Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Awards -- Other Honors

What we’re left with is the rest of the awards for this 2007-2008 NHL season. So, let’s get to it (without all the data, mainly because of some major issues with my internet provider…).

Norris Trophy…

“The James Norris Memorial Trophy is an annual award given to the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position. The winner is selected in a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association at the end of the regular season.”

Contrary to popular opinion, this is not being renamed the “Nicklas Lidstrom Trophy.” Lidstrom is, of course, a finalist. That makes nine of the last ten years he has been so honored. He’s won the trophy in five of the last six years (Scott Niedermayer will be the answer to a trivia question on this subject). Dion Phaneuf and Zdeno Chara fill out the requirement that there be three finalists. It won’t matter. Not even Ovechkin winning the Hart is this much of a betting certainty.

Nicklas Lidstrom

Selke Trophy…

“The Frank J. Selke Trophy is an annual award given to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game. The winner is selected in a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association at the end of the regular season.”

If one looks back on the winners of this award, it is quite a mix of style. Dirk Graham won this award in 1991 with 45 points. Sergei Fedorov won it three years later scoring 120 points. Is it a grit guy? A guy who piles up big plus-minus numbers? There is probably no more subjective award in the suite of honors the league bestows on its players. This year, we have two Red Wings – Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk – and the Devils’ John Madden as finalists. The disparity of style that has marked this award is evident in the selection of these finalists. Datsyuk led the league in plus-minus (+41), but perhaps has been thought of often in his career as more than a high-end skills guy. Zetterberg was fourth in the league in plus-minus and comes to the party with something of a more developed reputation as a two-way player, although this was a career year for him in scoring. John Madden is a former winner (the only one in this group) and is perhaps more of the image one gets when one thinks of the award – a shutdown guy for whom any scoring is gravy.

If this award was voted upon now (as opposed to limiting it to the regular season), Zetterberg is the winner. But, this being a regular season award…

Pavel Datsyuk

Lady Byng Trophy…

“The Lady Byng Memorial Trophy is an annual award given to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability. The winner is selected in a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association at the end of the regular season.”

“Gentlemanly conduct” in a game that has fisticuffs (to use the term of preference in the rule book) shot through its culture is one of those “hockey only” idiosyncrasies that make this sport unique. For us, it has a “who cares” aspect to it (like a “Georgia Frontiere Award” for gentlemanly play in the NFL). But looking at the roster of winners over the years – a Wayne Gretzky, a Ron Francis, a Paul Kariya, a Mike Bossy, and even Pavel Datsyuk the past two years – it is an accomplished group of players. So are these finalists – Martin St. Louis, Datsyuk and Jason Pominville.

Among the three, Pominville and Datsyuk tied for the fewest penalty points, and that impresses us as much as anything else as a reason to select a winner. On “points,” as it were…

Pavel Datsyuk

Masterton Trophy…

“The Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy is an annual award under the trusteeship of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association and is given to the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. The winner is selected in a poll of all chapters of the PHWA at the end of the regular season.”

Look back over the winners of this award, and you’ll find some of the toughest guys ever to pull on a sweater – Gary Roberts, Cam Neely, Ken Danyeko, Lanny McDonald, to name a few. You’ll also see some players who came back from health or injury issues to excel at the highest levels of the sport – Mario Lemieux, Pat LaFontaine, Bryan Berard, Bobby Clarke. This year’s finalists – Jason Blake, Fernando Pisani, and Chris Chelios – certainly can claim to be qualified. But the oddity is in the last five years of the award. It seems to have alternated between those who have dealt with health/injury issues (Saku Koivu, Bryan Berard, Phil Kessel) and those who, for lack of a better term, might fall under the “dedication” criteria (Teemu Selanne, Steve Yzerman). This year, it’s dedication’s turn…

Chris Chelios

The Awards -- The Hart Trophy

The Hart Trophy for the league’s most valuable player is accompanied by the following citation:

“The Hart Memorial Trophy is an annual award given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team. The winner is selected in a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association in all NHL cities at the end of the regular season.”
The finalists are…

Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames

Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

This being the biggest of the individual post season awards, it is perhaps also surrounded by the most controversy regarding what constitutes “value?” Does a player’s team have to make the playoffs to be deemed worthy of consideration? Is this for the “best” player?

Every voter and every fan probably has their own take on those questions, and they might come up with a few more questions of their own. For our purposes, we take that phrase “most valuable to his team” quite literally. And, we tend to think a player needs to be on a playoff squad to be worthy of consideration, but it is not a hard and fast rule. Finally, as suggested by our literal take on the citation, this is not the award for the best player (we think that is the object of the Pearson Award, and this discussion will suffice for a pick for that award as well).

So, what about these finalists?

Jarome Iginla is everything anyone could want in a hockey player, as a professional athlete, and a role model for the sport. Talented, tough, a stand-up guy in the crunch, a fine spokesperson for the sport. This year, he played in all 82 games, posting his second 50-goal season (good for third in the league. He also had 98 points (3rd), was +27 (tied for 9th), had 15 power play goals (tied for 8th), had nine game-winning goals (tied for third), and had two overtime game-winners (tied for 4th). He wasn’t shy about dropping the mitts, either, having engaged in five bouts this season.

The foundation of Iginla’s value is two-fold. First, there is his consistency. Here are his ten-game splits for the year:

In no ten-game segment did Iginla have fewer than 10 points. In none did he have fewer than five goals. In only one was he a minus player. He was involved in 43 percent of the Flames’ goals this year and scored 22 percent of them himself.

Second, there is his durability. He plays a high-tempo, physical game, but has never played fewer than 70 games in his 11 years in the league. This year he played in all 82 games for the fifth time in his career.

How does this get reflected in his value? Well, one way to look at it is in his utter domination of Calgary’s statistics…

First in goals – by 20 over the next highest Flame
First in assists – by five
First in points – by 32
First in power play goals – by one
First in game-winning goals – by four
First among forwards in time-on-ice – by almost three full minutes

Iginla is one of those players on whose back a bulls-eye rests. It is not as if he toils for an otherwise gifted Calgary team. It is, as one would expect of a 94-point team, competent and occasionally dangerous. But it can be, and has been at times, challenged in the offensive end (14th in goals-per-game). Iginla – who also serves as captain – is the night in and night out go-to guy. He wears that responsibility very well. Without his contributions, Calgary is probably not a playoff team in the West. He is unquestionably the most valuable Flame and among the most valuable players for his team in the league.

Evgeni Malkin was the “consolation prize” of the 2004 entry draft – the “1A” pick to Alex Ovechkin being selected first by Washington. Pittsburgh is not crying, for Malkin showed why some (though certainly not most) observers of the 2004 draft class had him rated ahead of Ovechkin. Finishing with a line of 47-59-106, +16, Malkin’s case rests more on his having assumed a larger share of the offensive burden in the absence of Sidney Crosby when Crosby missed time with an ankle injury, and being able to consistently produce at a high level to take the pressure off the club in the absence of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury when he was injured. It is a strong case – to a point.

Including the night Crosby was injured against Tampa Bay (in which he played only 4:27), Malkin had to assume the top center role for 22 games. In that span, he was 14-22-36, +5. That projects to a 52-82-134, +19 pace over a full season. More to the point, when the Penguins were given up for dead – or at least thought of as having their playoff hopes badly crippled – they went 11-7-4.

But, the Hart Trophy is awarded to the player “judged to be the most valuable to his team.” While Malkin was posting his numbers in Crosby’s absence, there was another player filling in for an injured star at a critical position.

Marc-Andre Fleury was injured in a game against Calgary on December 6th. From that point until Fleury’s return on February 28th, Ty Conklin filled in. Did he ever. He went 17-4-5, 2.19, .933. It is worth noting that at the time of his injury, Fleury was 9-8-1, 2.90, .902. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that while Malkin stepped up in Crosby’s absence and put up some gaudy numbers, Conklin saved the Penguins’ season. Is Malkin clearly the most valuable player on his own team this year? Absent a definitive “yes” to that question, he would seem lacking in this field of finalists.

Alex Ovechkin’s performance this year has been chronicled in a lot of places. He is called by many close to the game (although perhaps not by most) hockey’s best player. But this is not a “best player” award, by our criteria. We noted Iginla’s case for value to his team. Ovechkin has that case to make as well.

Consistency? If one looks at his ten-game splits, in only one of them did he score fewer than 13 points. In none did he score fewer than six goals, and in only one of his last six did he score fewer than eight. It is part of the remarkable consistency exhibited thus far in his brief career. He was involved in 47 percent of the Caps’ goals this year and scored 27 percent of them himself.

Durability?...In three years, Ovechkin has missed one game (he played in all 82 games this year). Given that he was 6th in the league among forwards in hits, his ability to dress and deliver night after night is amazing.


First in goals – by 39 over the next highest Capital
Second in assists (Nicklas Backstrom led him, 55-48)
First in points – by 43
First in power play goals – by 12 (his 22 led the league)
First in game-winning goals – by seven (his 11 led the league)
First among forwards in time-on-ice – by almost four full minutes

But there is another dimension to Ovechkin’s performance – his domination over the rest of the league in what is arguably the first element in the job description of a first-line winger – scoring goals. Where do his league-leading results stand in relation to the second place finisher, and how does fit into the context of the recent history of goal scoring in the league?

For example, Ovechkin led the league with 65 goals, the first time a player had at least 60 goals in a season since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr turned the trick for the Penguins in the 1995-1996 season. Well, that’s half the story. Ovechkin’s 65 goals led second place Ilya Kovalchuk by 13 goals. Put another way, Ovechkin scored 25 percent more goals than his closest competitor. Kovalchuk’s 52 goals was the average number of goals for the league leader in the previous ten seasons. Ovechkin shattered that mark.

There is also the matter of Ovechkin as the go-to player for his club. In the Caps’ 43 wins, Ovechkin was a remarkable 45-30-75, +41. But after the trading deadline, when the Caps were playing what amounted to an elimination game most every night, he was 17-13-30, +19 in 19 games as the Caps went 15-4-0 to finish the season. And, Ovechkin’s points were at least the margin of victory in 22 of the Caps’ 43 wins. If the Caps were without Ovechkin and lost half of those games, it is the difference between a 94-point season and a top-three seed, and another season wallowing around the 70-point mark, pondering a lottery draft pick.

Frankly, this race was settled when the Caps made the playoffs, if not before. What Iginla brings to the debate, Ovechkin has more of (except the fighting part, but Ovechkin is the bigger hitter – 6th in the league in hits among forwards versus tied for 81st for Iginla). As valuable as Iginla was to the Flames (and none of this argument should be interpreted as a litany of Iginla’s faults – he is one of our favorite players in the league), Ovechkin was more so. It is unlikely that Calgary would have been a playoff team in the West, absent Iginla’s performance. There is no conceivable way the Caps would have been within several time zones of a playoff spot without Ovechkin – the Caps would still have been too green in experience to make up the difference.

We have not forgotten Malkin in this discussion, but he is not as clearly the most valuable player on his team that Iginla was for the Flames or Ovechkin was for the Capitals.

This should not be a hard race to handicap. The only mystery at this point is the margin of victory in points. The league’s best and most valuable player for the 2007-2008 season is…

Alex Ovechkin