By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Halfway through the 2011-12 NHL season, some things haven’t changed. A Sedin leads the league in scoring – Henrik with 49 points, his twin brother Daniel just two behind. Steven Stamkos leads the league in goals with 28, four more than anyone else. Nicklas Lidstrom shows no signs of malfunctioning, though his manufacturer's warranty must have expired long ago.
But this is an age of parity and fresh blood, and this is a time when Sidney Crosby is still out with concussion symptoms and Alex Ovechkin is still producing well below his old level. The competition is tight, the field wide open. My midpoint pick for each individual award happens to go to someone who has never won it before. Some have seized an opportunity, some have risen to a new level and others are overdue to be recognized.
After he traded centermen Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in June, Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren couldn't say his team was better. He could say only that it was different. The Flyers aren't better yet, but they haven't slipped – on pace for the same point total they had last season (106) – and are positioned well for the future.
Giroux is the biggest reason. Holmgren knew he had a rising star with a great makeup, and that allowed him to change the culture in the dressing room, clear salary-cap space to sign free-agent goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov and add pieces like Sean Couturier,Brayden Schenn,Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek.
Though he missed four games because of a concussion and has played seven fewer than Henrik Sedin, Giroux is only one point out of the scoring lead. And though he has clicked with Jaromir Jagr, not to mention Scott Hartnell, he doesn't have a linemate near him. The Sedins are together in the top five. So are Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. Hartnell is tied for 23rd in scoring with 37 points, 11 behind Giroux. Jagr is tied for 55th, 17 points behind Giroux. The next-best Flyer is Danny Briere, tied for 68th with 29 points.
Giroux plays in every situation, he’s eighth in average ice time among forwards (21:29), and he's fun to watch. The best part? When he celebrates his birthday Thursday, he will turn all of 24.
Just because the Boston Bruins are the best defensive team in the league doesn't necessarily mean they should sweep the individual defensive awards – Selke, Norris, Vezina. They are the best offensive team in the league, too, and they don't have an individual among the top 20 scorers. So it's a team effort, and that's why they dominate the plus-minus leaders.
But look at those plus-minus leaders: The top three forwards are all Bruins. They all play on the same line. The top two are second-year wingers: Tyler Seguin, plus-32, and Brad Marchand, plus-27. Their centerman is Patrice Bergeron, plus-26. Numbers like that cannot be ignored.
Offense is not supposed to enter into the equation, because the Selke is supposed to go to the "forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game." But let's face it, the Selke tilts toward two-way play. Bergeron centers the best two-way line statistically while killing more than two minutes' worth of penalties every game (2:12 on average) and winning the third-highest percentage of faceoffs (58.1) in the league.
Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews also has a strong case after finishing as the runner-up for the Selke last season. He leads in the league in faceoff winning percentage (61.3), even though he has taken the third-most faceoffs (845) – about 100 more than Bergeron has.
The top defenseman in plus-minus is a Bruin, too. He's Zdeno Chara, plus-27. Weber is well behind at plus-12, but he's on a middle-of-the-pack team both offensively (15th) and defensively (13th), not one that is the best in both categories. And in about the same number of games – Weber has played 37, Chara 36 – Weber has better totals in goals (9-7), assists (21-18) and points (30-25).
Yes, Weber and partner Ryan Suter weren't as good in the second quarter as they were in the first, with Weber missing four games because of a concussion. But Chara has missed a couple of games because of injury this season, too, and remember that he and the Bruins struggled badly in the first month. Both play against their opponents' top players and in all situations. But Weber has done a little more and done it with less, and he gets the slight edge.
Weber finished second for the Norris last season behind Lidstrom, who remains a contender for another Norris. If he wins it, he will tie Bobby Orr's record of eight. The best argument for him might come not from his numbers, but his partner's. Ian White was minus-10 in 16 games for the Calgary Flames last season, then hopped to Carolina to San Jose to Detroit. Now paired with Lidstrom on a skilled team, he is plus-24.
This is taking nothing away from Tim Thomas,who is one of the best stories in the NHL and could win his third Vezina in four years. But note that Thomas and Tuukka Rask are putting up similarly gaudy numbers playing on the same team with Bergeron and Chara and company. Also note that the Vezina race might be the most competitive of them all.
Six goaltenders have played at least 20 games and have a goals-against average no worse than 2.05 and a save percentage of at least .924: Thomas, Rask, Quick, St. Louis’ Brian Elliott, Detroit’s Jimmy Howard and the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist. Of those six, Quick has seen by far the most rubber – 1,009 shots. That's 76 more than Howard, 112 more than Lundqvist, 217 more than Thomas, 461 more than Elliott and 620 more than Rask.
Still, Quick has a sparkling 1.93 goals-against average, fourth-best in the league, and a .934 save percentage, which is sixth-best. He leads the NHL with six shutouts. Quick is the biggest reason why the Kings are sixth in the Western Conference even though they are last in the league in goals per game (2.09).
LADY BYNG TROPHY (most gentlemanly player): Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings
I've written it before, and I'll write it again: The Lady Byng should not only go to Lidstrom, it should be renamed for him. The trophy is supposed to go to the player who exhibits "the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability." No one personifies that more than Lidstrom. He has been the runner-up for the Lady Byng five times, including last season, yet has never won it.
Voters often look for the best combination of high points and low penalty minutes. But Lidstrom is a defenseman. He plays a position that lends itself to lower points and higher penalty minutes, which maybe makes him harder to identify but should make him easier to appreciate.
Lidstrom has played at such a high level that he has won the Norris seven times, tied for second-most in history, and he was the runner-up for it three times before that. He has done it without fighting or throwing dirty hits. He has done it while taking few penalties, virtually all of them strictly related to the play. He has taken only nine minors this season – five for hooking, two for tripping, one for holding, one for interference. None for roughing or boarding or slashing. Certainly none for unsportsmanlike conduct. He never seems out of position or out of sorts emotionally. He is graceful on the ice and gracious off it, the Perfect Human, if he is human at all.
The NHL might as well dump Lady Byng if Lidstrom doesn't win it before he retires, whenever his batteries run out, in 2025 or something.
Remember when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was maybe too small for the NHL and might need to go back to junior to mature physically? Me, either.
The Nuge has been huge. Though his frame is slight at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds – and now he's dealing with a shoulder injury – his hockey sense is so outsized that he has thrived, not just survived. Nugent-Hopkins, still only 18, has lived up to being the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NHL entry draft. He is tied for the rookie lead in goals (13) and leads in points (35).
The big question now is whether that shoulder injury will cost RNH the Calder, the way a shoulder injury hurt the chances of teammate Taylor Hall, the No. 1 pick in 2010, in last season's race. Nugent-Hopkins is supposed to be out until early February.
New Jersey’s Adam Henrique, 21, a third-round pick in 2008, is right behind with 12 goals and 32 points. Philadelphia’s Matt Read, a 25-year-old who was never drafted, might be the biggest surprise with 13 goals and 25 points, earning a role on a deep Philly team that has two prized rookies – Couturier, the eighth overall pick in 2011, and Schenn, the fifth overall pick in 2009.
JACK ADAMS AWARD (coach of the year): Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis Blues
Hitchcock has won a Stanley Cup and advanced to another final. He has won more than 550 regular-season games in the NHL. But he has never won the Jack Adams, never been runner-up, and that should change if the Blues keep winning like this.
The Blues were 6-7-0 when they fired Davis Payne. They have gone 18-5-5 under Hitchcock and are fighting the Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks for first place in the Central Division. All three teams have 53 points.
This is a team that was primed for a turnaround, and Hitchcock has always been regarded as one of the best tacticians in hockey. He needed to use more tact with the players after flaming out with the Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets, but he has done just that. He has turned down the volume. The Blues have picked up the pace. They play quicker than they did before – smarter and with more structure, too.
Others deserving consideration: John Tortorella, who has given his New York Rangers a blue-collar, shot-blocking identity and taken them to the top of the league quicker than expected, and Kevin Dineen, who arrived in Florida with a number of disparate parts and has the Panthers in first place.
BEST GENERAL MANAGER: Dale Tallon, Florida Panthers
No way this should have worked. Not this quickly, at least.
Tallon tore down the team so he could build it back up again, as he had once before with the Blackhawks. But he got rid of so many players and cleared so much salary-cap space, the question wasn't whether he could build a winner this season. It was whether he could get to the salary floor while avoiding the standings' floor.
Tallon spent big money via trades and a free-agent shopping spree. The Panthers introduced nine new players at an unusual press conference July 8 – nine. Oh, and they hired a new coach, too. Only six players who dressed for last season's opener dressed for this season's opener. As if that weren't enough, Tallon kept tinkering, trading David Booth,Steven Reinprecht and a 2013 third-round pick to the Vancouver Canucks for Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm.
Somehow this collection of overpriced misfits fit together with the few holdovers and became a team. The Panthers began winning and continued to win despite a rash of injuries. Tomas Fleischmann,Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg were the best line in the league when they were healthy and humming. Brian Campbell and Jason Garrison have provided offensive punch from the blue line.
While the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes struggle, the Panthers are atop the Southeast Division. As well as Holmgren's moves have turned out in Philly, Tallon has the Panthers in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000. That's worth an award.