31 Thoughts: This might be the most difficult NHL Awards race ever

New Jersey Devils star Taylor Hall during a game against the Philadelphia Flyers. (Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s the best time of the season: the seatbelt-free, head-spinning thrill ride that is the first round of the NHL playoffs. But first, our award ballots are due. This year, for the first time ever, all votes will be revealed once the winners are announced. Prior to that, the league prefers we keep our picks (mostly) quiet, so as not to ruin the Hitchcockian suspense.

The deadline is 7 p.m. (ET) Wednesday, so this isn’t finalized, but here’s where I’m going.

People get riled up over this, so as I say every year: If I don’t vote for your favourite players, it is because I dislike them, your team… and you.

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HART TROPHY

Under consideration: This must be the hardest vote ever. The list of legitimate contenders is enormous. I like to do the Hart first, because it plays a significant role in the rest of my picks. I used to do things like, well, if this guy doesn’t get the Hart, maybe give him a Byng or Selke vote ahead of someone he lost to. Or, a “Selke Specialist” got a bump so I wasn’t voting for the same person two or three times. Eventually, I thought that was kind of dumb. If someone is good enough for the Hart, why should they get penalized in another category?

Patrice Bergeron was No. 1 on my ballot until he got hurt, and I’m a big believer in games played. “Hate” doesn’t exist in the regular season like it used to, but with the speed, the shot-blocking and accidental crashing of bodies, it’s a real accomplishment to last. Some of the guys considered who probably won’t be on many ballots are Aleksander Barkov, Sergei Bobrovsky, Sidney Crosby (so weird to type this), Marc-Andre Fleury, Connor Hellebuyck, William Karlsson, Roberto Luongo, Rickard Rakell, Pekka Rinne, Jaden Schwartz and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

That left me with 13: Claude Giroux, Taylor Hall, Anze Kopitar, Nikita Kucherov, Nathan MacKinnon, Evgeni Malkin, Brad Marchand, Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, Tyler Seguin, Eric Staal, Steven Stamkos and Blake Wheeler.

Good luck with that. I’d bet 11 of them get at least one first-place vote. As I write this, I haven’t submitted the final ballot, because there are two locks and three spots for the last five.

On the ballot: Three of Giroux, Kopitar, Kucherov, McDavid and Wheeler. Still deciding.

It came down to: Hall and MacKinnon. In a lot of ways, both candidacies started last summer. Hall moved to Toronto and, for the first time, spent considerable time skating with other NHLers. One was John Tavares, who rubs off on a lot of his contemporaries, and Hall was no exception. MacKinnon spends plenty of time with Crosby, which doesn’t hurt much, either. He was determined to show up with a fantastic attitude after Colorado went through the worst season of any team in the 21st century. At the NHL media tour right after Labour Day, he offered no platitudes, but a passionate oration indicating how he couldn’t wait to win in Colorado because he knew how bad it felt to lose in Colorado.

Hall led New Jersey in scoring by a ridiculous 41 points. Since the calendar flipped to 2018, he had points in 36 of 40 games, with only one back-to-back bagel.

MacKinnon similarly drove the bus in Denver, pushing the Avalanche to a monstrous 47-point improvement. In January, he caught Kucherov for the NHL lead in even-strength points before McDavid caught fire. He slumped down the stretch and the team nearly capsized, but without their starting goaltender and biggest horse on the blue line, he scored what turned out to be the winning goal in the win-or-go-home showdown with St. Louis.

Both are incredibly deserving.

NORRIS TROPHY

Under consideration: John Carlson, Zdeno Chara, Mark Giordano, Erik Johnson, John Klingberg, Torey Krug, Charlie McAvoy, Alex Pietrangelo, Ryan Suter.

On the ballot: I have three guys for the last two spots: Seth Jones, Roman Josi and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The Nashville guys are almost impossible to pick between. Vlasic might get shafted for more awards than any other player in the NHL. Of the four defencemen who played most for San Jose this season, he’s the only one who was on the ice for 50 per cent of the goals scored by either team at five-on-five. And he started just 42 per cent of the time in the offensive zone. He is the league’s most anonymous terrific player. Funny story: The Sharks had a late-season Hockey Night game in Vancouver, and I wanted to showcase him. Vlasic responded with two of the worst periods I saw him play all year.

It came down to: Drew Doughty, Victor Hedman and P.K. Subban. Most impressive among all three was they didn’t play with historical top-pair partners. Doughty’s regular duo was with Derek Forbort; Hedman’s was Jake Dotchin; Subban at least had familiarity with Alexei Emelin. It didn’t prevent any from having monstrous seasons.

CALDER TROPHY

Under consideration: Alex DeBrincat, Mikhail Sergachev, Malcolm Subban.

On the ballot: Brock Boeser, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Charles McAvoy will be there. Dubois has been a little under-appreciated in a very strong class. His most common opponents are guys like Crosby, Giroux and Hall. There is one spot for Will Butcher, Kyle Connor, Yanni Gourde, Nico Hischier and Clayton Keller.

It came down to: Mathew Barzal. If you believe in wagering, he’s probably the safest bet.

SELKE

Under consideration: Logan Couture, Radek Faksa, Mikko Koivu, Joe Pavelski, Brayden Point, Jakob Silfverberg. In the last few weeks, one Star started campaigning for Faksa, demanding I watch what he’s doing. At five-on-five, he started in the offensive zone 30 per cent of the time and the Stars scored more than 60 per cent of the goals with him out there. He drew a lot of tough assignments, too.

On the ballot: Patrice Bergeron.

It came down to: Aleksander Barkov, Sean Couturier, Anze Kopitar and William Karlsson. If Kopitar wins the Hart (and I know at least one voter pushing him), L.A.’s public-relations campaign will be the most successful since Anaheim’s for Corey Perry in 2011.

LADY BYNG

Under consideration: Evgenii Dadonov, Claude Giroux, William Karlsson, Auston Matthews, Morgan Rielly, Mark Stone.

On the ballot: I really, really wanted to put Marc-Edouard Vlasic No. 1. I believe more defencemen should win the award. Properly using your stick is such a skill now with all the penalties. Vlasic took two minor penalties… all year! And both were for puck over the glass. Unfortunately, he took three misconducts, and as Nick Kypreos pointed out: “You can’t vote for a guy who took three misconducts as the most gentlemanly player.” He’s on my ballot, though, with Barkov, Kopitar, McDavid and Pietrangelo.

31 THOUGHTS

1. From time to time, the NHL receives inquiries from potential ownership groups. During the expansion process that spawned the Vegas Golden Knights, one Canadian group reached out with a question: Would you consider another franchise in the Toronto area? Created by Pasquale (Pat) Paletta as a beef slaughter and meatpacking operation in 1951, Paletta International expanded into real estate and construction. It’s not imminent, and it’s far from certain, but, according to several sources, the NHL and the Palettas have continued to discuss the possibility. Key to its conversations is land the family owns in Burlington, west of Toronto. It is believed the family would build the arena where a potential team would play. Pat’s son Angelo is the point person on the project. Attempts to reach him were politely declined.

“They are trying the Mark Chipman route,” one source said, referring to the Winnipeg Jets owner. “Don’t say anything that upsets the NHL.”

At the board of governors meeting in December, the league announced Seattle is next on the docket, with a franchise fee of US$650 million. The 2020–21 season is the likely target, although that could be complicated by CBA discussions. It will be fascinating to see where this goes.

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2. The Ottawa Senators have some huge decisions to make: The futures of Guy Boucher, Matt Duchene, Erik Karlsson and Stone foremost among them. It’s obvious from following Tuesday’s ticket-holders meeting on Twitter that, inside the organization, the wounds of the past season are very fresh. I get that it was a rough year, but you can’t make any of these decisions without clarity of mind. At some point, you have to look forward, not back. What stood out from the get-together was that GM Pierre Dorion indicated he had a 30-minute meeting with Karlsson on Monday, said he would not deal the captain at the draft and will make an eight-year offer on July 1, when Karlsson is eligible to re-signed. Owner Eugene Melnyk added, “Erik is a special player, he lights up the ice. … If it’s a question of dollars there are teams that can outgun us 5-1. We could get outgunned.” So, barring a change they’re going to offer him something and gauge things by the response.

3. The one thing I can see upsetting this plan? What if someone else decides they have to have him? Ottawa may not be able to re-sign Karlsson before July 1, but you can do the old Monty Python “nudge, nudge, wink, wink.” Someone who didn’t get into the playoffs (or didn’t go far enough) is going to tempt them.

4. It’s early, but there’s a lot of expectation that St. Louis is going to be an aggressive trade partner.

5. During the season, there were rumours of Ryan O’Reilly being available. I asked around, and was told unlikely, because centres are hard to find. They also saw him as protection for Jack Eichel, and eventually, Casey Mittelstadt.

Now, I wonder if the rumours kick up again. I don’t think he intended to make as much news as he did with his “losing his love for the game” comments, but the Sabres know their mix isn’t working and needs change. O’Reilly has value.

6. On the Islanders: I don’t know whether it was a lack of communication, or someone said something they shouldn’t, but it’s clear ownership was not prepared to announce a return for GM Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight. As owner Jon Ledecky said Monday and re-iterated with a statement Tuesday, “Everyone is under review.” It could be something as simple as Tavares’ decision determining everyone’s fate. But, the organization was not prepared to commit to anyone or anything at this time. Ledecky getting up and leaving the podium was telling. He was not pleased, and, my guess is he didn’t want to say anything that made the situation worse.

7. We could get a clearer picture of Dallas’s future by the end of the week. Head coach Ken Hitchcock is getting points for Seguin’s excellent season and taking a historically bad penalty kill from 73.9 in 2016-17 to fourth in the NHL on March 12, when Ben Bishop’s injury wrecked his season. But, they did miss the playoffs and changes are coming.

The Stars had 244 power plays (20th in the NHL) and were short-handed 281 times, second-most to Nashville. That’s not a good ratio, especially for a team with such firepower. At the all-star break, they were eighth in the NHL with three goals per 60 minutes. They simply stopped scoring and finished 18th. I also heard a very interesting stat: they led the league in both icings and offsides. Hitchcock signed a one-year deal to coach with a consulting role to follow. The Stars are expected to look for a new backup for Bishop. The bigger question is if they choose other repairs internally, making 2017 third-overall pick Miro Heiskanen and potential returnee Valeri Nichushkin their top off-season acquisitions.

8. With Seguin a year away from unrestricted free agency, 2018-19 is going to be a very big season for Jamie Benn. He finished with eight goals and 10 points in the last five games, but Dallas was pretty much done by that point. Benn hasn’t been the same since an outstanding 2015-16 that made him a Hart finalist. They need him to get back to that level. How to get him back there will be an important internal conversation.

9. Spoke to a couple of owners about Thomas Dundon’s potential salary spot for a new GM and a new coach if Bill Peters exercises his option. They definitely agree that, in the last few years, led by Mike Babcock at the coaching level and Steve Yzerman at the GM level, the coaches/GMs have gained major victories in job security and financial compensation. They have swung the pendulum their way. Why no coach firings until the last weekend of the season? Because the salaries are high enough that letting them go is a legitimate penalty. They wouldn’t mind it swinging back a little, but don’t see Carolina’s targets as realistic.

10. If Peters does leave, you have to think AHL Charlotte coach Mike Vellucci is the likely replacement, although he’s been rumoured as a GM possibility, too. Word is Dundon is a Rod Brind’Amour fan, too.

11. There are rumours former Vancouver assistant GM Laurence Gilman flew to Raleigh for a face-to-face interview with Dundon in the last couple of weeks, but I’m not sure where it stands.

12. Carolina drafted WHL Spokane centre Hudson Elynuik 74th in 2016. After 86 points in 71 games during the regular season, he had seven points in the playoffs before the Chiefs were eliminated by Portland in a decisive first-round Game 7. He’s a big boy, bigger than his father, Pat, who went eighth overall in 1986. (He played 506 NHL games for Winnipeg, Washington, Tampa Bay and Ottawa.) There is word he will not sign with the Hurricanes and is going back into the draft. Deadline is June 1.

13. A lot of good names already thrown out there as potential hires for the Rangers, including NCAA Wisconsin’s Tony Granato, AHL Toronto’s Sheldon Keefe and NCAA Denver’s Jim Montgomery. Wonder if they also take a look at AHL Manitoba’s Pascal Vincent, just named the league’s coach of the year. He fits their profile, too.

14. There are some wild rumours that Russian national team head coach Oleg Znarok may be coming to North America. His club team is St. Petersburg, current home of Ilya Kovalchuk.

15. Some European contacts say clubs there are asking about Willie Desjardins, who coached Canada to an Olympic bronze. They are being told he wants to look into NHL opportunities first.

16. Dominique Ducharme is GM and coach of QMJHL Drummondville, down 2-1 to Victoriaville in the Quebec League playoffs. Joel Bouchard is president and GM of Blainville-Boisbriand, up 3-0 on Moncton. Will either or both have a role with the Montreal Canadiens when their junior seasons end?

17. Detroit seems confident Henrik Zetterberg is coming back for 2018-19, although he’s been careful to point out it depends on his back. For the third straight year, he played 82 games, but, as one teammate said, “You have no idea what he goes through to play.” I think there were some who thought this was it. He is 40 points shy of 1,000. That’s a worthwhile target.

18. Red Wings GM Ken Holland announced Tuesday that Jeff Blashill will be back next season. I really liked something the coach said to Daren Millard before a late-season game against Ottawa. Daren asked how hard it must be to get up for those games.

“Every time you play a National Hockey League game, it’s special,” Blashill replied. “Every one of our guys, when their careers are over, will want to come back and play one more game, even in the situation that we are in being out of the playoffs. This isn’t perfect but it’s a National Hockey League game.”

19. Taylor Hall on the Sedins: “What I remember is being on the ice for a lot of minuses.”

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20. When the Devils came to Toronto in December, they were in the playoffs by seven points. Asked if he thought they were good enough, Hall said he was close to convinced, except they were still too dependent on their goalies. Asked when he finally, 100 per cent believed it would happen, he pointed at the six-game road trip in March where they went 4-2.

“We were on the brink either way, just hanging on to the wild card,” he said. “The first game was in Nashville and we had a teem meeting before. Coach Hynes went up to the board and wrote our record against all the teams we still had to play. I think it was (a .672 winning percentage). It was a cool thing for him to do. He said, ‘This is how you’ve done against these teams and this is why I believe in you.’ Then we beat Nashville. I’ll remember that as something that catapulted us.”

21. Hall downplayed most of the questions you’d expect me to ask. How does he feel about making the post-season? “Not what you would expect, probably more relief,” he answered. “This has been a solid year. I can’t complain.” Talk about understatement. He wasn’t crazy about personal accomplishments. “This is not just about me, so many guys don’t get credit for what they do.” When pressed, he finally admitted that he received several messages from ex-teammates and friends who wrote “they were happy to see me experience playoffs. Some of them sent screenshots of voting for me for the Ted Lindsay Award.”

That’s the NHLPA vote for MVP, and he was proud of that. One of the toughest questions I had for him was if this finally allowed him to move on from the Oilers. Finally, some closure. “That’s a fair way to put it. When I watched Edmonton, I didn’t watch them to win or lose, just to see Connor McDavid. I focused on New Jersey.”

22. I am very curious to see where McDavid finishes in the Lindsay voting. I probably asked for more feedback than normal, because the voting was so tight. The majority I spoke to had enormous respect for him as a player, but said playoffs matter.

23. One Western Conference coach on Doughty and Kopitar: “Those guys asked for change and put their (somethings) on the line. They delivered. That should matter in voting, too.”

24. I don’t have a vote for the Jack Adams or the Vezina. There are a lot of coaches who could win in any other year (Jared Bednar, Bruce Cassidy, Peter DeBoer, John Hynes, Paul Maurice, Barry Trotz), but Gerard Gallant won this award in December. Rinne would be my Vezina choice over Hellebuyck.

25. Going head-to-head with the playoff-tested Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is a big challenge for the most grizzled veteran, never mind 19-year-old Nolan Patrick. The second-overall pick has come a long way this season. The Flyers didn’t let him go to the world juniors or the Olympics, and, now, you can see what they were thinking. Instead of making him worry about multiple systems, they kept him in one place all year and the improvement is noticeable. He’s “on his toes now instead of his heels,” according to one scout and anticipating much better. This is going to be some challenge, but he should be readier for it.

26. No. 1 wild card among Eastern Conference playoff teams? Probably Columbus’s power play, which ranked 25th. “I have no idea why it’s as bad as it is,” one scout said. “It has all the personnel and elements you need.”

“They could win the conference if it ever gets going,” said another.

27. Pre-taped some playoff interviews this week with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. As much as I think it’s overdone, I had to ask them about the 2013 series since they are two of the remaining players. What did I learn? First, neither of them has ever re-watched Game 7.

28. Four years ago, Karson Kuhlman went to the NHL Draft in Philadelphia, rated 94th among North American skaters. He was interviewed by several teams and thought he’d get picked. He didn’t. Kuhlman went to NCAA Minnesota-Duluth, won a national championship last week, and was named MVP of both his region and the Frozen Four. Tuesday, he signed a two-year deal with Boston. That’s an excellent comeback.

29. One scout said there was quite a turnout last weekend to watch the 2018 U.S. Youth Tier I national championships in Philadelphia. Among the crowd: Scott Bradley (Boston); Tod Button (Calgary); Ron Hextall and Chris Prior (Philadelphia); Mark Hunter (Toronto); Randy Sexton (Buffalo). It is believed they were watching draft-eligible Jay O’Brien, who plays for former NHL-er Tony Amonte at Thayer Academy, and Andrew Orpik (brother of Brooks) with the Cape Cod Whalers.

30. Many of you know I keep track of a stat: how many teams four points out of the playoffs after games played on Nov. 1 reach the post-season. In 2017-18, one managed to do it: Minnesota. Florida gave it an incredible run, but the Panthers fell short, along with Arizona, Buffalo, Edmonton and Montreal. That means just seven of 54 teams in that position have made it since 2005-06 (the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season doesn’t count). If you don’t start well, you don’t have a chance.

31. It’s really hard not to get emotional when thinking of all the beautiful things done in support of the Humboldt crash victims. From the millions raised on the GoFundMe page to the life-saving work of the medical personnel/first-responders to the support of the hockey community to the survivors of the Swift Current bus crash that came to town to the #SticksOutforHumboldt campaign, it’s been incredibly special.

You always worry what happens when the attention wavers and/or people move on to the next thing. I was struck watching the mayor, Rob Muench, and the team president, Kevin Garinger. In the immediate aftermath of tragedy, someone has to step up and be in the forefront, especially when it is a major media story. No one likes to do that, of course, but someone has to. They fielded thousands of calls and texts, made themselves available, answered so many painful questions, bared their souls to a lot of strangers. People follow that, and we’re seeing it. You can be hurt, but you can still be strong.

The summer of 1982 was very hard for our family. One year later, my father sent me and my sisters to Saskatchewan for a month. He wanted us to get to know that side of the family having been born in Melfort, 70 minutes from Humboldt. Later, my grandfather was the mayor of Wilkie, which is closer to North Battleford, where he lived in 1983. One night that summer, we had something we were supposed to go to. Then my grandfather saw the Roughriders playing on television, and said, “I’m going to stay home and watch this instead.” This was a revelation, because I finally knew someone else in family who shared my priorities. But what I really remember was watching a few games in a three-day baseball tournament that brought in teams from across the province.

It was an event, and, assuming my memory is good, North Battleford lost in the championship game. My grandfather said something along the lines of, “You don’t have to be from Toronto to love sports.” It was an important summer for us and I thought a lot about that quote the last few days. You can argue for days about the good and bad of athletic competition, but it creates a passionate community. A passionate community that will help a lot of people who need it.

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