At the three-quarter pole of the season there was a lead pack of three forwards in the race for the Calder Trophy with a trailing group comprised of a few defensemen and goaltenders.
A few of those players in the second tier have closed the gap, but probably not enough to finish any higher than third. Two of those forwards, Carolina’s Jeff Skinner and San Jose’s Logan Couture, are likely to claim spots among the three finalists and it could end up being a very close final vote.
Equally interesting will be who joins those two in Las Vegas as a finalist. There are as many four or five guys with a legitimate argument for the nomination.
The big takeaway should be this: the NHL has welcomed yet another deep and talented rookie class into the League, furthering a trend of increased emphasis on young, elite talent since the work stoppage erased the 2004-05 season.
Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks: The difference between Couture and Skinner is razor thin. Skinner had eight more points, but Couture was better defensively (though even advanced metrics like goals against per 60 minutes and quality of competition can be flawed) and had 8 game-winning goals (a more traditional, yet equally flawed statistic).
Skinner was a tremendously important player for the Hurricanes, probably their third-best player behind Eric Staal and Cam Ward. Couture was also of significant import for San Jose, finishing second on the team in goals and changing the dynamic of what was considered something of a one-line team. The fact that Couture was a key player for a division winner and Skinner’s team missed the playoffs could also be a slight advantage in Couture’s favor.
Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes: All of that might have been for naught, because there is a chance Skinner won this award at the All-Star break. He was one of the stories of All-Star weekend, and his importance to Carolina both now and in the future cannot be understated. Both Skinner and Couture also played great in the final weeks of the season.
There is a really good argument for both players and one is probably going to be disappointed. Two people who won’t be disappointed are Sharks general manager Doug Wilson and Carolina GM Jim Rutherford as they plot out the next decade or so with these two guys on their rosters.
P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens: Just as Couture vs. Skinner will generate plenty of debate, trying to pick the third guy for this list is equally difficult. The candidates are Subban, Washington defenseman John Carlson, New York Islanders forward Michael Grabner and Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford.
Grabner has more goals than any rookie since 2007 winner Evgeni Malkin. Crawford has slightly better numbers than 2009 winner Steve Mason. Even Carlson, minus some extra power-play points, has very similar statistics to 2010 winner Tyler Myers.
So why Subban? Like Carlson, Subban is essentially the No. 1 defenseman on a playoff team because a rash of injuries have pushed both of them into much greater roles than expected. Carlson has been a little better defensively, but seven more goals for Subban is a lot no matter how the numbers are dissected.
Crawford might be Chicago’s MVP, but the Blackhawks are loaded on defense. Grabner’s second-half surge was amazing, but being a second-line wing on a lottery team hurts him in comparison to the responsibility bestowed on Subban and Carlson.