It’s voting time!
Thanks again to the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, which devalued itself several years ago by inviting me to be part of the process. (In all seriousness, I am honoured to be included. Whether or not you agree with my selections, understand that this is a responsibility I do not take lightly.)
The NHL requests some of us keep our ballots private until after each award is presented. That way, the winners aren’t so obvious. I respect that position, so I’ll only reveal one now (the Hart) and the rest later. But there’s nothing wrong with providing an indication.
So, here we go. And remember: If I do not pick your favourite player, it’s because I hate him, your team, your city and, and most importantly, you.
The Serious Contenders: Sergei Bobrovsky, Brent Burns, Sidney Crosby, Erik Karlsson.
Also Considered: Victor Hedman, Patrick Kane, Nikita Kucherov, Brad Marchand, Auston Matthews. Marchand is a great player. But can he be a legit Hart Trophy candidate when constantly getting suspended? One day it’s going to scorch the Bruins.
It came down to: Connor McDavid. Sometimes I’m guilty of overthinking these things, but Edmonton scored 247 times and McDavid had 100 points. He participated in 40.5 per cent of their goals. That’s obscene.
McDavid had 71 even-strength points. The last players to beat that total were Evgeni Malkin (75) and Steven Stamkos (72) in 2011-12.
Until Milan Lucic started shaking the planet in the last little while, McDavid didn’t have the benefit of another line easing his responsibility. He didn’t let it affect him, simply bearing down and doing what he needed to do. Cam Talbot was exceptional and the defence is better, but you can’t win without scoring. McDavid drove that bus like Sandra Bullock in Speed, against the best opponents every night. He’s the guy.
The Serious Contenders: Mark Giordano and Victor Hedman. Hedman had an incredible year, but recent results indicate those who miss the playoffs don’t win (see Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson). I think you have to be consistent with that when there are other legit choices.
Also Considered: Drew Doughty, Cam Fowler, Dougie Hamilton, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Seth Jones, Roman Josi, Duncan Keith, Oscar Klefbom, Ryan Suter, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Shea Weber.
It came down to: Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson. Seriously, it’s like King Solomon threatening to split the baby. Both are deserving. Burns was shot out of a cannon at the start of the season, chasing the scoring leaders until he and his team slowed down. On a team with Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton, it’s amazing how many opponents see Burns as the guy who makes them go.
Meanwhile, Ottawa underwent an on-ice personality change, with the new coaching staff trying to convince its players to sacrifice offence for defence. Karlsson led the charge and bought in right away while seeing his offensive totals drop as Burns’ surged. But, the Senators wisely allowed Karlsson more freedom as the season progressed and his numbers shot up. But what really stood out was the last week of the sesason. With Cody Ceci and Marc Methot injured, Karlsson played two critical games even though he clearly wasn’t anywhere close to 100 per cent. The Senators picked up three of four points, saving their season.
I’m surprised they haven’t already built a statue of him on Parliament Hill, although, of course, the federal government would screw that up like it did the outdoor game. But, I digress.
Tough, tough call.
The Serious Contenders: Sebastian Aho, Mitch Marner, Matt Murray, William Nylander, Ivan Provorov, Matthew Tkachuk.
Also Considered: Connor Brown, Brandon Carlo, Brayden Point, Mikko Rantanen, Brady Skjei, Nikita Zaitsev.
It came down to: Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews and Zach Werenski. What a class. Some of these guys (Marner, Murray, Nylander, Provorov, Tkachuk, the other two of the top three I didn’t vote for) are really getting shafted. In many other years, they’d be runaway winners.
It was pretty funny. We had joked that Matthews won the Calder with four goals on the opening night of the season. Then we joked Laine had re-opened the race with a hat trick when they went head-to-head seven days later. Werenski joined the party by averaging 21 minutes a night and quarterbacking a lethal powerplay that quickly helped Columbus establish itself as one of the league’s elite teams.
The other remarkable thing about this class is that all of them stayed strong throughout the season. In past years some top contenders would miss 20 games or so. Games played has real value in this category because even though the NHL is nowhere near as nasty as it used to be, it is still a grind. The schedule is tight and there is plenty of travel. It’s hard to stay healthy. Twenty-eight rookies played at least 70 games. That’s the most since 2005-06, when the total was 34.
Laine, who took a massive hit from Buffalo’s Jake McCabe, missed only nine games. He had 27 even-strength goals. That was tied for sixth behind Matthews, who led with 32. Matthews’ 32 are the most since Corey Perry’s 35 in 2013-14.
LADY BYNG TROPHY
The Serious Contenders: Viktor Arvidsson, Cam Atkinson, Johnny Gaudreau, Mikael Granlund, Tyler Seguin and Vladimir Tarasenko.
Also Considered: Logan Couture, Patrick Eaves, Seth Jones, Roman Josi, Duncan Keith, Phil Kessel, Sean Monahan, Artemi Panarin, Rickard Rakell, Brandon Saad, Jeff Skinner, Mark Stone, Alexander Wennberg, Zach Werenski and Mats Zuccarello. (I wanted to include Anders Lee, who quietly had a terrific year. But 56 penalty minutes is too high for this award.)
It came down to: Sidney Crosby, Erik Karlsson, Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid and Henrik Zetterberg.
The Lady Byng is the Rodney Dangerfield of NHL Awards, no respect. Heck, Alexander Mogilny didn’t even show up to receive it. It’s the last one I do every year, but when looking through potential candidates, I realized there were a lot of deserving people. The first five of my final six feature three serious Hart contenders (Crosby, Karlsson and McDavid), one for the Norris (Karlsson) and two for the Calder (Laine, Matthews). That’s a strong field.
Then there’s Zetterberg. He had 68 points and 22 penalty minutes. One of the ways I narrowed down the list was using hockey-reference.com’s Player Index to find all the forwards who had at least 60 games played, 50 points and fewer than 30 penalty minutes. You cull the group from there.
It produced three guys older than 33: Zetterberg (36), Henrik Sedin (36) and Radim Vrbata (35). The three of them played 245 of 246 possible games. Detroit’s captain had 13 more points than Vrbata and 17 more than Sedin. It was lost in the Red Wings’ worst season in a quarter-century, but Zetterberg played his heart out. It’s easy to be great when things are going well for your team. It’s harder to be great when opposite. Losing sucks.
The Serious Contenders: Nicklas Backstrom, John Tavares.
Also Considered: Nazem Kadri, Anze Kopitar, Connor McDavid, Ryan O’Reilly, Jonathan Toews, Joe Thornton, Kyle Turris.
It came down to: Mikael Backlund, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Kesler, Mikko Koivu, Jordan Staal, Mark Stone, Henrik Zetterberg.
Jordan Staal simply did not get enough credit for what he did this year. Meanwhile, if you get a chance, watch Stone in the playoffs. He’s really smart, and I enjoy the little plays he makes to get the puck from opponents. Some of them have looks on their faces like, “Where did he come from?”
There’s an “If you come at the King, you’d best not miss,” vibe to this award. The King is Bergeron. Backlund, Kesler and Koivu are lined up to take his crown. The Flames looked like they would drown at the start of the season. Not many of them kept their heads above water, but Backlund was probably their most consistent player from Game 1 through 82. But enough to unseat Bergeron? Stay tuned.
1. We also vote for the all-star teams and there were two picks I wanted to mention. Cam Fowler got a third-team defence vote. It’s funny how things change. He was the guy Anaheim thought about moving, but waited to see what happened. Now, they’re trying to extend him. From what it sounds like, they’re going to be very lucky if he plays in the first round and that’s a huge loss.
Good on Fowler, who shut out the noise and grew his game. After Sergei Bobrovsky and Braden Holtby, my third-team goalie was Cam Talbot. McDavid deserves every accolade and award he gets, but Talbot had an incredible year. It was very difficult not to choose Devan Dubnyk. Talbot played seven more games and 500 more minutes than anyone else. He deserves it.
2. The biggest question about Doug Weight was, would he want to coach, or be a manager? We now know the answer as he’s staying behind the bench in Brooklyn. Weight might have won the Jack Adams if they got into the playoffs.
“Nothing really changed,” Weight said on a conference call Wednesday morning. “I just wasn’t really sure (what I wanted to do).”
He added that things felt right as the team went through its exit process, so the organization moved quickly to confirm his position. What we’re not certain about is the rest of the front office structure. Weight said there were conversations, but he didn’t want to make those public.
“I wanted to be comfortable moving forward with everybody’s plan.”
It’s clear he is. General manager Garth Snow has a lot of work to do, including some critical John Tavares conversations in the near future. Snow was asked if it is difficult to move forward with all the speculation about his future and compared it to his days as a player.
“You can only control what you can control,” he said. “You put your head down and do your job. When you have success, everything’s great. When the team loses, there’s bullets and arrows flying.”
He’s seen a lot of craziness, and I’d bet the uncertainty doesn’t faze him too much. But there’s still no clarity on what the Islanders will or won’t do in hockey operations.
3. The coaching roulette wheel stops next in Dallas, as soon as Thursday. It will be Ken Hitchcock. When Stars general manager Jim Nill said last weekend that he’d already interviewed a few candidates, one of them was Hitchcock. Hitchcock has a history with owner Tom Gaglardi and president Jim Lites. He didn’t have one with Nill, and the two had to break bread. It’s clear this came from up top, and things are going to be different. It sounds like Hitchcock will get a one-year deal with an option to become a consultant with the team if he is not retained as head coach. More clarity will come on Thursday.
4. In Los Angeles, GM Rob Blake said his next bench boss would have NHL head coaching experience. That rules out my dark horse: Washington assistant Todd Reirden, who went deep into the process with Calgary last summer. The two have the Bowling Green connection, with Blake finishing the year before Reirden arrived.
For a few years now, we’ve assumed John Stevens would succeed Darryl Sutter, but it appears there are no guarantees, although Stevens will get a chance to interview for the job. All the comments about offence remind me of Larry Bird’s decision to fire Frank Vogel at Indiana last season, saying, “We’ve got to score more points” as Vogel said he’d do anything to keep the job.
The word in league coaching circles is that Los Angeles will be searching for bright, offensive minds. And even if that type of person is not chosen as head coach, there will be another opportunity in an “offensive co-ordinator” style position. Wonder if their AHL coach, Mike Stothers, gets a spot on the bench as some of his guys get an NHL shot. If so, I will miss his “text messages from the bus” with reporter Lindsay Czarnecki.
5. So, who does that leave? Gerard Gallant, you’d think. At some point, you have to believe Paul MacLean gets another shot, and he’s down the road in Anaheim. I’m not sure what’s going on in Buffalo, but Dan Bylsma played with Blake at Bowling Green. Lindy Ruff had up-tempo teams in Buffalo and Dallas.
6. Let me declare a conflict of interest: I have a personal relationship with Darryl Sutter and do not like to criticize him. After a day of research, here is what I think went down. Following last season, his contract was up and there was some serious debate about keeping him. Sutter is intense and driven. He pushes hard. The players wanted a new voice and many in the organization (both above and below Lombardi on the food chain) felt similarly.
One source (who does not work for L.A., but has connections there) said at one point the decision was made not to bring him back, but Lombardi changed his mind, believing in the man who led them to two Cups. He made the call to keep Sutter. Kelly Hrudey has a great line about people who get criticized for being too loyal: “Boy, what a terrible thing to say about someone, that they are too loyal.”
Lombardi was on an island with this call and when it became apparent during the season it wasn’t going to work, it put Lombardi in a weaker spot, especially since Sutter received a three-year contract in the neighbourhood of $8 million. Luc Robitaille’s stature was growing and ownership decided it was his time. Robitaille and Blake are similar, two L.A. guys who wanted to stay there but the opportunities were staring to come elsewhere.
The new general manager, for example, could have gone to Toronto before Lou Lamoriello arrived.
7. A story about Lombardi: email exchanges could be hilariously crazy. I loved them. When he was hiring Sutter in 2012, I sent a note seeing if there was any update. He replied by asking what the Keystone pipeline debate had to do with the Kings’ coaching search. This was a challenge, so I was looking at the proposed route of the pipeline, wondering if it was supposed to go through the Sutter ranch or something like that. I wasted way too much time researching this, and came up with some theories. Lombardi rejected each one, eventually explaining that the fight over its approval delayed Sutter’s work visa.
(Seriously, who was going to connect those dots?) Then he wrote, “People tell me you are a smart guy, a first-rounder pick. Not true. If you’re lucky, you’re a mid-second.”
He is an emotional guy. No doubt this hit him hard.
8. Two more on Los Angeles. Apparently, they’ve denied vice-president of hockey operations Mike Futa permission on a couple of occasions to interview elsewhere. Blake said his role is going to increase now, too.
9. Finally, word last week was that if Lombardi stayed, the Kings would take a shot at keeping Ben Bishop. No idea where that stands now.
10. In Florida, general manager Dale Tallon indicated there is “a long list” of potential candidates to replace interim head coach Tom Rowe. Here are some names to watch. As mentioned last week on Saturday’s Headlines, buzz at the NCAA Frozen Four surrounded Jim Montgomery, who won the National Championship at the University of Denver.
Montgomery interviewed in Calgary last season, and seems destined for an NHL job at some point. One player who had a terrific season with Montgomery and the Pioneers was Henrik Borgstrom, Florida’s first-round pick in 2016. I’ve heard the Panthers are doing research on Dallas Eakins in AHL San Diego. And it was pointed out to me that they took a long look at current Nashville assistant Phil Housley before hiring Gallant.
11. That seems like the type of person they are looking for, but one source brought up an interesting connection. Tallon is tight with Chicago’s Joel Quenneville, who recommended Marc Crawford to Montreal when Michel Therrien was hired. Crawford’s stock will be up after what happened in Ottawa this season.
12. The last name I should mention with the Panthers is Boston University’s David Quinn. There’s a lot of curiosity around how involved Buffalo is here, too.
13. Las Vegas had reached out t OHL London’s Dale Hunter, asking if he’d be interested in returning to the NHL. He declined. Golden Knights GM George McPhee hired him once before, back in 2011-12 with Washington. Hunter is a terrific coach and rejected overtures from Anaheim last season. Fewer reporters in London, they’re all at The Ceeps. Not sure what all the changes will mean, but both Jack Capuano and Gallant received serious consideration — so far.
14. Vancouver is an interesting one. On the weekend, there were rumours the Canucks would not consider experience as the most important factor when deciding upon a new head coach. It’s something Trevor Linden confirmed on Monday. That’s good news for Travis Green. The organization knows one thing: they will lose Green if they don’t hire him. His contract is up and he won’t be returning to AHL Utica.
Green did arguably his best coaching job there this past season. The Canucks were decimated by injuries, it affected his AHL roster and he still got it into the race. I’m told that internally Linden recognizes the NHL team did not provide enough support to its American League partner, and will change that. If Green does not get an NHL job, he may have a European option.
15. Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has reiterated his support for Paul Maurice. We’ve reported before the coach is expected to discuss an extension in the off-season and Cheveldayoff’s comments indicate that remains the case.
16. I don’t vote for the Vezina (the general managers do) or the Jack Adams (the broadcasters do), but John Tortorella will have a lot of support for the latter. He’s going into the last year of his contract in 2017-18. You’ve got to think an extension is coming.
16. As the playoffs begin, one of the biggest questions is what will be the standard for goalie interference? When Patrice Bergeron’s April 1 goal against Florida was allowed to count with Brad Marchand in the crease, a couple of executives and coaches said, “This is not going to be good.”
Toronto fans didn’t like it when Tom Sestito knocked out Frederik Andersen from last weekend’s game, but no one had any problem when Brian Boyle, going for the puck, ran through James Reimer, sending him to the dressing room. It is so, so subjective and they are getting hurt.
18. One name to watch this off-season: Carolina’s Noah Hanifin. He played at least 20 minutes in 10 of the Hurricanes’ last 11 games (and came in at 19:58 in the other). I think Carolina would consider moving him if — and only if — an impact offensive forward was coming to Raleigh. So, don’t come at them with weak sauce. They are one of the few teams that could even consider this, because they have blue-line depth. But, Hanifin has a long, prosperous career ahead of him, and they will not trade him just for the sake of it.
19. Philadelphia GM Ron Hextall will meet with the media on Thursday. There was some wild Claude Giroux speculation last week. My bet is he throws cold water on it.
20. I suspect Montreal’s Shea Weber was more rested than injured over the past few days. The Canadiens took a long look at how tired he seemed last season and wanted to try something new.
21. After Toronto clinched its playoff berth, coach Mike Babcock took a photo with NCAA UMass head coach Greg Carvel, who was at the game. In the back was a whiteboard, which showed some of the statistics Toronto keeps. It was very interesting. It featured zone entries/denials and something called “Heavy Shifts.”
What is that? According to the players it’s a prolonged shift for or against you. If you trap the other team in their zone, it’s a “heavy shift” for. If you get trapped, it’s a point against.
22. Morgan Rielly, on the celebration after Toronto clinched a playoff spot: “It wasn’t as crazy as you might think. We still have work to do.”
“No, no one is satisfied.”
Washington is a huge challenge, though.
23. Nice moment: Curtis McElhinney’s father, Bob, was in Toronto Saturday night to see his son win the biggest game of his NHL career. The only bad thing for Bob was that “I couldn’t get up and walk the dog like I normally do when I got nervous.”
24. Nice to see Calgary GM Brad Treliving call someone else “asinine” for once. I think he and Ducks counterpart Bob Murray are normally tight, but the Fowler/Giordano spat will test that.
25. Edmonton recently let go of amateur scout Frank Musil after 19 years. The timing might seem bad so close to the playoffs, but if there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s teams that fire guys after the draft, leaving them scrambling for new jobs that might already be filled. At least this way, Musil will have time to survey the scene.
26. The Oilers signed an interesting prospect last week in Air Force goalie Shane Starrett. He’s a big, talented guy at 6-foot-5, but a bit raw and over-aggressive from what I’m told. He was considering transferring to Cornell to play with his brother, Beau, a forward, but he’s already approaching 23, so it’s time. A few NHL clubs were looking at him, and you can’t teach size. He’s got a shot.
27. There are two other NCAA goalies to keep an eye on. Buffalo drafted Notre Dame’s Cal Petersen in 2013. They’ve got to sign him or he goes free, and he needed a few days to decompress after the Fighting Irish lost in the Frozen Four. He’s developed nicely. Another one who’s come a long way is Harvard’s Merrick Madsen, a 2013 Philadelphia draft pick. He can play another year under Ted Donato, then become a free agent — if he wants to.
28. Also, expect a decision soon from Minnesota-Duluth defender Neal Pionk. An undrafted, right-hand shot, he’s got two more years of eligibility but there now are teams who want to sign him.
29. Part of the Holland-Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto is the Kimel Family Aquatic Centre. It is a critical part of an absolutely wonderful facility that does a boatload of important work for families that desperately need it. The Kimel family, based in Toronto, does quite a bit of charity work. And I understand they are expanding their empire into the NHL, working on buying a minority piece of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
30. Seven years ago, an angry Glenn Healy left the NHLPA. It was a hard time for him, since he believed in the cause and thought he was doing important work. He said he’d never go back or pay attention to it again, but we knew better. He always kept an eye on it, always cared and remained frustrated whenever he thought the players were choosing the wrong path.
Since Bob Goodenow’s ouster in 2005, there has been near-constant turmoil in the organization and it’s possible we are going down that road again. Healy won’t discuss it, but word is the NHL Alumni Association would like to bring him aboard. The players should take a long look at bringing him back. If I know him (and I do) he wants to be part of the solution.
Bonus Thought: At some point, I hope we see a Pittsburgh/Chicago Stanley Cup Final while the Crosby/Malkin Penguins and Kane/Toews Blackhawks are still in their primes. I doubt this is going to be the year, though. This is Washington’s best chance.