Best Team: San Jose Sharks. Runner-Up: Boston Bruins.
This choice likely will irk Boston and Detroit followers, because both of those teams have a legitimate claim on this award. The Sharks, Bruins and Red Wings have the three highest point totals in the league. In head-to-head matchups, the Sharks and Wings have split two games, with the home club winning each, although the Detroit victory was an impressive 6-0 whitewashing on December 18. It was the most lopsided loss for the Sharks this year. The Bruins defeated the Red Wings in Boston and will host the Sharks in March. So obviously, I’m not picking the Sharks because of the head-to-head stats. Instead, I am choosing them because quite simply, the Sharks were the best team I saw play in the first half. Their game against the Lightning on October 25 was crisp, solid and flawless. They have a terrific mix of veteran leaders like Thornton, Marleau and Boyle to go with sensational rising stars like Setoguchi, Pavelski and Clowe. I left the booth that night convinced that the Sharks have what it takes to win a Stanley Cup. That game was played in October, of course, and there’s still a lot of hockey yet to be played this year. Plus, the Lightning will get another crack at the Sharks next week in San Jose, so it’s possible that the Sharks won’t be able to duplicate their October effort. But this is a first-half award and by next Tuesday, both teams will be into the second half! The Bruins actually have better offensive and defensive numbers than the Sharks and they enjoyed a recent 10-game winning streak and 14-game home winning streak. But I picked them as runners-up only because, compared to San Jose, they weren’t as dominant in their games against the Lightning this year. The Red Wings only have a handful of losses, but they’ve been surprisingly leaky in the defensive end this year (by their lofty standards). They’ve overcome it with a powerful offensive attack and an ability to win close games. Moving forward, however, here’s a caveat about the San Jose pick. I believe that this year’s Cup is still Detroit’s to lose. The Wings are the defending champions and it will not be an easy task for any team to dethrone them.
League MVP: Alex Ovechkin. Runner-Up: Scott Clemmensen.
There’s sometimes an argument over an MVP award; is it the best player in the league or the one who is most valuable to his team? There are plenty of people who believe that Ovechkin is the best player. Personally, I think comparing Ovechkin to Crosby, Malkin and any other top player in the game is somewhat like comparing apples to oranges to pears. While they are all complete players, they each have different skills that distinguish them as incredible. But for me, this award is about which player is the most valuable to his team and in the first half, Ovechkin wins in a landslide. Consider that the Capitals are comfortably in first place in the Southeast Division. They’ve gotten there in spite of a rash of injuries that could have buried other clubs. Injuries to key players like Alexander Semin, Sergei Federov, Mike Green, Tom Poti, Viktor Kozlov. At one point, the Caps were missing one third of their regulars. Also consider that Ovechkin started the year with just two goals in his first 11 games (before the Caps’ injury bug really hit). Since that point, he’s carried his team through the injury adversity and he ranks among the league leaders in goals and points. As for Clemmensen, who would have thought that the Devils could have thrived without Marty Brodeur in net? Clemmensen has gone 15-6-1 in his first 22 decisions after Brodeur went down and the Devils are right in the middle of the tight Atlantic Division race.Coach of the Year: Joel Quenneville, Chicago Blackhawks. Runner-Up: Todd McLellan, San Jose Sharks.
It’s not easy for a coach to take over a team during the regular season. He’s robbed of a training camp and in Quenneville’s case, he had only just joined the organization in September as a scout. So prior to becoming their head coach, he hadn’t built a relationship with the Blackhawk players. He joined a team on the rise that barely missed the playoffs last year. Plus, he was given the reins after only four games this year. That’s pressure. But Quenneville has gotten the young Hawks to respond. In December, they won a franchise-record nine straight games and could give the Red Wings a run for their money in the Central Division. They’ll have to endure an eight-game road trip immediately after the All-Star Break but at the very least, they are well-positioned to earn their first playoff berth since 2002. McLellan’s situation wasn’t all that different. Of course, he had the benefit of a training camp with the Sharks, but like Quenneville, he came to a team with great expectations. San Jose has been a playoff disappointment in recent years and, as detailed in the first award, McLellan has the Sharks poised to make a deep run this season.
Time will tell if the Sharks are the best team at year’s end and hoist the Cup, if Ovechkin wins the MVP and if Quenneville is named Coach of the Year. But they’ve all made a strong case through the season’s first three months.