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.
I've got to go with Sid again. This is going to be a race between Crosby and Steven Stamkos, but I think what gives Crosby the edge is that he's always going to have more assists than goals. With the way he plays, the way Kunitz is playing this season and the power play Crosby is on, I think it will give Sid the assists to pull him ahead. He's always going to be a pass-first guy, then a shooting guy. Stamkos is definitely a shoot-first guy and then a passing guy -- and there's nothing wrong with that, particularly considering the type of dynamic scorer he is -- but because Crosby is always looking to make the pass, he'll end up taking the scoring title.
Even though Sid is going to rack up the assists, I think Stamkos will rack up the goals and take the Richard. The key to me is that Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning are going to be in a playoff battle, so they'll have to play Stamkos' line for an unbelievable amount of minutes. The Penguins likely will have a postseason berth sewn up near the end of the season, so Crosby might get rested and take fewer shifts here and there. Stamkos is going to play a ton more and the Lightning will have to open it up because they're not going to win with defense or goaltending. Instead of Stamkos playing 22, 23 minutes a night, he might end up being at 27 or 28 minutes a night near the end of the season. What's also important is that Stamkos has learned to go into those high-traffic areas to score goals now, too. He's gotten some gritty goals and really become a complete scorer. For those reasons, you'll see Stamkos win the Richard.
To me, the best defenseman in the NHL is Chara, and it's not close. I don't care about specific numbers. If you tell me I have one defenseman to start a team with, I'll pick Chara. I won't pick Erik Karlsson, I won't pick Shea Weber -- I'll pick Chara. He's got the hardest shot in the League, he's a very underrated passer, he's gigantic, he's physical, and for a big guy he has great moves, as he showed on that spin-o-rama goal a few weeks ago. He can shut anyone down, big guys or small guys, with that reach of his, and to me, there's just no doubt who the best defenseman is in the NHL is. He's a complete leader, he blocks shots, he kills penalties, he plays the power play, plays against the other team's best players and he's almost never hurt. He's just a dominant player right now in the NHL.
There are so many teams using two goaltenders now, like the Chicago Blackhawks or Anaheim Ducks, but there's no doubt Price is the No. 1 goalie for Montreal and his numbers are right there with everybody else right now. Montreal is one of the great stories in the NHL this season and I don't think there's one night this season that Price hasn't given the Canadiens good goaltending. If this team had average goaltending, they'd be in the playoff mix -- they're a legitimate contender -- but the Habs might be fighting for the sixth, seventh or eighth seed. With Price playing the way he's played, they've got a real shot at being the No. 1 seed in the East.
Right now, I think because of the injuries to great rookies across the League, guys like Vladimir Tarasenko, it's basically between Schultz and Tampa Bay's Cory Conacher. We've had some really great rookies this season like Tarasenko and Nail Yakupov, but we've also had a number of them getting injured. Schultz has been healthy, he's playing a ton of minutes, and even if Edmonton's record is not where the team wants it, Schultz continues to play well every night. Doing that as a rookie defenseman is not easy. While I think it's between him and Conacher, Jonathan Huberdeau has been great for the Florida Panthers, too, I always think it's a lot harder for a rookie defenseman to play well than a rookie forward, and that puts Schultz over the top. He's been solid all season long, and for a rookie defenseman, that's a real achievement.
Ottawa has lost arguably its three best players for long periods of time in Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson, and yet every night someone new comes through for the Senators. I think that's all MacLean, who has done just a fantastic job. Even when they lose they find ways to scrape a point out of it. For this team to be in a fight for the playoffs with the injuries they've had to them means MacLean has done an outstanding job and he's easily my coach of the year.
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