To borrow from one of the National Hockey League’s better marketing campaigns: We have a question or two for you.
Is this the year the NHL returns a goaltender to the ranks of best player in the NHL in a given season? It hasn’t happened since Jose Theodore did it for the Montreal Canadiens back in 2001-02 and he was the only netminder to win one since Dominik Hasek won a pair with the Buffalo Sabres (still the only goalie ever so honoured) way back in 1996-97 and 197-88.
Is this the year a defenceman might be so honoured?
That hasn’t happened since Chris Pronger’s breakthrough year with the St. Louis Blues in 1999-2000, a breakthrough that, before that season, hadn’t been done since the legendary Bobby Orr won his equally legendary Hart hat-trick of 1969-70, 1970-71 and 1971-72.
It used to be understandable to a degree, especially when center Wayne Gretzky won nine in a span of 10 years and ushered in the age of Mario Lemieux (three) and Mark Messier (two) as centers of greatness.
But that was then and this is now and the old argument that goalies and defencemen had their own awards (the Vezina and the Norris respectively) doesn’t wash anymore, not with a points award that is dominated by forwards (the Art Ross Trophy) and a goal-scoring award (the Maurice “Rocket Richard Trophy) that, since its introduction at the conclusion of the 1998-99 season, has never been one by anyone other than an elite forward, a situation that will likely never change.
So is this the year for a goalie or a defenceman to get back into the consideration mix?
Not likely; not with the likes of forwards Alex Ovechkin Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk, Nik Backstrom, Alexander Semin and the Sedin twins (Henrik and Daniel) still in their prime years and youngsters like Steve Stamkos (already a co-winner last season with Crosby), John Tavares, Zack Parise, Rick Nash, Bobby Ryan, Anze Kopitar and Patrick Kane making their way up the goal-scoring ladder. It’s even tougher for defencemen like Mike Green, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, Dan Boyle, Pronger and power-play standouts like Sergei Gonchar, Weber and others. Offensive-minded defencemen are re-emerging as dominant players in the game, but one could reasonably argue that voters haven’t given sufficient notice.
With that in mind here’s a list of five players who have a shot at the 2010-11 award and, not surprisingly, not all of them are forwards.
1: Alex Ovechkin, Washington
Hey, he already has two awards, is still in his mid-20s, plays on a powerhouse team and is fed by one of more gifted playmakers, Backstrom, in the game today. There’s a chance Ovechkin’s offensive numbers drop a bit this season as the Caps try and play more of a team game and run a two-way system where defence actually might matter at times (at least in preparation for the postseason), but that won’t truly hurt Ovechkin. He’s still regarded as the most complete offensive force in the game today and could easily win another Hart just by staying near status quo and adding a bit more of a defensive bent to complete the picture of a near perfect player.
2: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh
Sid the Kid isn’t a kid anymore. He’s moving out of Mario Lemieux’s house and into the one you might argue he (with a little help from) Lemieux built (the long awaited new arena in Pittsburgh) and he’s bringing one Hart Trophy, one Rocket Richard Trophy, a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal (scoring the medal-clinching goal in the process). Not bad for a player not yet 25. Crosby might suffer a bit from not having Sergei Gonchar (now with Ottawa) feeding the puck to one of the league’s best power-plays, but the Penguins beefed up their overall balance on the blue line for this coming season and that will allow Crosby to take more chances in the offensive zone with less of a concern regarding getting back. Both Crosby and Ovechkin scored 109 points last season and Crosby had 51 goals to Ovechkin’s 50. Neither won the Hart last season as they were outpointed by Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin and his 112 points. Hard to believe that that will happen again.
3: Henrik and/or Daniel Sedin, Vancouver
Henrik had 112 points a massive 83 of them coming off assists, you can’t just throw this guy under the bus, but it will be tougher for Henrik to do that again should his brother Daniel stay healthy all season. Daniel had 85 points in just 63 games last season (injuries slowed him) and if he’s healthy for the full season it could well be his year in Vancouver, not Henrik’s. It’s also possible they might cancel each other out.
4: Joe Thornton, San Jose
He’s got one Hart on his resume and though you can make the start of a strong argument that his best scoring days are behind him, he’s still a stunningly good playmaker, one who could well play the season with a pair of scoring aces on either side in Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley. The most important consideration, however, is that Big Joe is playing for a new contract and that’s no small consideration in that he needs the best scoring performance of his career if he wants the next contract to be the best paying contract of his career.
5: Ryan Miller, Buffalo
We’ll concede that Miller had the best season of his career last season (Vezina Trophy, Olympic silver medal and the best player in the Olympic tournament) and he didn’t get a whiff of the Hart last season, but sometimes you have to lay a little groundwork for the voters. Back when Hasek was entering his prime years he didn’t win the Hart despite being the first goaltender in two decades to post a goals-against average under 2.00. Eric Lindros won it in that strike-shortened 1994-95 season, with a mere 70 points, but Hasek served notice that he had arrived and after surrendering a season to Mario Lemieux, broke through with the first of his two Hart awards. Miller played 69 games last season and posted a .929 save percentage and a 2.22 goals against average. If he can equal or better those numbers in 2010-11 he’s likely to gather real voter recognition.
Also worthy of consideration:
Washington defenceman Mike Green; who is already great and poised for perhaps his best season ever. Teammate Backstrom had a 101 point campaign and is capable of playing better. Steven Stamkos has already arrived as a goal scorer (51 last season) and could do even better if he becomes the beneficiary of a return to form from Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier. Kane has room to grow in Chicago and Martin St. Louis should have at least one more good push year in his system and could benefit most from the innovations expected from new coach Guy Boucher. The talented Ilya Kovalchuk might also have a shot if new coach John MacLean, an offensive-minded player during his years in the league, can scrape off a few of the defence-first shackles that appear to be holding the New Jersey Devils in check.