Can you believe it, we’re already a quarter of the way through the 2017-18 NHL season, which means we have enough of a sample size to start talking about which players (and coaches) are off and running towards individual awards, who has been a surprise, disappointment, and who is on track to be comeback player of the year.
Have your say below on each of our quarter mark polls. Check in with our Wednesday Night Hockey broadcast to see the results of each poll and a panel discussion on the early-season award contenders.
JACK ADAMS AWARD
Let’s start with Gerard Gallant in Vegas, whose team has pushed through numerous goalie injuries (they’ve used five including a WHLer) to exceed any expectations for the expansion team. Gallant has them playing a high-paced forechecking game that has attracted many new fans in and outside the city. Who thought the Golden Knights would be a top three team in the Pacific at the quarter mark?
Jon Cooper and Paul Maurice, meanwhile, are in the process of bringing their non-playoff teams back into contention with force. The Lightning were many people’s pick to win the Cup this season with Steven Stamkos fully healthy and depth of talent throughout the lineup. Maurice heads a Jets team many thought would take a step forward a year or two ago and, finally with dependable goaltending, the Winnipeg Jets are showing just how much of a force they can be as a top 10 team in goals for and goal suppression.
Since they stand as the NHL’s best team, you’d expect the Tampa Bay Lightning to have one representative on the MVP quarter mark poll. But two? Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov deserve it.
They remain first and second in NHL scoring and Kucherov has been popping goals at such a pace that there is at least an outside shot for a 50 in 50 start to the season.
Not to be outdone, Sergei Bobrovsky is keeping the Blue Jackets in the race early with his stellar play. Ranked first among all starting goalies with a .933 save percentage and 2.02 GAA, the 2017 Hart finalist is one of the top players in the NHL again so far this season.
Without a Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews type of obvious otherworldly talent in this class, we figured the Calder race would be a tight one, though unable to match up to the top performances of the past two seasons. Well, we’re right that it’s close — but it’s that way early on because so many rookies are excelling.
Clayton Keller was out of the gate hottest, with 12 points before his team even got its first win in Game 12. Brock Boeser was a healthy scratch at the start of Vancouver’s season, but quickly became a top-line producer and the best scorer on the team after he was inserted into the lineup. He has the best points-per-game average of all the rookies.
On the other hand, Mathew Barzal and Nico Hischier started slower, but have sped up of late. Barzal was pointless in his first five games, but has found a home as a key secondary scoring element with Jordan Eberle behind John Tavares. And Hischier, outshined by Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher to start, has roared back to take the rookie scoring lead on his team and hang with the top freshmen in his class.
Another wide open race led by Bobrovsky, who was one of our Hart Trophy candidates. But he’s far from the only contender for goalie of the first quarter.
In Tampa, Andrei Vasilevskiy hasn’t slipped up at all as the new, undisputed No. 1 with a stealler .928 save percentage and a league-leading 14 wins.
Corey Crawford, long one of the most important players on the Blackhawks, but overshadowed by the team’s biggest stars, is finally getting his due as the team is thinner than ever, while Crawford hums along with a .933 save percentage that matches Bobrovsky.
And Connor Hellebuyck is the biggest reason why the Jets are thriving so early — if this team gets quality goaltending throughout the season, they might finally arrive as a Stanley Cup contender.
Not surprising at all, Erik Karlsson is on here despite missing the start of the season. His 1.31 points per game is significantly higher than any other candidate and he’s tied with Alex Pietrangelo for most even strength points from the blue line.
Victor Hedman, a Norris finalist last season, averages 25:21 per game on the league’s best team and is an all-situations defenceman whose game as really matured in the past few years. And Pietrangelo, with 19 points in 21 games, is flourishing as the undisputed leader of St. Louis’ tough defence, logging a hefty workload averaging 26:12 per night.
There have been more than a few positive and negative stories to start the season and now we’re at a point where the unsustainable ones at both extremes should start to level out.
The expansion Golden Knights are above even a wild card spot, which no one saw coming. The Tampa Bay Lightning, though a Cup favourite, are exceeding in how they’re dominating the NHL and pumping out goals like it’s the 1980s.
On the flip side, it was just assumed the Edmonton Oilers were going to build on last season’s Round 2 appearance with their budding roster, but they’ve had major problems getting goals from beyond the first line. And it took the Arizona Coyotes until Nov. 16 to get their first regulation win, the kind of disaster they couldn’t have predicted when they made plenty of summer transactions to push forward.
MOST UNHERALDED PLAYER
So, we’ve given a spotlight to the stars, but how about the impactful players who aren’t recognized at that level yet?
Mark Stone will surely soon be in the conversation for any Team Canada contingent as he’s emerged over the past two years as a two-way force and is driving Ottawa’s offence — Stone has more than twice as many goals as any of his teammates.
Jaccob Slavin earned a big contract extension from Carolina, so we know they appreciate what he brings, but he can still fall behind Justin Faulk and even top draft pick Noah Hanifin when it comes to discussing Hurricanes defencemen. But, he logs the most minutes on the team and has proven capable of shutting down the toughest competition. His offensive numbers don’t jump off the page, but he’s a defensive stalwart.
And Anders Lee is coming off a 34-goal season, but you’d be excused for not realizing he had hit such a high mark. John Tavares’ wing man will always be expected to produce, but Lee is on pace to better his 2016-17 totals and isn’t getting nearly the same attention.
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR
So when it comes time to vote on the Bill Masterton Trophy at the end of the season “awarded annually to the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey” New Jersey’s Brian Boyle probably has it locked up.
But at the quarter mark, we’re looking at impact players who have come back from bad seasons or injury to reclaim their place in the league.
Stamkos is first in league scoring and has shown a playmaking side of his game. Cory Schneider, one of the most consistent netminders in the NHL for years, posted a meek .908 save percentage last year, but has bounced back in time to support a young upstart team on its rise. And Dustin Brown, who has one 30-point season in the past five years, is on the top line with Anze Kopitar in Los Angeles and already more than halfway to his point total from all of last season.