Down Goes Brown: Handing out NHL mid-season awards

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We’ve hit the halfway mark in the NHL season, which means it’s time for another round of NHL awards. These aren’t necessarily predictions of who’s going to win what at the end of the year. Rather, we’re looking at who’d be taking home the honors if the season ended right now.

Back in November, we did a first pass at these awards as teams were hitting the quarter-mark. But it’s fair to say that a lot has changed since then. We’ll include those awards here, if only as a reminder of how much things can shift in 20 games, and how much they’re likely to change again over the last half of the season.

We’ll start things off the same way most successful GMs do: With star players in the crease.

BEST GOALTENDER

Hey, remember at the beginning of the season when scoring was way up and everyone got really excited and forgot that we’re all supposed to pretend to like 3-1 games? That was a fun week or so. But ever since, the goalies are dominating again, just like they always do.

It won’t last—the NHL’s slightly smaller equipment should be arriving any year now, you guys—but in the meantime, it makes picking the best of the bunch a challenge.

At the quarter mark: We gave the nod to Tuukka Rask. That came with a bit of an asterisk, though—Carey Price was ruled ineligible since he’d already taken home MVP honors.

Names worth considering now: Price. Rask. Sergei Bobrovsky. Corey Crawford.

But the winner right now is…: Devan Dubnyk.

The Wild goalie leads the league in save percentage and goals against average, and he’s the main reason that the Wild have transformed from also-ran to somewhat surprising playoff lock. That might even earn him a Hart vote or two, but for now he’ll be content with taking home our Halfway Vezina.

BEST ROOKIE

The NHL’s youth movement has been one of the dominant stories of the year, and it’s not slowing down. This has a chance to be one of the best rookie classes in a generation. And that means there are fan bases out there that are going to lose their minds when their kid doesn’t even get a Calder finalist spot.

At the quarter mark: Patrik Laine took this one with relative ease; he was pushing for the league lead in goals and scoring at a 50-goal pace.

Names worth considering now: Laine, although his recent concussion could obviously have an impact on the rest of his season. Zach Werenski. Mitch Marner. Brandon Carlo. Matthew Tkachuk. Ivan Provorov. And let’s not forget Matt Murray, who many fans (and maybe a few voters) don’t seem to realize is still Calder-eligible.

But the winner right now is…: Auston Matthews.

After enduring a 13-game goal-scoring slump earlier in the year, Matthews has caught fire, making up almost all of Laine’s lead in the scoring race while holding down a more important position and playing almost entirely with other rookies.

If Laine is healthy, it’s still largely a tossup between the two top picks in the last year’s draft. Unfortunately some Maple Leafs and Jets fans have decided to turn Matthews vs. Laine into a there-can-only-be-one showdown where trashing the other guy is more important than just appreciating the chance to see two elite rookies come into the league at once. We’ve got a decade or two of this to look forward to. Pace yourself, everyone.

But yeah, for right now, the edge goes to Matthews.

BEST DEFENCEMAN

The Norris has been the most contentious end-of-season award over the last few years. Here’s hoping a big lovable goofball can emerge as the favourite and bring us all together.

At the quarter mark: Montreal’s Shea Weber was running away with the honors, racking up big numbers while helping his new team surge to the top of the overall standings.

Names worth considering now: Weber, although his production has slowed. Victor Hedman. Erik Karlsson. Ryan Suter. And even though he’s a rookie, you have to give some consideration to Weresnki.

But the winner right now is…: Brent Burns.

He’s running away with the goal-scoring lead among blueliners, and while there’s far more to the position than offence, Burns is doing just about everything well. His defensive numbers are good but not great, which means we could be headed for another Karlsson-style debate over whether the Norris is supposed to be meant for players that dominate in their own end. But Burns should end up with the numbers to at least put him in the conversation, and when you mix in the fun factor, he moves to the front of the list.

BEST OFF-SEASON ACQUISITION

Sure, this isn’t a real award. But it should be.

At the quarter mark: We didn’t count Weber since he’d already won something, and Taylor Hall‘s injury had taken him out of contention. In a thin field, Michael Grabner took home the (admittedly non-existent) trophy.

Names worth considering now: Weber. Hall. Alexander Radulov. Kyle Okposo, after a slow start. Thomas Vanek. Eric Staal. And I’m also going to mention Kris Russell, just because I want this post to get 700 furious comments from people who think he’s terrible and/or Bobby Orr.

But the winner right now is…: Sam Gagner.

Given his numbers, and his key contribution to the Blue Jackets’ power play transforming into an unstoppable force, you could make a good case for Gagner without even considering how cheaply Columbus got him. But factor in his bargain-basement $650,000 cap hit, and it’s an easy call.

WORST OFF-SEASON ACQUISITION

This is always a more crowded field than the “best” category, and this year’s lackluster UFA class ensures it stays that way.

At the quarter mark: Islanders UFA signing Andrew Ladd was struggling badly on a surprisingly terrible team.

Names worth considering now: Ladd has been better lately, but he’s still in the running. Loui Eriksson. Dmitry Kulikov. Mikkel Boedker.

But the winner right now is…: Brian Elliott.

Goalies are funny, and you don’t want to overreact to a rough start (even though it can torpedo a team’s playoff hopes). But we’re now halfway through the season, and Elliott is still well south of a .900 save percentage. He looked like he may have turned a corner recently, running together a personal five-game win streak, but then got shelled in Vancouver on Friday.

The emergence of Chad Johnson has bailed the Flames out so far, but he seems like he may be coming back to Earth lately. With the Flames teetering on the edge of the playoff race, now would be a good time for Elliott to reestablish himself as a legitimate NHL starter—and take himself out of consideration for year-end honours in this category.

BEST COACH

This award should go to the league’s best coach. In reality, it tends to go to the league’s most surprising new coach—the guy who’s only been on the job a year or two, and is leading a team that’s overachieving based on what we all expected.

At the quarter mark: I picked Chicago’s Joel Quenneville, because there weren’t any obvious candidates and I figured it was time to take a stand for the old guard instead of just handing the award to whoever was excelling in a new job somewhere.

Names worth considering now: Quenneville. Bruce Boudreau. Guy Boucher. Michel Therrien. Mike Babcock.

But the winner right now is…: John Tortorella.

I mean, it wouldn’t even be close, would it? Tortorella checks all the boxes for a typical Jack Adams pick—it’s his first full season in Columbus, and the team is miles ahead of where anyone imagined they’d be. But he works as an old-school pick, too; he’s been around for a while, but he’s showing this year that he’s not afraid to adapt and evolve.

The Blue Jackets remain one of the league’s most confusing teams, and their 16-game win streak still doesn’t make any sense. But they’ve banked so many points that they’re playoff bound even if they cool off a bit, and there’s little doubt that Tortorella deserves a big chunk of the credit.

BEST GENERAL MANAGER

Much like the real GM of the Year Award (which is dumb), this one is tough to call without seeing how the full season turns out. And even then, rewarding a GM for a year’s worth of work when the job calls for a long-term approach just seems silly. But if the NHL insists on handing this one out, we’ll follow suit.

At the quarter mark: We went with Jeff Gorton, who’d rebuilt the Rangers into a younger, faster team while targeting cheap UFA bargains and getting the salary cap under control.

Names worth considering now: Gorton. Michel Bergevin. Stan Bowman. Jarmo Kekalainen, I guess, since not doing much at all when everyone is screaming that you need to blow it all up should count for something.

But the winner right now is…: Gorton again.

Hey, somebody had to manage a repeat from the first quarter. Gorton has as good a case as anyone, and the Rangers are still rolling, leading the league in offence and hanging in the mix to win the league’s best division. The blueline is still an issue, and Gorton probably doesn’t win the real award unless he finds a way to address that, but there’s still time. For now, he keeps his temporary title.

COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR

This award doesn’t actually exist, at least not in the NHL. But we’ll pretend it does, because everyone loves a good comeback story.

At the quarter mark: Jimmy Howard took the honors, based on a strong start that’s since been interrupted by injuries.

Names worth considering now: Marian Hossa. Mike Smith. Bobrovsky. And we’ll invoke the “no repeat winners” rule here to keep Gagner from claiming it.

But the winner right now is…: Eric Staal.

Staal looked like he’d hit a wall in his final season in Carolina, and a trade deadline move to the Rangers didn’t help much. He finished the year with just 39 points, the first time since his rookie season that he didn’t crack at least 50. He was only 31, but aging curves can be funny things, and it kind of looked like Staal might be done.

Halfway through the season, we can probably go ahead and say those fears were unfounded. Staal has almost hit last year’s point total already, and he’s doing it on a very good Minnesota team where he’s earning top-line minutes. He’s one of the few big-name UFA signings that’s actually been a success, and he’s a big part of the Wild’s run towards the top of the Central.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

This is a team category, and it’s one where there’s no shortage of competition.

At the quarter mark: The award no team wants to win went to the Nashville Predators. They could make a strong claim at a repeat at the halfway mark.

Teams worth considering now: Predators. Lightning. Stars. Islanders. Avalanche. Sabres. Plus the Kings, although they get at least a bit of a pass due to the Jonathan Quick injury.

But the winner right now is…: The Florida Panthers.

Honestly, you could pick any of the teams above and you’d have a strong case. But while most of those teams have simply been disappointing on the ice, the Panthers have managed to transcend that and move all the way to full-on sideshow.

After seeming like a team on the rise after last year’s division title, they’ve fallen out of the playoff race and become the only team to make a coaching change so far this year. They’ve also become ground zero for the latest battle between the old school and the analytics movement. Reports of a change to Dale Tallon’s role in the front office ended up with denials and finger-pointing. Even something as simple as calling a cab turns into a controversy for these guys.

The good news is that they’re still only a few points out of a playoff spot, so there’s time to turn it around. But the clock is ticking. Except it’s not, because it’s probably one of those new-fangled digital clocks that the computer boys like so much. In my day we had old-fashioned grandfather clocks, and it was better because…. [drones on for an hour before falling asleep in rocking chair].

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

We’ll end with the biggest award of them all, which also doubles as the toughest call at the halfway mark.

At the quarter mark: This one went to Carey Price, whose dominance had pushed the Habs to the top of the league. They’re not there anymore, and other goalies have caught up to Price’s performance, so he’s out of the running now.

Names worth considering now: Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. Yes, I know, for every other award we did the whole “List a bunch of names and then pick somebody else” routine, but it doesn’t apply here. At the halfway mark, there only two real candidates for MVP honors. So who you got?

But the winner right now is…: McDavid. But just barely.

There’s not much to choose from between the two in terms of scoring. McDavid has the edge in points, whole Crosby leads the league in goals. They’re the two best players in the world right now.

So why does McDavid get the nod? At this point, mainly because Crosby has more help. The Penguins are the defending champs, and have two other players in the top 10 in scoring. McDavid has talent around him, but his supporting cast can’t match Crosby’s. And that makes his performance slightly more impressive… for now.

That “for now” is important. Crosby was hurt early on and missed a half dozen games, and if he can keep scoring at his current pace, he’ll pass McDavid as the year goes on and may end up taking the scoring race by a decent margin. If so, he probably wrestles the Hart away from him, too.

But we’re not trying to predict the future here. We’re recognizing the present. And right now, it’s McDavid by a hair.