Back in January, I submitted my First-Half Awards in three categories: best team, league MVP and coach of the year. With the regular season ending tomorrow, here are my year-end picks in those three same categories. (My January picks are included parenthetically).
Best Team: San Jose Sharks (First Half Winner: San Jose Sharks).
Simply put, the Sharks have earned this honor because they’ve been the league’s front-runner from the starting gate to the finish line. With a win over the Kings today, the Sharks will clinch their first President’s Trophy. Along the way they endured some adversity; they went through a stretch of one win in seven games in February and still recovered to overtake Detroit for the best record in the West. They are well-balanced, boasting a lineup filled with superstars, promising youngsters and effective role players. Now the question for the Sharks is: can they win the Cup? As I mentioned back in January, if it’s going to happen, the Sharks likely will have to get past Detroit in the Western Conference Finals and the Red Wings will probably be favored to win that series. Throughout the playoffs, the Sharks surely will be dogged with the ghosts of the previous San Jose teams that didn’t live up to post-season expectations. But this is a different team in a different year and to this point, this San Jose club hasn’t given us any reason not to believe.
MVP: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (First Half Winner: Alex Ovechkin).
When the Lightning played in D.C. last month, one Caps’ writer penned an article detailing how league sentiment had become more tepid about the prospect of another Hart Trophy for Ovechkin. The article claimed that Ovechkin had not maintained his torrid scoring pace, the Caps had not been as dominant on the ice in the second half of the season and Ovechkin’s primary competitor, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, was leading the league in scoring and was on one of the league’s hottest teams. But in examining Ovechkin’s stats, he really didn’t suffer a scoring slump over the past two months. Since the All-Star Break he went pointless in only three of 32 games. Furthermore, the Pens’ ascension seemed to have less to do with Malkin elevating his game and more to do with the late-February return of Sergei Gonchar from a preseason injury and the promotion of head coach Dan Bylsma. In other words, Malkin was producing points before those additions, yet Pittsburgh was in real danger of missing the playoffs entirely. In Washington, however, the Caps were able to propel themselves to the top of the division in spite of a rash of injuries. The difference between the teams is that Ovechkin, who was one of the Caps’ players to escape the injury bug this year, helped his team overcome these issues; the Caps were certainly more consistent. Ovechkin was the primary reason why. Aside from Malkin, one could make a compelling argument for Boston goalie Tim Thomas or the Mason boys (Steve in Columbus and Chris in St. Louis), but in my book, Ovechkin is still the choice.Coach of the Year: Todd McLellan, San Jose Sharks (First Half Winner: Joel Quenneville, Chicago Blackhawks).
The NHL broadcasters vote for this award and McLellan is going to get my vote. As detailed earlier, the Sharks have not had a completely smooth ride throughout the year, so McLellan deserves credit for steering his team through those rough waters. It’s true that the Sharks are one of the most talented teams in the league, but such groups aren’t always the most successful. That won’t be the case, however, if a talented group buys into and fully believes in a coach’s system. Additionally, McLellan is a first-year NHL head coach. This distinction was held by last year’s winner as well; Bruce Boudreau had enjoyed great success as a head coach in the minors before getting his NHL shot last year with Washington. McLellan guided the AHL’s Houston Aeros to a Calder Cup in 2003. As well, he served as an assistant to Mike Babcock in Detroit and was part of the Wings’ Stanley Cup run last year. So McLellan brought excellence and experience to the San Jose job, but it’s still his first NHL head coaching post. To have made such a seamless transition is an exceptional feat. By the way, there are other worthy candidates for the award. Quenneville took over the Blackhawks early in the season and has guided them to their first playoff berth since 2002. Ken Hitchcock has taken the Columbus Blue Jackets into the post-season for the first time in franchise history. Claude Julien coached the East’s best team, the Boston Bruins, who made enormous strides from their eighth-seeded finish in the conference last year. And Andy Murray in St. Louis brought the Blues from the bottom of the Western Conference Standings to a playoff berth in just the last few months.
Even though the Lightning’s season ends tonight, I’ll provide a playoff opening round series preview next week.