Once upon a time, NHL awards season represented a far simpler task than today. A paper ballot would arrive (in the mail no less!) and the first of five sheets (with carbons in between no less!) would require three names for the Hart Trophy. You'd pause for half-a-second, fill in Wayne Gretzky on the top line, and then decide upon the two honourable mentions. The process would be over in the blink of an eye.
Some years, the other awards involved more complicated races (the Norris in the age of Paul Coffey vs. Rod Langway to name but one), but a lot of the times, in the age before parity, when there was a wide gap in the NHL's talent level, there were mostly clear-cut favourites and obvious choices.
Or maybe, as with all things in the past, it just seemed easier in hindsight.
Now, with the 2011-12 awards season upon us, the task is as complicated as it's ever been; the margins between candidates minuscule, the difference sometimes just a matter of splitting hairs.
In every category - the ones selected by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke, Lady Byng), by members of the Broadcasters Association (Jack Adams) and by the GMs (Vezina) - there are strong cases to be made for any of a handful of candidates.
I'm not certain if this is a good thing, or a bad thing.
Some would argue that the presence of a dominant player in any sport is good for that sport – so that when Tiger Woods dominates golf, or Roger Federer tennis, or Ayrton Senna auto racing, there is a persona that transcends the narrow fanatic followers of that sport and creates a spillover effect into the public at large.
It was like that with Gretzky and hockey (and in some ways, still is). When you ask people with only a marginal acquaintance with the NHL to name one single practitioner of it, you still hear Gretzky's name likely more than any other. Sidney Crosby was on his way to becoming that player and it may still happen (much to Mike Milbury's or John Tortorella's chagrin), but concussions have derailed his ascent. And this year, while the man who picked up the slack for Crosby in Pittsburgh, Evgeni Malkin, is the likely MVP, a strong case can be made for others too.
In fact, NHL awards voters are about to be engaged in an internal discussion that happens in major-league baseball all the time when it comes to their MVP and Cy Young awards – should pitchers qualify for the former, since they have their own award, the latter? The hockey equivalent in the pitchers vs. everyday-players argument is goalies vs. position players.
You could argue persuasively in every year that a goalie could be the MVP because it is the single most important position. What is it Harry Neale used to say? Goaltending is 75 per cent of your team unless you don't have it, and then it's 100 per cent. The NHL panel that selects players of the week and players of the month obviously agrees too. Overall, goalies win those awards a far disproportionate basis than position players.
And yet, goalies rarely win the Hart (the last to do so was Montreal's Jose Theodore in 2002, a controversial winner over Jarome Iginla because they tied for points, and Iginla lost because some voters actually left his name off the ballot completely because the Calgary Flames missed the playoffs that year).
In 2007, Vancouver's Roberto Luongo came close. He finished second to Crosby in the balloting. The last goalie to win without too much controversy was the Buffalo Sabres' Dominik Hasek, who won back-to-back in 1997 and 1998. In the dozen years since Hasek's MVP awards, 11 different players have won it. The only two-time winner is Washington's Alex Ovechkin (2008, 2009, he was also first runner-up to Vancouver's Henrik Sedin in 2010). Last year, it went to the Anaheim Ducks' Corey Perry, in a narrow decision over the Canucks' Daniel Sedin.
Malkin, believe it or not, has never won the Hart, although he finished second to Ovechkin twice. Goalies vs. position players has an apples-to-oranges feel to some voters; and so does playoff vs. non-playoff participation, which is why the Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos should get some support for his fabulous goal-scoring season but is unlikely to win outright.
This year, there are half-a-dozen legitimate defensible candidates for the Vezina, the Norris and the Jack Adams, a year in which there is little to separate the top goaltenders, defencemen and coaches. Voters are asked to select five and the NHL unveils the top three finalists during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
So without further preamble, a look at how the 2012 award season may unfold:
Hart Trophy ("to the player adjudged to be most valuable to his team")
Winner: Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins. Runners-up: Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers; Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning.
Lundqvist is the most valuable player on the most surprising team in the NHL, the Rangers, who've crept up from a mediocre 93-point season a year ago to contending for the President's Trophy as the No. 1 team in the league. Stamkos has a chance to be the first 60-goal scorer since Alex Ovechkin in 2007-08 and only the second since Jaromir Jagr did in 1995-96. The fact that no one in Tampa could stop the puck when it mattered could hardly be blamed on Stamkos. But Malkin soared during another year when the Penguins' core players – from Sidney Crosby to Jordan Staal to Kris Letang and – all spent significant time on the sidelines. Malkin never seems to be the same force when Crosby's in the lineup, but it says something about his ability to raise his game and be most valuable to his team when it matters most.
Norris Trophy ("to the defence player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability at the position")
Winner: Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators. Runners-up: Shea Weber, Nashville Predators; Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues.
Half-a-dozen other candidates all play defence probably better than Karlsson, but the award is for greatest all-around ability at the position and in 2011-12, making a good first pass, anchoring a power play, controlling the play whenever you're on the ice is as – or more important – than the ability to clobber somebody in open ice. Karlsson's offensive numbers – 78 points in 80 games, 25 more than the next-highest (Dustin Byfuglien and Brian Campbell) are just too significant to overlook. Weber has had another exceptional year for the Nashville Predators, but so has teammate Ryan Suter, and there isn't much to choose from between the two. As for Pietrangelo, few outside of St. Louis know much about him, other than the fact that in the glittery defence draft class of 2008 – which included Drew Doughty at No. 2, Zach Bogosian at No. 3, Luke Schenn at No. 5 and Tyler Myers at No. 12 – Pietrangelo was the last to arrive on the scene. But since getting there, he has been a two-way force, big, strong, good defensively, probably the best player most hockey fans have never heard of – or much about.
Calder Memorial Trophy ("to the player selected as most proficient in his first year of competition")
Winner: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers. Runners-up: Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche; Adam Henrique, New Jersey Devils.
Landeskog may be considered the favourite here because often voters like a candidate that finishes strongly (how Corey Perry overhauled Daniel Sedin, the most recent case in point). Landeskog is fun to watch too, carefully groomed by Colorado, a player that started the year on the third line, playing mostly with Daniel Winnik, and has gradually worked his way up the depth chart to the point where he is having more of an impact than Matt Duchene, who is two years older. But Nugent-Hopkins was far-and-away at the head of the rookie class for the first half of the season; missed some time with injury; and still tied for the lead in points with 52, despite playing 20 fewer games than Landeskog. That should count for something; he shouldn't be penalized for being hurt. Henrique, who started the year in the minors, helped the Devils stay competitive through the early-season absence of Travis Zajac, but he is playing further down the depth chart now that Zajac is back.
Lady Byng Memorial Trophy ("to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability)
Winner: Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers. Runners-up: Brian Campbell, Florida Panthers; Jordan Eberle, Edmonton Oilers.
Is Giroux's candidacy spoiled because of one major? It shouldn't be. He was, in many people's minds, the first half MVP, and has maintained a high standard of play, despite missing time with a concussion. Not since Red Kelly in the 1960s has a defenceman won the Byng and though Nicklas Lidstrom is a strong candidate every season, voters just cannot bring usually bring themselves to select a defenceman. But Campbell leads the league in minutes played and has just three minors this season, an extraordinarily difficult thing for a defenceman to do. Eberle, meanwhile, has flirted with the top-10 all year, despite being the only player in the top 30 in scoring to play fewer than 18 minutes per night. And he has just four minors to show for the season.
Frank J. Selke Trophy ("to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game")
Winner: David Backes, St. Louis Blues. Runners-up: Patrice Bergeron (Boston Bruins), Ryan Callahan (New York Rangers).
Usually, the award that splits the vote across more players than any other, Backes looks like he'll clobber the field this time around, the best defensive forward on the best defensive team in the league, a player who can play it any number of ways – tough, skilled, good in the face-off circle, a good penalty-killer, a favourite of defensively conscious coach Ken Hitchcock for all the obvious reasons. Bergeron had another quality season for the Bruins, but weren't quite as consistent defensively this year as last, when Tim Thomas won the Vezina. And Callahan is the heart-and-soul leader of a Rangers' team that has bought into John Tortorella's manically sound defensive system in a big, meaningful way.
Vezina Trophy ("to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at his position)
Winner: Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers. Runners-up: Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings; Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators.
Let's start with who doesn't make the cut – the top goaltending pair in the league, St. Louis's Jaroslav Halak and Brian Eliott; the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury (second in wins at 42); and the Coyotes' Mike Smith, who has done an admirable job of replacing Ilya Bryzgalov. Lundqvist and Quick are the only two defined starters, with 60 or more appearances, who've kept their goals-against averages under 2.00 – microscopic numbers reminiscent of the dead-puck age. The Kings have been at the bottom of the NHL heap in terms of goal-scoring for most of the season, but Quick's 10 shutouts, establishing a franchise record held for the past 35 years by Rogie Vachon, has them in contention for top spot in the Pacific. But Lundqvist has been all things to a New York team that relies on a young, inexperience, mostly no-name defence corps in front of him. Lundqvist has won 30 or more games for each of the seven years he's been in the NHL, and never finished in the top two in Vezina voting. GMs can remedy that oversight this year.
Jack Adams Award ("to the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success.")
Winner: Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis Blues. Runners-up: Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh Penguins; Paul MacLean (Ottawa Senators).
First, some shout-outs to other viable candidates, beginning with Barry Trotz in Nashville, who despite having the youngest team in the NHL (and one of the lowest payrolls), perennially gets the Predators nicely into the playoff mix. Dallas's rookie coach Glen Gulutzan did a nice job of keeping the rebuilding Stars in the race right up until the bitter end; while his counterpart with the Florida Panthers, Kevin Dineen, got the rebuilt Florida Panthers into the playoffs for the first time in forever. Nor should combative John Tortorella's work with the Rangers be overlooked; or Peter Laviolette's ability to steer the new-look Flyers safely into the playoff waters, despite off-season changes and the loss of key personnel such as Chris Pronger. All did great jobs. But it is hard to overlook MacLean's work with the Senators, a team some thought might bring up the basement in the Eastern Conference, but qualified for the playoffs instead. Bylsma oversaw a Penguins' team that challenged for first overall, despite the Crosby distraction, the Letang and Stall injuries, even Malkin's absence for nine games. But Hitchcock took over a Blues' team that was 6-7 and out of the playoffs and turned them into a team that was in contention for the President's Trophy by season's end, with a platoon in goal and his own share of concussed players (Alex Steen, David Perron, Andy McDonald). That a team few predicted would even make the playoffs may end up with the best regular-season record in the NHL will be hard for the broadcasters to overlook.