the Chicago PK is currently the least effective in the League) and he's at 61.8-percent on faceoffs, tops in the NHL. The best two-way player in hockey?
Jack Adams Award
Mike Yeo, Minnesota Wild. Neck-and-neck-and-neck with Kevin Dineen of the Florida Panthers and Dan Bylsma of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Yeo made the bold decision to get the Wild back to defense-oriented hockey and made the even bolder decision to outright call it "the trap." As a result, the Wild have 29 points in 22 games and are leading the Western Conference — despite scoring just 52 goals.
Most Surprising Player
Kris Versteeg(notes), Florida Panthers. Long seen as a complimentary player, Versteeg has stepped up as an offensive force this season to the tune of 12 goals and 14 assists for a stellar plus-14. He's managed to help give the Panthers a formidable top line with Stephen Weiss(notes) and Tomas Fleishmann. He will be your hero, baby.
Most Disappointing Player
Eric Staal(notes), Carolina Hurricanes. Staal has 10 points in 24 games and is an epic minus-17 on the season. He has more PIM (12) than points. Is it just a slow start? Is it because Erik Cole(notes) is in Montreal? Is it because he concussed his brother? Dishonorable Mention: Erik Johnson's(notes) minus-12 in 21 games for Colorado and Jarome Iginla's(notes) 10 points in 21 games for Calgary, along with a minus-11.
Most Surprising Goalie
Brian Elliott(notes), St. Louis Blues. Having given Khabibulin his props, we'll turn the spotlight over to Elliott, who has Tim Thomas-like numbers (1.34, .951, three shutouts) in 11 games. He hasn't allowed more than two goals in an appearance this season, and now he has a Ken Hitchcock system in front of him.
Most Disappointing Goalie
Steve Mason(notes), Columbus Blue Jackets. He's 3-12-1, with a 3.63 GAA and a .875 save percentage. He was handed the keys to the team by his general manager, and fumbled them down the sewer. You could rename this award the Steve Mason Award Presented by Steve Mason without a second thought.
Here's a pretty easy rule for save of the whatever candidates: If the shooter starts celebrating as the goalie makes a ridiculous save, chances are it belongs near the top spot. Nasty trick Jimmy Howard pulled on Bobby Ryan(notes) here.
Most Surprising Team
Florida Panthers. They were always a wild card, what with their collection of unrestricted free agent castoffs, holdovers from losing teams and an untested coach. Somewhat miraculously, they've come together for 28 points in 22 games. With three decent goaltending options and an aggressive GM, this start could be enough to get them into the postseason by season's end.
Most Disappointing Team
Tampa Bay Lightning. The Blue Jackets had some mitigating circumstances for their early-season demise. The Canucks are actually only two points off their pace from last season. But the Lightning had 28 points in their first 23 games last season, and just 22 in 21 this year. Wildly inconsistent, with much of it starting with Dwayne Roloson(notes) in goal. Dishonorable Mention: The Carolina Hurricanes and the Anaheim Ducks, with the Colorado Avalanche soon to join them.
Ken Hitchcock for Davis Payne. Sensing his own mortality, GM Doug Armstrong dials up an old friend and installs him as head coach of the Blues. He's gone 6-1-2 for 14 points since then.
Kyle Turris's(notes) holdout. The restricted free agent center played hardball with the Phoenix Coyotes and lost — failing to get his asking price and failing to force a trade. Instead, he signed a 2-year deal with the Coyotes and the puck is no longer in his end, all while alienating the fans.
Honey Badger will one day live this down. Just not quite yet.