As the NHL season chugs along, all but one team has reached the halfway point in its season, and the one team that hasn't, the Los Angeles Kings, will get there Monday when they play the Calgary Flames. With the abbreviated 2012-13 season moving so quickly, it's amazing that we're already halfway through the schedule, but it doesn't mean we can't see which players are having tremendous seasons and who has the leg up for this season's major honors.
Here are my picks for some of the NHL's major awards at the midway point:
One of the most important things to me is that I just don't think an MVP can be on a team that doesn't make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Plenty of players are having great seasons, but players like Steven Stamkos or John Tavares probably are not going to be in the postseason mix at the end. I've got to look at a team that's going to the playoffs and right now Pittsburgh is winning even if they really aren't playing that well, and Sidney Crosby is the reason. Sid is leading the NHL in scoring and assists. On Saturday night he scored a goal against Toronto and then got the winner in the shootout, and with Evgeni Malkin missing chunks of time, Sid is regularly seeing the other team's best players every night and he's still producing. He's very quietly had a great year, and it looks like he's playing hard as if his injury worries are a thing of the past. He's flying around and playing with reckless abandon because he's confident that his injury won't come back every time he gets nailed. He's past that mentally and all the good things in Pittsburgh this season -- the Pens' record, Chris Kunitz's 17 goals, Pascal Dupuis' 11 goals -- those just don't happen without Sid.
One of the unfortunate parts of sports is occasionally money becomes a big issue. This was the case over the last six weeks between the Colorado Avalanche and Ryan O'Reilly, one of the best young players on Colorado, but also a restricted free agent. Now that Colorado finally has O'Reilly signed after matching Calgary's two-year offer sheet and O'Reilly was back in the lineup Sunday afternoon, it's time for both parties to move on until his new deal is up at the end of the 2013-14 season.
I know what this situation is like because it happened to the Los Angeles Kings when I was coaching them in the early 1990s. We went to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993 and the next season Marty McSorley, who had been a very valuable part of our club, had to be moved because of his contract. This was before the salary-cap era in the NHL, but the front office believed he was going to make too much money because he got a big raise after we won the conference title and as a result we ended up having to trade him to Pittsburgh. When it became apparent how valuable he was for us, we traded back for him.
This situation was different because it wasn't about matching offer sheets or dealing with free agency, but it is an example of when the economics of the sport have an impact on your team. His new contract just didn't fit in with our salary structure. A lot of the deals in the NHL are made without the coach being involved. A lot of it is about money. A great example of this is the Chicago Blackhawks trading away several valuable pieces like Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg right after winning the Stanley Cup in 2010. Those situations are out of a coach's hands. It's always a tough situation when money is more involved in a deal than a player's ability.
With just a few minutes left in the third period of their game with the Detroit Red Wings yesterday afternoon, the Chicago Blackhawks were down 1-0 and all I could think was they had played so well in that game they should have been ahead 3-1 or 4-1. I actually didn't think a loss in regulation would have been the worst thing for Chicago. It would have gotten a monkey off their back since they're going to lose in regulation sooner or later. This streak won't last for 48 games and the Blackhawks were going to win a bunch more games this season regardless of what happened yesterday.
But then Patrick Kane tied the game, he eventually won it in the shootout and a day later the streak continues.
What might be most amazing about this is that there's no shame in losing to Detroit, which is a great hockey club, but now that Chicago survived Sunday, its upcoming schedule isn't nearly as daunting. The Blackhawks play a talented, but struggling Minnesota team Tuesday night and their next four after that are a home-and-home with Colorado, a home game against Edmonton and a trip to Columbus. After Wednesday, Chicago won't have a back-to-back for more than a month, just one of the Blackhawks' next five games is against a team currently in the West's top eight and four of those games are against teams that currently occupy the bottom three spots in the Western Conference standings.
Obviously, it would be getting ahead of ourselves to predict that Chicago could run this streak from 22 games to 27 that easily, but the schedule sets up the possibility that if the Blackhawks continue to play as well as they did against Detroit, they could extend this more than just another game or two.
And what evidence is there to convince you that they won't? This team has got everything. The stars are great, the goaltending between Corey Crawford and Ray Emery has been great and their depth is unbelievable. The Blackhawks have had 12 guys score game-winning goals this season, which is just phenomenal, and they're starting to look very, very similar to the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2010. The depth that team had on its third and fourth lines and eventually traded away to fit under the cap seems to finally be back, and they're just as deep on defense, too. Michal Rozsival and Nick Leddy might be the top pair on a few teams in the NHL, and they would certainly be third and fourth defenseman on most. On Chicago they're the fifth and sixth defensemen because the team is just that deep.
After the comeback Chicago had Sunday afternoon, the aura of invincibility the Blackhawks have around them is just that much stronger. This is a team that expects to win every game and they expect something will happen to get it done for them. That's a great mindset when you're that confident and you can see it in how Chicago plays. Everybody wants the puck. On teams that are struggling no one wants the puck because they don't want to be the guy that makes a mistake. On this team everyone wants to be the guy that makes a difference. That's how you become a good team and the confidence it instills is just filtering down throughout the roster. Take a look at Rozsival. He's doing things he's never done before. He's cycling and dropping the puck and playing with confidence we haven't seen from him in a long time. Playing for a winning team has that kind of impact.
This stretch isn't a fluke. This team is for real and it has everything. The Blackhawks will lose a game in regulation eventually, but they're too strong to let it overwhelm them. I can't see this team just suddenly losing five or six in a row. One loss isn't going to change the mindset of the Chicago Blackhawks.
If you pay attention to the NHL on a regular basis, you're already well aware of the special season that's brewing in Chicago, but I'm not sure we all realize just how special it is.
After Sunday night's 1-0 win against Columbus, the Blackhawks are now 15-0-3, which is the longest any team has ever gone without a regulation loss to start the season. When you do something that's never been done before in a league that's 96 years old, that's pretty impressive.
Not only has it never happened, but they did it basically without any training camp as a result of the lockout. You also need to remember that, yes, the Blackhawks have been pretty healthy for the most part, but they've also beaten Vancouver a couple of times, they've beaten San Jose a couple of times, they've beaten St. Louis. They've really beaten everybody. This isn't just a case of them beating up on the weakest horses in the field every night.
To play 18 games and not really have a bad game except for, possibly, Sunday night, while using two goaltenders and not have a game where you let up or get tired, it's amazing.
The game has changed a lot in the past century, and some of the men on this list are reasons that the game has changed the way that it has. But there's one thing that will never change in the NHL, and that's that you won't be able to consistently compete -- or win a Stanley Cup -- without a great coach.
Now, some of you might be surprised that you won't see Toe Blake or Punch Imlach on this list, and while they and a few others were tremendous coaches in the Original Six era, they didn't have the same impact. None of them changed the game or revolutionized it the way the guys on my list did.
Here are my top five greatest coaches in NHL history:
5. Roger Neilson -- Many people will say Neilson didn't win much, and it's true he never won a Stanley Cup as a head coach -- he only reached the Final once -- but Neilson changed the way coaching was done. He was incredibly influential and innovative in ways the game had never seen. He was the first guy ever to study film, his practices were well thought out and much more organized than practices had been at the time, and the guys that played for him, Darryl Sittler, Dan Maloney, guys I played with in Toronto that had played for Roger loved him. They all talked about how creative he was.
One of the best things about Roger was how he would always look for ways to exploit the rule book, like when he famously had his goaltender leave his stick on the goal line after being pulled for an extra attacker because there was no explicit rule against it. They had to make rules to combat Roger's thinking. He was influential for workouts, nutrition and a number of other things, but really his use of video might be his greatest legacy. If you go into an NHL dressing room you can't imagine the money and time tied up in video, and that all started with Roger Neilson.
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I think everyone left it out there. Every game this season, regular season and playoffs, we played as hard as we could. We're not out of the playoffs right now because of lack of effort, and that's all that we can ask of each other.