Teams around the NHL have started hitting the 20-game mark, with most of the league reaching that milestone over the next few days.
That means that this is the week when we’re officially a quarter of the way into the season.
And that means three things.
First, we can stop prefacing every observation with “It’s still early, but…”
Second, it will be fun to spend the next few days making repeated references to this being the “quarter pole” just to annoy the sort of pedants who get worked up over that that kind of thing.
And third, sports writing bylaws dictate that we have to hand out some awards.
Let’s take care of that last one today. We’ll do the standard NHL awards, plus a few more to keep it interesting.
And we’ll start with the big one.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
MVP awards are always fun because we get to argue over what “value” actually means.
Is it just the best player? The guy who’s most important to his team? The player with the biggest impact on the standings? Luckily, through the first quarter this year, we can go with all of the above.
But the winner is… Carey Price.
The Montreal Canadiens seem like two different teams these days. There’s the non-Price version, which is fine – they’re 3-3-1 in games that Al Montoya starts, and other than that one disaster in Columbus, they’ve been competitive in all of them. The Montoya version of the Habs is OK.
But the Carey Price version is darn near unbeatable, picking up 23 of a possible 24 points in his dozen starts.
His numbers are ridiculous – his .950 save percentage is the best among full-time starters – and he hasn’t shown any signs of lingering problems from last year’s injury.
Mix in his dominant performance at the World Cup of Hockey, and he’s entering that Dominik Hasek zone where teams feel like they’ll need a shutout from their own goalie just to have a chance.
Hart voters tend to like to cast their ballots for players who put up big scoring numbers. But anyone who can single-handedly transform a team from merely mediocre to Cup favorite is an easy MVP call, so Price gets the nod here.
It goes without saying that if Price wins MVP, he’ll almost certainly also take home the Vezina, too.
But for sake of argument — and to avoid just writing the same thing two sections in a row — let’s pretend that he has to make room for somebody else to take the goaltending honours.
But the winner is… Tuukka Rask.
This one’s a much closer call, and you could make a case for any of the guys listed above and probably a few more.
But Rask is putting up some of the best numbers of his career, and he’s doing it on a team that most of us didn’t view as anything more than an also-ran. Maybe that’s all the Boston Bruins are, and Rask is just papering over a flawed lineup. But that’s what you want your star goalie to do, and Rask has been up to the task so far this year.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
So far, 2016-17 look like the Year of the Rookie.
We haven’t had this many freshmen looking this impressive since the double cohort of 2005-06. And yet as crowded as the field has been, if we had to vote right now, this wouldn’t be all that tough a choice.
But the winner is… Patrik Laine.
Yeah, we’re not really going out on a limb on this one.
Laine’s been incredible over the season’s first quarter, scoring at a 50-goal pace and leading the league in goals for long stretches. He’s been exactly what Winnipeg Jets fans hoped they were getting when the team took him second overall, and even if he’s cooled off a bit lately (he’s only scored once in his last six), he’s still been the biggest standout in a year full of dominant rookie performances.
But the winner is… Shea Weber.
If Norris voting were held today, Weber would win by a landslide for two reasons.
One, he’s been excellent all year, scoring seven goals, playing big minutes, and basically being everything the Habs were hoping he’d be.
And two, voters can’t resist a good “the analytics guys were wrong” narrative.
We all remember the jaw-dropping P.K. Subban trade that brought Weber to Montreal, and we all remember the near-unanimous reaction on both sides of the aisle. Old school types loved the deal, statheads hated it.
He’s overpaid and in decline, they said. Maybe the Canadiens’ worst deal ever, they said. He’s “average”, they said.
(And that last “they” actually worked for the team.)
But a quarter of a season later, we… well, we have a quarter of a season to look at. That’s not much in the grand scheme of things, and it’s hardly enough to declare the trade a win for Montreal, given that Weber still has nearly a decade to go on his contract.
The Weber vs. Subban debate is going to rage on for years, and we’re not even a full round in. But so far, the fight has been an easy one to score.
BEST OFF-SEASON ACQUISITION
Like we did with Price, we’ll disqualify Weber from consideration here because it’s all a vast anti-Canadiens conspiracy and he already won an award. We also won’t count draft picks as acquisitions – we’re looking for trades and free agent signings here.
But the winner is… Michael Grabner.
The New York Rangers’ winger has already surpassed his goal totals from each of the last two years.
And he’s doing it on the kind of super-cheap, two-year deal that makes sense in today’s cap world.
That said, I’m sure all those big-money UFA deals worked out well too. *Wanders towards next section while whistling innocently.*
WORST OFF-SEASON ACQUISITION
Enough with all the positivity. Twenty games is enough to start calling out busts, right?
Names worth considering: Almost every long-term UFA signing. Really, look at this list.
It basically ranges from “not terrible” (Kyle Okposo, Milan Lucic) to “not all that great so far” (David Backes, Loui Eriksson) to an “I’ve made a huge mistake” GIF playing on a constant loop (Mikkel Boedker, Dale Weise).
But the winner is… Andrew Ladd.
You have to be off to a pretty bad start to stand out as the worst signing of that bunch, but Ladd manages it.
He’s put up just three points on the season, which is not great for a power forward on the wrong side of 30 who still has seven years left on his deal. With the Islanders standing out as one of the season’s biggest disappointments, the Ladd signing is already starting to look downright ugly.
In theory, the Coach of the Year award goes to the coach who does the best job. In reality, it goes to the guy behind the bench of the team that overachieves the most, which is not the same thing at all.
Names worth considering: Based on the typical criteria, we’d be looking at John Hynes, Guy Boucher, Michel Therrien or even John Tortorella.
But the winner is… Joel Quenneville.
Luckily for us, we don’t need to use the usual criteria, because this is a made-up award that recognizes a quarter of a season’s worth of work.
So instead of using it as some sort of mea culpa for a team we were wrong about, let’s give it to a guy who’s been one of the league’s best for a long time.
Quenneville has only won the real Jack Adams once, and that came sixteen years ago, but he should probably have a few more. And in this season of parity, he’s got his Blackhawks five points clear of the next best team in the Western Conference.
That’s worth recognizing, even if it’s not exactly anyone’s idea of a surprise.
BEST GENERAL MANAGER
For the record, the GM of the Year award is a dumb idea, and giving it out based on one year’s work is completely ridiculous.
The only thing worse? Giving it out after twenty games. So here we go.
Names worth considering: Marc Bergevin. Geez, this whole column is turning into one big Habs lovefest isn’t it? Trust me, I’m not any happier about it than you are, but Bergevin has a strong case.
He pulled off the Weber deal, signed Radulov, and didn’t fire Therrien. I’m talking myself into this. Let’s skip ahead before I lose my nerve.
But the winner is… Jeff Gorton.
Gorton walked into a tough spot when he took over from Glen Sather during the 2015 off-season. He wasn’t exactly a rookie GM – Maple Leafs fans may vaguely remember his interim stint with the Bruins a decade ago. But he’d never done the job full-time, and he inherited a Rangers team that was aging, expensive, and seemed like its Cup window was rapidly closing, if not already shut.
In the months since, he’s avoided the Sather playbook of spending top dollar on big-name acquisitions. Instead, he’s gone after bargains, adding pieces like Grabner, Vesey, Zibanejad and Brandon Pirri.
Granted, he didn’t have much choice given his cap situation, but he’s maneuvered the Rangers into decent financial shape. And for a change, a big chunk of the team’s success is being driven by younger players.
There’s still work to do. The blue line isn’t good enough, which probably means a trade involving one of the forwards will have to come at some point.
And if Henrik Lundqvist ever gets hurt or takes a step back, all bets are off. But for now, the Rangers are rolling, and their patient GM deserves a big chunk of the credit.
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR
The NHL doesn’t actually have this award, unlike MLB, the NFL or the NBA, although the Masterton can cover similar ground.
Still, it’s nice to recognize the guys who’ve rebounded from off-years, so we’ll do it here.
Names worth considering: Jeff Skinner, Jakub Voracek, Peter Budaj, and several guys mentioned in the off-season category, like Grabner, Radulov and Gagner. And numbers aside, the fact that Devin Setoguchi is back in the league makes for a great story.
But the winner is… Jimmy Howard.
Midway through last season, Howard looked like he was just about done as an NHL starter. He was coming off back-to-back seasons where he’d posted a below-average .910 save percentage, and he was struggling to even reach that low bar (he’d finish the year with a .906).
He’d lost the starting job to Petr Mrazek, and the six-year contract he’d signed after his last decent season, way back in 2013, was looking like one of the league’s worst. He started two playoff games, lost both, and headed into the off-season with everyone wondering if there was any way the Detroit Red Wings could unload him.
They couldn’t, and they’re pretty happy about that right now.
Howard’s been fantastic so far, posting a .940 save percentage. That hasn’t translated to many wins (he’s 4-5-0) and he’s still splitting time with Mrazek, but he looks like a bona fide NHL starter again, if not something more.
If he can keep it up, the outlook for a Red Wings team that can’t seem to score suddenly starts seeming a lot less hopeless.
Finally, let’s close with a category that has plenty of competition.
I’m not sure how the NHL wound up with two-thirds of the league underachieving, but here we are.
But the winner is… The Nashville Predators.
There really isn’t much left to be said about the Predators.
Every now and then they look like they’ve turned it around, only to stumble again. They won three straight earlier in the month, only to alternate wins and losses in the four games since. And nobody can figure out what the problem is.
And yes, maybe it all comes back to the Subban-for-Weber blockbuster that looked so good on paper but may have done more to transform the Predators more than they bargained for.
Man, even in the section that’s supposed to be about bad teams, the Canadiens still show up to hog the spotlight.