Hockey Headlines

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Unheralded Mid-Season Awards

Everyone likes to have a little fun on new year's Day with the Winter Classic. Today was no exception as the Washington Capitals used a rather questionable call - yes, it's hooking if one follows the rulebook by the letter - to help them beat the Chicago Blackhawks by a 3-2 score. The players looked like they were enjoying the weather and the game as they skated outdoors, and the fans at Nationals Park seemed to enjoy the hockey game played on their baseball diamond. However, we'll look ahead into 2015 with guys who will fly under the radar as award choices for the end-of-season awards, but definitely deserve a lot more praise than what they've received thus far. Some may surprise you while others may be no-brainers. All should generate some discussion.

HEART TROPHY

Generally, the Hart trophy goes to the guy whose team wouldn't have finished where it has without his contributions. For the Unheralded Awards, they go to the guy whose heart has propelled his team to new heights without getting a lot of attention. A lot of people had Mark Giordano as their run-away favorite for the Hart trophy a quarter of the way through the season, but Calgary has fallen back to earth as they sit in fifth-place in the Pacific Division. As a general rule, you're not the league's MVP if your team doesn't make the playoffs. This isn't baseball.

It might be nice to pick a Giroux, Getzlaf, Kane, or Malkin for this award, but the guy who has really made a difference for his team without the fanfare is Tampa Bay's Tyler Johnson. He leads the Lightning in scoring over heavyweights Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan. He's the NHL leader in plus-minus. He's eighth in NHL scoring and he's fourth in the NHL in assists, and he doesn't play on Tampa Bay's top line. Johnson averages a minute less of ice-time per game than any other player in the top-ten in scoring, and he only has six powerplay points. In short, Johnson is one of the best five-on-five players out there, and that makes him more valuable than anyone else in my books. After all, you spend most of your time on the ice playing five-on-five.

NO-RISK TROPHY

Defencemen who win the Norris Trophy are the guys who put up a pile of points in helping their teams to a high finish in the NHL. While offence is an important part of the game, defence also plays a factor if you're a rearguard, so the No-Risk Trophy factors the defensive side of the game as evenly or, in some cases, more importantly than the offensive side. After all, defence wins championships, right?

While Anton Stralman is the highest-rated defencemen when it comes to plus-minus, his offensive production isn't as great as other defencemen. Again, there will be no award winners from fifth-place teams in divisions, so that eliminates TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano despite their excellent work on Calgary's blue line. Both of them should be Norris-worthy candidates, but there is one player who is more deserving of the No-Risk Trophy. Kevin Shattenkirk of the St. Louis Blues is second in scoring by defencemen with five goals and 24 assists, but he's also a healthy +15 on the season for St. Louis. Shattenkirk's 19 power-play points leads all NHL defenceman while playing a respectable 23:04 per game. Did I mention he's on the second defensive unit with a guy by the name of Chris Butler? Yeah, he's the number-three guy in St. Louis behind Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester, and he's lighting it up from the blue line. There's no risk in throwing him out when you need to score or a stop.

AL ARBOUR TROPHY

The Jack Adams Award usually is given to the coach who has led his team to a vast improvement in points only. Generally, there's a regression seen in the following year as players begin to fall back into bad habits and the novelty of the "new sheriff in town" has worn off. The Al Arbour Award goes to the coach who has not only take over a team a year earlier, but actually seen them continue their strong play since his arrival in town. There's on one-season wonders here. This is an award that is handed out to a coach who has implemented systems and gotten the most out of his players in more than a season since his arrival.

Guy Boucher's departure in March of 2013 enabled the Lightning to move Jon Cooper up from the AHL, and the Lightning have never looked back. They have the fourth-best combined point total over the last two seasons with 153, bettered only by Anaheim, Pittsburgh, and Boston. Where the Lightning have excelled, though, is integrating their young players from, previously, Norfolk and, now, Syracuse into their system with ease, making them key contributors to the cause. They lost their heart-and-soul leader in Martin St. Louis after he demanded a trade out of town only to see several players step in and fill the void. Cooper's systems have the Lightning flying high since his takeover, and he should be recognized for the work he's done in making the Lightning and its affiliates a seamless organization. He won't lose my vote to a Paul MacLean or a Patrick Roy this season.

JACQUES PLANTE TROPHY

Since the Vezina Trophy is named after Georges Vezina, I thought it would only be appropriate to name my trophy after the guy who has won the most Vezina Trophies. After all, that should be the standard for this award where the best goaltender is picked, right? Coincidentally, this might be the only trophy that has the same winner for both the NHL voters and myself as one man has stood out on the blue paint where others have faltered.

There's no doubt that Pekka Rinne has played a large part in helping the unheralded Nashville Predators to their current standing of second-place in the Central Division, so I'll give the nod to him. Rinne is second in the NHL in both goals-against-average and save percentage behind the less-busy Michael Hutchinson. In 32 games this season, Rinne has only surrendered 61 goals, is 24-6-2 on the season, has three shutouts, and even has an assist on the season thus far.Is there anything that the Finnish netminding sensation can't do? Let's be honest when we look at Nashville's 51 points and realize that 50 of those points came on the back of Nashville's workhorse goaltender. Carter Hutton, who is 0-3-1 this season, hasn't even played enough games for NHL.com to recognize him as the second goalie in Nashville.

SERGEI MAKAROV TROPHY

The Calder Trophy usually goes to the highest-scoring rookie, but I want to give an award to the guy who has had to overcome the most hardship to make it to the NHL before lighting the place up. Sergei Makarov made the NHL change the rule in terms of age of eligibility after he jumped from the Soviet Union to the Calgary Flames and won the award, but I care not for a player's age. Sergei Makarov was an incredible hockey player, but it took quite a struggle for him to reach the NHL. It's that kind of struggle in becoming a top rookie that should be highlighted with this award, giving kids who may not be the next Sidney Crosby or Nathan MacKinnon a hero to look up to in their quest to reach the NHL.

Filip Forsberg and Johnny Gaudreau are making cases to the Calder Trophy winner, but I want to highlight a guy who has played 62 games as an NHL rookie already. Ottawa's Mike Hoffman has had quite the road to finding his NHL legs. He was cut from the OHL's Kitchener Rangers in 2007-08, picked up by the QMJHL's Gatineau Olympiques only to be cut again after 19 games, and then picked up by the last-place Drummondville Voltigeurs for the remainder of the season. He wasn't selected in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft - his first year of eligibility - but went to training camp with the Philadelphia Flyers who also cut him.

Hoffman returned to Drummondville where he went on a tear, scoring 52 goals and 42 assists in 62 games in 2008-09. He helped the Voltigeurs win the QMJHL Championship, losing in the 2009 Memorial Cup semi-final to the Windsor Spitfires in overtime. This prompted the Ottawa Senators to select him 130th-overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft at the age of 19. However, the Senators ended training camp by sending Hoffman back to QMJHL for one more season where his rights had been traded to the Saint John Sea Dogs. He had a great season with the Ice Dogs, and started the 2010-11 season with the Binghamton Senators where he helped the baby Senators win the Calder Cup! He spent the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons with Binghamton, occasionally being recalled by Ottawa for his scoring ability. He spent 25 games with Ottawa in 2013-14 before finding a roster spot with the Senators this season.

So why is he the Makarov Trophy winner? The 25 year-old is fourth in rookie scoring with 18 points, but is a +15 for a Senators team that is 15-14-7 and has a goal differential of -2. He was cut by two CHL teams in the same season, and an NHL team one season later. He was drafted at 19, and was sent back to his junior team by the team that drafted him after their training camp. Needless to say, Mike Hoffman has battled hard to get to where he is today, and he never let any of those cuts slow him down. His persistence in becoming a solid NHL player is the reason I'm tabbing Mike Hoffman as my unheralded rookie of the year.

So what say you, folks? Am I way off-base here? Remember, these are the UNHERALDED Mid-Season Awards - the guys who might get a vote or two in the final tally for the NHL's awards at the season's end, but they won't be a front-runner outside of Rinne. Thoughts? Likes? Dislikes? Do I need to be locked up in some asylum? Have your say below!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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