Down Goes Brown: 2017–18 NHL quarter-season awards

Antti Raanta made 26 saves en route to a 4-1 win to help the Coyotes get their third-straight victory, ending the Maple Leafs’ streak at six games.

• Who wins quarter-season MVP: Kucherov or Stamkos?
• Karlsson has competition for best defenceman
• Also: best coach, GM, comeback and off-season move

We’re almost at the quarter-mark of the NHL schedule, which means it’s time to do a few things. First, and most importantly: Start wildly panicking if your team isn’t doing as well as they should be. You guys on that, Montreal and Edmonton? You are? Great, nice work as always.

For the rest of us, we may as well hand out some quarter-season awards. Sure, most of these will turn out to be regrettable in hindsight by the end of the year, and some of them will look bad within weeks. But that’s part of the fun.

So let’s do it. You can vote for your own picks right here with results revealed this week on Wednesday Night Hockey. In the meantime, here’s who we’d be handing out the tiny quarter-sized trophies to, based on the season’s first six weeks.

Most valuable player

Every sport that features an MVP award has the same debate over how exactly we should define “valuable.” Some see it as simply a fancy way of saying the best player, while others look for some deeper meaning related to a player’s relative importance to his teammates in terms of his team’s playoff chances.

Some years, one player emerges as the favourite under either definition and we can skip the semantic debate. This year, we may not be so lucky. Because based on the first quarter of the season, Hart Trophy voters could end up facing a dilemma: What do you do when the season’s two best performers are on the same team?

With Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos racking up big numbers while helping the Lightning to top spot in the standings, some will try to argue that they can’t be considered more valuable than someone like Connor McDavid or Johnny Gaudreau, who are the clear offensive leaders on their team. Others would point out that points aren’t everything, and that a two-way force like Anze Kopitar should get some consideration.

Of course, if we’re not going to just look at the top of the scoring race (like Hart voters usually do), we could make the case for a goalie or defenceman. That would bring guys like Sergei Bobrovsky, Alex Pietrangelo and Corey Crawford into the conversation. And then you’ve got guys who’ve missed time to injury, but are clearly their team’s most valuable players when healthy — that group would include Erik Karlsson and Auston Matthews.

Luckily, we fall into the category of voters who keep it simple. The league’s most valuable player is the one that’s having the best season, period. That means Kucherov gets the nod, edging out Stamkos. And we’ll toss Bobrovsky a third-place vote, if only because non-forwards rarely get enough Hart love.

Best goaltender

We already mentioned Crawford and Bobrovsky in the Hart section, so it’s no surprise that they’d be the leading candidates in a quarter-season Vezina race. They’ve put up similar numbers, with both heading into last night’s action with a .933 save percentage, good for the league lead among goalies with at least 10 starts. Bobrovsky has the better win-loss record and goals-against average, although those numbers are often as much a reflection of the team in front of him than the goalie himself.

Other contenders would include Connor Hellebuyck, who’s grabbed the Jets’ starting job and run with it. Jonathan Quick is putting up numbers that match his reputation, and Jimmy Howard has been a surprise in Detroit. And if you want to argue that the best measure of a goaltender is how often he wins games, you’d want to cast your vote for Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. (You’d also be wrong, but that’s an argument for another day.)

But we’ll go back to those two Hart candidates. We’ll go with Bobrovsky over Crawford, although it’s basically a coin flip at this point. Hellebuyck takes third spot on our ballot.

Best defenceman

Let’s be clear: Karlsson is the best defenceman in the NHL right now, and it’s not all that close. With two wins and two more runner-up finishes in the last six years, the Norris is Karlsson’s trophy to lose if he stays healthy over a full season.

But that’s the catch when it comes to the first quarter of the year — Karlsson missed the season’s first five games. That won’t seem like much by April, but in a 20-game sample it does open the door for some other names to take a run at Karlsson’s crown.

The top contender would be Pietrangelo, who leads all defencemen in scoring while playing 26 minutes a night. Washington’s John Carlson is right behind him while playing even more, and Mike Green‘s had a nice revival in Detroit. Then there’s the usual suspects who are having strong seasons, like Drew Doughty and Victor Hedman.

Or, you know, we could just go with Karlsson, who’s only two points back of Pietrangelo in the scoring race despite spotting him a big head start, and is also, again, the best defenceman in the league. But “best in the league” isn’t quite the same as “best in the league during the first quarter of this season,” so we’ll give the honours to Pietrangelo in a narrow decision with Karlsson second and Hedman a distant third. Hopefully winning the real thing at the end of the year will serve as some consolation for a no-doubt devastated Karlsson.

Live stream over 300 marquee regular season games, regional matchups for the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs, and the entire 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Best rookie

This one is a tougher call than it was a few weeks ago. But with a team-leading 11 goals and 18 points, Clayton Keller has been just about the only good news on the entire season in Arizona. The 19-year-old’s numbers would be impressive on any team, but to do it on a roster where everyone else is struggling has been especially impressive.

You could also make a good case for the Islanders’ Mathew Barzal, who’s been neck-and-neck with Keller at the top of the rookie points leaderboard. Vancouver’s Brock Boeser has been there, too, and first-overall pick Nico Hischier has had an impressive start.

Then there’s Hischier’s teammate, Will Butcher, who’s been racking up points from the blue line. He’s slowed down a bit after a historic start, but he’s fit in well in a league where young defencemen are often carved up. So has Tampa’s Mikhail Sergachev, while Charlie McAvoy has been playing 23 minutes a night in Boston. And while there hasn’t been much work available for rookie goalies outside of Las Vegas, Charlie Lindgren deserves some recognition for his fill-in work in Montreal.

For a final ballot, let’s go with Keller, followed by Barzal and Butcher. But there’s not much to pick from, and any of the other guys are one or two strong games away from stealing someone’s spot.

Best coach

As always, any award recognizing the league’s best coach isn’t really about who’s doing the best job. Rather, it’s about whose team has surpassed expectations the most. After all, if all the experts say a team will be bad and they turn out to be good, it has to be because the coach is working miracles. Otherwise, someone might get the crazy idea that the experts were wrong.

Luckily, that criteria leaves us with plenty of possibilities this year, since it seems like most of the teams we all wanted to write off are better than anyone thought they’d be. So we could go with John Hynes in New Jersey or Mike Yeo in St. Louis, or maybe even Paul Maurice in Winnipeg. The real Jack Adams voters tend to like guys in their first year on a job, so we could go with John Stevens in L.A. or Travis Green in Vancouver. Or we could get really crazy and just go with somebody doing a good job for a good team, like Jon Cooper or Mike Babcock.

But as it turns out, there’s a coach out there who checks just about all the boxes for a coaching award. He’s new on the job, he’s a former Jack Adams finalist, and he’s taken a team that was supposed to be terrible and turned them into a playoff contender. So congratulations, Gerard Gallant, you get the nod over Hynes and Cooper on our quarter-season ballot.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

Best general manager

This one really doesn’t work as a single-year award, so it definitely won’t work based on a quarter of the season. Will that stop us? No, it will not.

The real-world version of this award has never had a repeat winner, which would seem to rule out guys like Steve Yzerman, Doug Armstrong and David Poile. It’s also always felt like a bit of a lifetime-achievement award, which makes it weird that Stan Bowman and Ken Holland have never won, but with both of their teams ambling along around .500, this doesn’t seem like either’s year. You could make a solid case for Lou Lamoriello and Ray Shero, two guys who’ve executed quick turnarounds on rebuilding teams, but I’m not sure winning the draft lottery is really a GM skill.

It’s tempting to cast a vote for Kevin Cheveldayoff, partly because the Jets are good but mostly because giving best-GM honours to a GM who never makes trades would be just about the most NHL thing ever. And then there’s George McPhee, who’s surpassing all expectations in Las Vegas even though his whole “collect all the defenceman as trade bait” master plan doesn’t seem to have worked out at all. But we just gave the last award to the Knights, and those guys are already getting kind of cocky.

Instead, I’m going off the board a bit and awarding GM honours to Pierre Dorion. Sure, he may have mishandled the whole Marc Methot situation in the off-season, but he did pull off the biggest acquisition of the season so far. If we’re really basing this on the first 20 games or so, Dorion’s done more than just about anyone. And we like trades around these parts, so we have to show some love for a guy who got a blockbuster done. Dorion’s the pick, edging out McPhee and Shero.

Fantasy Hockey Pool
Play the Sportsnet Fantasy Hockey Pool for your chance to score big with over $22,000 worth of prizes to be awarded!

Comeback player of the year

This isn’t a real award, of course, but you’ll forgive us if we don’t really feel like giving out quarter-season versions of the Lady Byng or the Mark Messier Award For Outstanding Achievement In The Field of Being Like Mark Messier.

Instead, we’ll make up a trophy that would have plenty of candidates to sort through. Dustin Brown looks like a useful player again in L.A., and Quick has already matched last year’s games-played number. Cory Schneider has rebounded nicely in New Jersey after a tough season. Kris Letang has had a rough start, but it’s good to see him back in the lineup and healthy. Mike Green has been a nice story in Detroit. And of course, Brian Boyle will get the real-world Masterton after returning to the lineup while battle leukemia.

But we’ll give this one to Stamkos, who’s healthy again and dominating. Is that at least partially a consolation award for missing out on quarter-season MVP honours? Probably, yeah.

Best off-season move

We’ll close with another award that doesn’t exist, but should. Let’s use the powers of hindsight to retroactively decide who won the off-season.

When we do, we find that… well, there aren’t all that many moves that stand out as clear winners. We won’t count the Vegas expansion draft, since that seems like a different category. Patrick Marleau has worked out well in Toronto so far, although let’s check back in year three of that contract. Sergachev looks like a great acquisition for the Lightning, Thomas Vanek has been a cheap-but-useful addition in Vancouver, and Alex Radulov is producing in Dallas. And Mike Smith has looked good in Calgary.

But we’ll hand this made-up trophy to the Blues for the Brayden Schenn trade. He didn’t come cheap, but he’s been racking up points while forming one of the best lines in the league with Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz.

(And no, we won’t do an award for worst move, although it would be ridiculously fun if the NHL started doing that. But if we did, the Vadim Shipachyov signing edges out Strome-for-Eberle, the Coyotes’ shift into win-now mode, and “pretty much everything the Panthers did” in a close vote.)