Wiebe’s World: McDavid’s brilliance headlines NHL mid-season award leaders

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid skates during the second period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Anaheim, Calif. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

WINNIPEG – Connor McDavid is doing things that continue to leave jaws dropping all around the hockey world.

As usual, the storylines across the league have been plentiful during the first half of the NHL season.

There have been twists, turns and everything in between.

Surprises, disappointments and unexpected developments aplenty.

But the one thing that can’t be overlooked is the sheer brilliance of the season the Edmonton Oilers captain is putting together.

That McDavid is an All-World superstar doesn’t exactly qualify as breaking news.

If you have any level of interest in hockey, you already know he’s been doing remarkable things for years.

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Being on site for the Western Conference Final last spring between the Oilers and Colorado Avalanche gave this writer an even greater appreciation for the impact he’s having for a franchise that knows a thing or two about outstanding achievements for both team play and individuals.

McDavid is electrifying.

His ability to get things done with the puck on his stick at a frenetic pace is downright breathtaking.

All he needs is a split second and space to blow by defenders that are prepared for him.

If you happen to get caught flat-footed, forget about it.

By the time you try to recover, he’s already blown by you.

For the first seven seasons of his career, McDavid put up video game type numbers, often focusing on his ability to set up teammates – eclipsing 70 assists on four occasions (including a career-high 79 last season) and 60 helpers on two others.

During his rookie season, an injury limited (and we use this term lightly) McDavid to 16 goals and 48 points but those came in only 45 games.

Quite frankly, he’s been a human-highlight reel for close to a decade now.

For those of you scoring at home, McDavid already has 239 multipoint games in his career – and he’s only played in 535 during the regular season.

That’s downright absurd.

After he produced 44 goals and 123 points last season and helped his team reach the aforementioned Western Conference Final, many folks wondered what McDavid might do for an encore.

The answer has left many in disbelief.

On Saturday night, McDavid became the fastest player to reach 40 goals since Jaromir Jagr did it in 46 games during the 1995-96 campaign.

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McDavid accomplished the remarkable feat in 48 games and he’s up to 88 points for the season.

He might hit triple digits before the month of January is over.

His ability to impact the game in multiple ways is why he’s the clear-cut choice for the Hart Trophy.

At a time when talent seems to be overflowing across the league, McDavid is the best player in the game, by a substantial margin.

Barring something unforeseen, he’s on track to win his third Most Valuable Player award, having won previously in the 2016-17 and 2020-21 seasons.

McDavid is 15 points ahead of teammate Leon Draisaitl in the chase for the Art Ross Trophy and 22 points clear of Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov, who sits third.

He’s also five goals clear of Boston Bruins winger David Pastrnak in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy.

McDavid is far more concerned with team success than personal statistics and after what can only be described as an up-and-down start, the Oilers have finally hit their collective stride.

They’re riding the longest active winning streak in the NHL at six and jumped past the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday into third place in the Pacific Division and they’re suddenly three points behind the first-place Vegas Golden Knights (who hold a game in hand).

Back to the trophy talk for a moment.

The honourable mentions for the Hart Trophy right now are Pastrnak (who should become the highest paid winger when his contract extension is complete), Mikko Rantanen of the Colorado Avalanche and Tage Thompson of the Buffalo Sabres.

There’s plenty of runway left when it comes to handing out the other hardware.

Here’s a quick rundown, along with a quick thought about my pre-season selections for those awards (for the record, I had McDavid for the Hart Trophy and Art Ross if you’re interested in checking the receipts).

Vezina Trophy (Connor Hellebuyck)

While it’s been a fantastic start to the season for Hellebuyck and the Jets, the leader of the pack so far is Linus Ullmark of the Bruins.

Ullmark leads the league in goals-against average (1.88), save percentage (.937) and goals-saved above expected (25.8, according to Money Puck).

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He’s lost only two games in regulation all season (24-2-1) and while the Bruins employ more of a crease sharing situation (19 games for backup Jeremy Swayman), Ullmark’s ability to perform at an elite level gives him a slight edge over Hellebuyck right now.

Hellebuyck has already started 36 games this season, is third in save percentage (.924), seventh in goals-against average (2.39) and is fifth in goals-saved above expected (18.7).

Jake Oettinger of the Dallas Stars (second in goals-against average and second in save percentage) is also in the discussion.

Norris Trophy (Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche)

There are several prime candidates for the top D-man and this is probably the race that goes right down to the wire and will be determined by the play during the stretch run.

The resurgence of San Jose Sharks blue-liner Erik Karlsson is impossible to ignore here, though his hold on the midseason award isn’t as clear-cut as some believe.

He’s the driver of the Sharks offence and his 62 points is 10 points clear of Rasmus Dahlin of the Sabres and 11 ahead of Josh Morrissey of the Jets going into Sunday’s action.

It’s important to remember the award isn’t the Art Ross for defenceman, so both Morrissey and Dahlin have strong cases on that front, given the matchups they face on a nightly basis.

Makar is still in the running (though he’s missed a few games of late with an undisclosed injury), so is Adam Fox of the New York Rangers.

Calder Trophy (Kent Johnson, Columbus Blue Jackets)

This was a situation where choosing the front-runner for the award got me in trouble. My original selection was Matty Beniers of the Seattle Kraken, but changed my mind at the last second.

The thinking behind that decision was that Johnson would flourish playing alongside Patrik Laine after a strong showing at the summer’s World Junior Hockey Championship.

Johnson is sixth in rookie scoring, but Beniers is leading the pack with 36 points, nine clear of Mason MacTavish of the Anaheim Ducks and Cole Perfetti of the Jets.

Beniers has been full value in his first full season, recording 17 goals (including three game-winners) while averaging just over 17 minutes of ice time for the Kraken, who continue to battle for top spot in the Pacific.

He’s got the edge among those in his rookie class so far and it will be tough to overtake him.

Jack Adams Trophy (Brad Larsen, Columbus Blue Jackets)

The list of qualified candidates here is a lengthy one and one of my biggest pet peeves is that the award is often handed out to the individual whose team overachieves.

That’s part of the reason Lightning bench boss has never won the award (something that doesn’t sit right with me).

Rick Bowness of the Jets has orchestrated a remarkable turnaround for a team that missed the playoffs last season and is now battling Peter DeBoer and the Stars for top spot in the Central Division.

Both of those guys would be deserving in a normal season and the same goes for Lindy Ruff of the New Jersey Devils, Rod Brind’Amour of the Carolina Hurricanes, Sheldon Keefe of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Bruce Cassidy of the Golden Knights and Dave Hakstol of the Kraken.

But by posting a 36-5-4 record with the Bruins in his first season behind their bench (and with a ridiculous goal-differential of plus-77), Jim Montgomery deserves the nod in this category.

Selke Trophy (Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins)

The Bruins’ centre remains the gold standard for this award and will do so until he decides to hang up his skates.

A quick note on my team predictions.

The Blue Jackets were my choice for biggest surprise and that pick has turned out to be a dud, as they’re very much in the mix for Connor Bedard in the lottery.

The Blue Jackets are up there for biggest disappointment, but based on the off-season moves made and how they were celebrated, the Ottawa Senators might be at the top of that list.

The Senators are better than their 20-23-3 record suggests and while making the playoffs was always going to be a challenge, they’re currently 16 points behind the Lightning for third in the Atlantic Division and 10 points out of the final wild-card berth.

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So they’ll need to get things turned around quickly if they want to make a run.

As for the biggest surprise, that’s a toss-up between the Devils and Kraken.

The Jets, the team I cover on a daily basis, gets an honourable mention here since my expectation was that they’d be battling for the wild card rather than be in the hunt for top spot in both the Central Division and the Western Conference.

If you’d like to share your thoughts on the just-past-the-midway-point award winners, send me an email at wiebesworld9@gmail.com.

TRADE WINDS BLOWING?

Tough news for Hurricanes left-winger Max Pacioretty, as he suffered a torn Achilles’ in the third period of Thursday’s game against the Minnesota Wild.

Pacioretty was playing in just his fifth game since returning from a torn Achilles he suffered during offseason training.

The primary concern here is for Pacioretty’s health, as he will be working his way back from two serious injuries in a short span of time.

Pacioretty had three goals for the Hurricanes and he was expected to provide another layer to their offensive attack.

So, what does the loss of Pacioretty mean for the plans of the Hurricanes leading up to the March 3 NHL trade deadline?

They currently lead the Metropolitan Division and are a legitimate contender to reach the Eastern Conference Final, so they’ll likely be looking to bolster the roster with some additional scoring.

Vancouver Canucks captain Bo Horvat is generating plenty of interest and all signs point to him being moved, perhaps well before the deadline.

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The Hurricanes aren’t fond of giving up assets for rentals, but you wonder if the organization could see a longer-term fit for Horvat, which would make him even more appealing for a franchise interested in taking a run at the Stanley Cup this season.

It’s important to remember that Hurricanes top centre Sebastian Aho – who recorded a natural hat trick on Saturday – has a contract that expires in the summer of 2024, though he is someone Don Waddell is going to try and extend.

Horvat is going to be at the top of the wish list of many general managers around the NHL looking to add a high-scoring centre and it will be interesting to see what kind of bidding war transpires here or if someone tries to step up and make the annual pre-emptive strike.

Eyebrows were raised earlier this week when Minnesota Wild defenceman Matt Dumba was a healthy scratch for Thursday’s game against the Hurricanes and Saturday’s tilt with the Florida Panthers.

Right-shot D-men are always in demand and while a couple of healthy scratches doesn’t mean Dumba will be moved by GM Bill Guerin, he is on an expiring contract and he’s the type of player that could generate some interest for teams in the rental market.

Dumba is in the final season of a deal that carries an AAV of $6 million (and a salary of $5.2 million) and he has a modified no-trade clause.

With just under six weeks until the trade deadline, the rumour mill is sure to be heating up – though finalizing many of those deals until days before is going to be complicated by the fact so many teams either have limited salary cap space or are among the teams operating in LTIR.

RAPID FIRE

Things are getting tighter in the playoff races in both conferences. Don’t look now but the Avalanche have won five consecutive games, outscoring opponents 22-6 in the process, to move into the second wild-card spot, percentage points ahead of the Calgary Flames. Earlier this week, Rantanen hit the 30-goal mark in 43 games, eclipsing the franchise mark of 44 set by Hall of Famer Joe Sakic during the 1995-96 season.

Panthers head coach Paul Maurice was fined $25,000 earlier this week for his rant about officiating and mentioning his strained relationship with one of the referees. Although he didn’t mention him by name, that referee was Francois St. Laurent, who tossed Maurice out of a game in 2016 in which Jets centre Bryan Little left the contest with two fractured vertebrae after a hit from Anton Stralman. When Maurice was asked about officiating in a game against the Montreal Canadiens after the fine had been levied, he showed his sense of humour. “I am in no position financially to give you an honest answer,” Maurice told reporters.

Nice to see the Sabres honour Ryan Miller on Thursday night as he had his No. 30 retired and raised to the rafters. Miller was an exceptional goalie throughout his career and I first watched him while he was learning his trade with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League during the 2002-03 season. A fifth-round pick of the Sabres back in 1999, Miller appeared in 796 games during an NHL career that also included time with the St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks and Anaheim Ducks.

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