Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Awards -- The Norris Trophy

The Norris Trophy citation states…

"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."

The finalists…

Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins

Mike Green, Washington Capitals

Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings

It is possible that for only the second time since 2000, a defenseman other than Nicklas Lidstrom will win this award. There hasn’t been this sort of dominance in a performance award since Wayne Gretzky won eight Hart Trophies in succession, ending in 1987. It makes for an interesting race as Lidstrom goes for seven in the last eight years. Unlike the past few years, Lidstrom does not come into this competition as a prohibitive favorite. In fact, he is probably going to finish third in this race. It will not be for lack of performance. Lidstrom finished third among defensemen in scoring, was third in plus-minus, was third in power play scoring, tied for fourth in power play goals, tied for third in game-winning goals… and was tied for 168th in hits, proving that one need not be a big bopper to leave a mark. One might be tempted to say that even with these results that Lidstrom slipped a bit, and statistically that would be correct. He had more goals this year than last (16 to 10), but fewer assists (43/60), fewer point (59/70), a lower plus-minus (+31/+40). He did have more power play goals (10/5) and almost as many points (33/34), so any drop off, numerically speaking, was slight. Lidstrom’s problem, if he has one, is the lofty standard he has set for himself. The season he had – excellent by anyone’s standards – was “normal” for him. We’ve become spoiled.

For Mike Green, there is a paradox. On the one hand, he is now – at 23 – the premier offensive defenseman in the game, having posted 129 points in 150 games over the past two seasons, and he was the only defenseman to post more than a point per game this year. He had the highest points-per-game mark since Paul Coffey in the abbreviated 1995 season, and his points per game lead over the next best finisher among the top-20 defensemen in scoring (0.25 points per game over Andrei Markov) made Green’s as dominating an offensive performance by a defenseman in recent memory. And that’s Green’s problem, too. He is seen not only as an “offensive defenseman,” but as one who fills that role at the expense of defense. The numbers don’t bear this out, at least not as much as Caps fans have come to believe. Green finished second overall among defensemen playing at least 50 games in Corsi rating, and while he finished 52nd in goals-scored against per 60 minutes at even strength, that was only five spots behind Lidstrom and three spots ahead of the third finalist for this award, Zdeno Chara.

Zdeno Chara has knocked on this door before. Lidstrom has always been in the way. This year, the numbers argue that Chara might once more come up short. He had fewer points than Lidstrom (50 to 59), a lower plus-minus (+23/+31), fewer game-winning goals (3/4), more power play goals (11/10), but fewer power play points (28/33). He also had a worse goals scored-against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than Lidstrom. But Chara’s problem might not be Lidstrom here. It might be teammate Dennis Wideman. The unsung Wideman had as many points as Chara (50), a better plus-minus (+32/+23), had nearly as many power play points (25/28), and more even-strength points (24/20). Chara did have a better Corsi rating and faced better competition at 5-on-5, but there really wasn’t that much difference between the two, statistically at least.

These are very different defensemen, style-wise. Lidstrom is the very embodiment of the elegant, yet effective defenseman. He performs his task with what looks like a minimum of energy expended. If the art of the position is in making it look easy, Lidstrom is an artist. Green is, in many respects, the new-age defenseman of the post lockout era. He is offense-oriented, one of the motors that makes the Capitals hum. But he has an old-school quality to his game too – the old time puck rushing defenseman who can carry the puck with momentum through the neutral zone. To a point, he is a faint echo of Bobby Orr, except that Orr could actually finish those 180-foot rushes. Green doesn’t often finish those plays. Chara is the most physically dominating, most intimidating defenseman in the league. But he has also made himself a competent skater, able to compete in this faster post-lockout version of the NHL.

Chara has a running mate in Dennis Wideman, who can take some of the heat off. Lidstrom has Brian Rafalski, who could pick up some of the marginal drop off in numbers that characterized Lidstrom’s game this year. Green does not have that sort of running mate on the Capitals, who still suffer from a lack of experience and talent on the blue line. That could make a difference in the end.

If we were prognosticating about this a month or two ago, we’d be thinking that the winner of this award will be…

Zdeno Chara

We still think he’ll be the winner. But if we had a vote…

Mike Green

…yeah, yeah…it sounds like a Caps fan.

Awards -- The Vezina Trophy

The Vezina Trophy citation reads…

"The Vezina Trophy is an annual award given to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at this position as voted by the general managers of all NHL clubs."

The finalists...

Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild

Steve Mason, Columbus Blue Jackets

Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins

Easy, right? Best goalie. No “most valuable to his team;” no “adjudged to have contributed the most.” Just “best.”

Well, maybe it’s not so easy. Tim Thomas, Steve Mason, and Niklas Backstrom finished 1-2-3 (in that order) in goals against average. They finished 1-10-3 in save percentage (50 games played, minimum). They finished 6-5-9 in wins. They finished 10-3-1 in shutouts. Their switching their order among the statistical categories looks like three cars drafting one another at Daytona.

Thomas played the fewest games of the trio by far (54, compared to 61 for Mason and 71 for Backstrom). After a somewhat unlucky start to the season (1-1-2, despite a 2.67 GAA and .920 save percentage), Thomas would lose consecutive games in regulation only once, and that was in February, when the Bruins’ were well on their way to the playoffs with a 39-10-7 record. Boston was the only team that was close to having a +1.00 goal per game differential for the year (0.97), and 11 of Thomas’ 36 wins were by at least three goals. But he was also 15-5-7 in one goal games. Only nine times in 54 appearances did he surrender more than five goals. The argument against Thomas is that he played on a dominant team that made his job easier. And, he played in comparatively low number of games. If he wins, Thomas would do so with the fewest appearances since Patrick Roy appeared in 54 games in route to a Vezina Trophy in 1990.

Backstrom suffers the same lament that has followed Martin Brodeur over his career – he plays in a defense-first system that is geared toward allowing few goals (while scoring few of them). The Minnesota Wild certainly did play on the margin (+0.21 goal-per-game differential this season). But there is always a chicken-and-egg notion about such things. Did Backstrom post such fine numbers because the Wild play defense first, or did the Wild have such a goals-against-per-game result because of Backstrom’s superior play? It’s something that will not help Backstrom, if you look at his backup – Josh Harding. Playing behind the same set of skaters, Harding had a much worse win-loss record (3-9-1), but he had a better GAA (2.21 to 2.33) and a better save percentage (.929 to .923).

Mason had a somewhat freakish season. He posted a shutout approximately once every six appearances, the most frequent whitewashing since Dominik Hasek had 13 in 71 appearances in 1998. He was 18-4-7 in one-goal games. From November 15th through January 2nd, he had a 17-game streak in which he did not allow more than three goals. Here is the amazing thing about that streak; he did not win a game in which he allowed more than two goals (he was 10-6-1 overall), while posting a 1.32 GAA and .950 save percentage in the 17-game run. He was not playing for a team that gave him much of a cushion. Then, he contracted mononucleosis and played through it before being finally diagnosed with the condition and placed on injured reserve in early February. But Mason faded late in the season. He was 2-3-3 in his last eight decisions, 3.02, .883, and he allowed fewer than three goals only once in those eight games.

All three goalies have arguments for and arguments against. There doesn’t seem to be a dominant goalie in this trio, but that might reflect a changing of the guard and the absence of a Martin Brodeur, a Henrik Lundqvist, or a Miikka Kiprusoff. We believe that the winner will be...

Tim Thomas

But if we had a vote…

Steve Mason

Awards -- The Jack Adams Award

Now that this Stanley Cup nonsense is over, it’s Awards Week. First up in our prognostos, the Jack Adams Award…

"An annual award presented by the National Hockey League Broadcasters' Association to the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success. The winner is selected in a poll among members of the NHL Broadcasters' Association at the end of the regular season."

The finalists:

Claude Julien, Boston Bruins

Todd McLellan, San Jose Sharks

Andy Murray, St. Louis Blues

Well, we’re covered here. The three conventional categories of coaches who get nominated are represented. We have the coach of a team that was seen by many at the start of the year as a very talented club that could challenge for the President’s Cup and the Stanley Cup (McLellan). We have the coach of a team that didn’t get a lot of attention as a championship contender, but which leaped to the top of the heap early and stayed there all year, confounding critics with a mix of talent and devotion to hard work and discipline (Julien). And, we have the coach of the plucky, if talent-starved team that starts slowly (seven games under .500 as late as January 2nd), then catches fire and jumps into the playoff eight (Murray).

There isn’t the compelling story this year that there was last year, one that carried Capitals Head Coach Bruce Boudreau to this award. The picks this year are rather conventional and, to a degree, familiar. Murray has been a head coach for all or part of nine seasons in the NHL, Julien for six seasons, and while McLellan just completed his first season behind an NHL bench, he spent three years as an assistant with the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings.

The award citation states that the award is given to the coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success. One might be impressed by Claude Julien’s success with a team that some didn’t think would make it to the playoffs this year, but while the Bruins did finish with a 24-point jump over their 2007-2008 finish, last year the Bruins finished the second half of the year 21-13-8 – a 100 point pace. And while this team had a bit of roster turnover, there wasn't a lot, and it was healthier, too (20 players played in at least half the games, 18 played more than 60).

McLellan had the hardest path to his nomination. He was new to a team that: a) had talent, and b) had been a chronic playoff disappointment. Even though this is an award for regular season accomplishment, there was a “so what” air hovering over any success the Sharks might have – it was expected. And in that sense, if the Sharks slipped a notch or two, it could have been seen as a product of McLellan’s talent, or in this case, lack of it. That San Jose shot out of the blocks ((8-2-0 after ten games, 16-3-1 after 20, 25-3-2 after 30) put to rest any notion that McLellan would somehow squander the Sharks’ talent or that he couldn’t cope with expectations.

For Murray, it was his highest win total of his career (41), and it was accomplished with a team that lost top defenseman Erik Johnson on the eve of the regular season and with a collection of players who might otherwise be thought of as being something less than star quality. It was a team that struggled at even strength (19 players finished on the minus side of the ledger, and the Blues were 21st in 5-on-5 play), but did finish in the top ten in power play (8th) and penalty killing (3rd), suggesting a strong work ethic and an ability by Murray to get the most out of this squad.

But for sheer contribution by a coach, there was a coach who engineered a remarkable turn around with a team under the spotlight. He took over a team in mid-season (actually, with 25 games to play) and at risk of missing the playoffs, despite being a pre-season Stanley Cup favorite. He took over a team lacking direction, looking like a team with mismatched style to talent, an also-ran with a 27-25-5 record, and led that team – largely with the same underachieving personnel – to an 18-3-4 finish and a playoff berth.

As for the award, we expect that the winner will be...

Claude Julien

Julien would certainly be a worthy recipient. But even though he’s not a finalist, if we had a vote…

Dan Bylsma

Hired Stick...er, Gun

Jack Morris was a pitcher who toiled for 18 seasons in major league baseball. The first 14 of them were spent in the employ of the Detroit Tigers, with whom he won a World Series title in 1984. His last four seasons, however, were spent as a “hurler-for-hire” who shopped his talents to contenders, settling in Minnesota, Toronto, and Cleveland, and winning titles with both Minnesota and Toronto.

Why are we thinking of Jack Morris this morning? Well, because we’re wondering, where is Marian Hossa going to end up next? Last summer he rolled the dice, concluded that the Detroit Red Wings had a better chance than did the Pittsburgh Penguins to win a Stanley Cup… and lost.

Where to now, Marian?

Detroit? He could re-sign with the Red Wings, but that whole “come back next year with steely determination to vanquish those who vanquished me” is so derivative. It’s so “Sidney.”

Pittsburgh? Yeah, right. We’re not seeing Hossa going all Brenda Lee… “I'm sorry, so sorry. Please accept my apology, but love is blind, and I was too blind to see…”

Washington? Hey, the Caps need a right winger… Hossa’s a right winger. The Caps could use a guy with some playoff experience… Hossa’s been in the last two Cup finals. The Caps have this “red” theme… Hossa’s looked good in Ottawa red and Red Wing red. Washington has no cap room… Hossa wants $6 million a year. OK, so much for that.

Chicago? Hmm… there’s that whole “slay the Red Wings dragon” angle they could play, with Hossa playing the St. George role.

San Jose? Well, if you want to get as far away as possible from Detroit and Pittsburgh, this is as good as place as any, and they play pretty good hockey there… at least until April. Hossa would fit right in.

Philly? Mmm…not unless he learns how to play goalie. But Philly shoves anybody back there.

The Rangers? Hey, they have cap room to burn. They also have 11 roster players who are restricted or unrestricted free agents, and another spot opened up when Markus Naslund retired, so they have a lot of hiring to do. We’re surprised Larry Brooks hasn’t yet penned a column on Hossa’s imminent arrival (he’s busy pining for another Marian at the moment). Besides, they probably still have some old “Hossa” jerseys around.

Montreal? Hey… they might have some old “Hossa” sweaters lying around, too.

Carolina? Nuthin’ could be finah than to get paid in Carolina playin’ ho-o-o-o-o-o-ckey. And it’s not like Hossa would be unfamiliar with the surroundings. He’s played hockey the Southeast before. Oh, my mistake, he played in Atlanta.

We’re just getting this odd lyric spinning through our head…

“A check in the hand may be quite Kontinental…but L.A. is a guy’s best friend.”

The Worldwide Leader In...

...sports that don't involve a stick, ice, and pucks of vulcanized rubber? We were clicking here and there and came upon last fall's predictions from the "experts" at ESPN on who would win what in the NHL this year. Here is how they saw the fight for the Stanley Cup...

So...none of them had the Devils winning in the Atlantic. All of them had Kool-Aid shooters on the Habs 100th anniverary thing. The Capitals did win the Southeast (Linda Cohn's nod to former colleague Barry Melrose notwithstanding). The Red Wings were a no brainer -- my dog Koho could have picked that one. No one had Vancouver in the Northwest. Only Pierre LeBrun had the confidence to pick the Sharks in the Pacific. For the record, here were our picks (correct ones in bold)...

Southeast: Washington
Atlantic: Pittsburgh
Northeast: Montreal (we drank the Kool-Aid, too)
Central: Detroit
Northwest: Calgary
Pacific: San Jose

We had our brain fart moments, too. Like Dallas making the playoffs, but Vancouver missing the cut. And then there was our picking Boston 10th, but it's not like we were alone in that gaffe.

Only E.J. Hradek had the Penguins coming out of the East, and as such was the only "expert" to predict a rematch. We have no idea what Matthew Barnaby and Linda Cohn were thinking.

As for the individual awards, the panel of "experts" saw things this way last fall...

Linda Cohn earns a measure of redemption for picking the local favorite to repeat as the Hart Trophy winner, and she was the only one to at least get a finalist right. Everyone drew a blank on the Vezina finalists, but be honest... did you have Tim Thomas, Steve Mason, and Niklas Backstrom?

As for the Norris, E.J. Hradek, Matthew Barnaby, and Pierre LeBrun at least got finalists in their picks. But then again, no one was predicting that Dion Phaneuf would have a face-plant (for him) of a season in Calgary, and fewer still probably thought Mike Green would make the leap all the way to the final three.

The Selke? Well, a Red Wing got a lot of attention, but it was Henrik Zetterberg (three votes), not Pavel Datsyuk (one). Points to John Buccigross for getting Ryan Kesler.

For the Calder, there was a pandemic of Stamkos Flu running through ESPN studios. No one had Bobby Ryan, Kris Versteeg, or Steve Mason. Shoot, there might not have been a dozen fans in North America outside of Chicago or Lethbridge, Alberta, who could spell "Versteeg" in October.

As for the Adams, we have no idea what David Amber was thinking, except maybe that was the only coach's name he recognized, "Gretzky." We won't even comment on Ms. Cohn's and Mr. Buccigross' pick, only to say that organizational loyalty is a wonderful thing, except when it's not. OK, we will make one comment. If you're not picking Tampa to win their division, let alone go any farther, what on earth made you think Barry Melrose was going to win the Adams, John? That he had better hair (or at least more of it), than Bruce Boudreau?

We're going to have our own awards prognostos later in the week (hopefully before they're actually handed out). In the meantime, a word to the ESPN'ers...

Leave prognosticating to the prognostifessionals.