The 2010-11 season has been full of surprises and non-surprises, which is not surprising. Take, for instance, my own pre-season Stanley Cup picks. In one of my divisional preview articles back in September, I said the Vancouver Canucks, loaded at forward and on the blueline and with a gold-medal winning superstar in net, would break an almost two-decade drought and bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada. Well, that looks genius. The only teams which look capable of even competing with Vancouver in a seven-game playoff series are Detroit and Philadelphia, two teams with questions in net that the Canucks lack. I am confident that this year’s Canucks will make me look as good as my pre-season Stanley Cup pick of last season, the Chicago Blackhawks.
It is also important and humorous to note the team I predicted would be playing Vancouver for the Stanley Cup title, which is the New Jersey Devils. At the time I am writing this, they sit at the bottom of the NHL with the very worst record in the circuit. It has been a Murphy’s Law type of year for the Devs. General Manager Lou Lamoriello clearly made a mistake when he hired now former head coach John MacLean, who very well may have been the worst coach in the history of the National Hockey League. Soon to be remembered as the Rich Kotite of the NHL, MacLean’s conceptualization of the strategies of hockey were well below that of every other coach in the league and perhaps only on par with Paris Hilton’s conceptualization of quantum physics. Add in poor starts by Martin Brodeur and the much-maligned Ilya Kovalchuk and a season-ending injury to the sublime Zach Parise, and the Devils dug themselves into a hell they may be unable to escape until next season.
Although a lot can change in the season’s stretch run, many players deserve accolades for what they have accomplished thus far. Thus, it is time to give out the fantasyhockey.com mid-season awards.
JACK ADAMS TROPHY (COACH OF THE YEAR)
Barry Trotz, Nashville Predators
Although possessing a ton of talent on the blueline, the Preds started the year thin at forward and have suffered a horde of injuries to their forwards all year long. Quick quiz: Who is Nashville’s #1 center? Well, I doubt even the team’s 50 or so diehard fans can answer that question. Their most talented forward, Colin Wilson, was drafted as a center but has produced more on the wing this year. Youngster Cal O’Reilly has been solid at center but has suffered the injury bug. Overpriced Matthew Lombardi has missed most of the year due to a concussion. Trotz has somehow led this team to a top-four record in the brutal Western Conference. His system perennially makes average goalies look like world-class talents (see Chris Mason, Dan Ellis, heck even Mike Dunham), and he has done it again this year with Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback. Trotz never gets the credit he deserves, but how do you ignore what he’s done for the Preds this year so far?
John Tortorella, New York Rangers: Despite being decimated by injuries and lacking a top-line center for Marian Gaborik or a puck-moving rearguard, the Rangers have been one of the toughest teams to play in the Eastern Conference all year long.
Guy Boucher, Tampa Bay Lightning: His players have bloomed under his up-tempo style. Who would have guessed the Lightning would be ahead of Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals in the Southeast at the All-Star break?
CALDER TROPHY (ROOKIE OF THE YEAR)
Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes
I received some amazed reactions last year when I said before the draft that the debate of Taylor (Hall) versus Tyler (Seguin) was silly, because either team would be better off trading down in the draft and taking Jeff Skinner, who would score more than either of them. Barely six months later and the only skater on Carolina better than Skinner (the youngest player in the NHL) is a fellow named Eric Staal. Skinner leads all rookies in points by seven with a line of 18-22-40. Mark my words, Skinner will score 50 goals in a season very soon. Don’t own a keeper-league fantasy team without him.
Sergei Bobrovsky, Philadelphia Flyers: Could he be in the ingredient in net the Flyers have been missing in their Stanley Cup quest for years? Time will tell, but he’s been fantastic as Philly’s #1 option between the pipes during the campaign’s first half. He is phenomenal at stopping anything down low, but still needs to work on getting beat high.
Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks: The Sharks have been a disappointment under the dubious captainship of Joe Thornton, but Couture has been a godsend on the second line with an NHL-rookie leading 22 goals.
Derek Stepan, New York Rangers: Last year’s WJC captain for gold-medal-winning Team USA has been simply outstanding, netting 30 points at the break and playing well beyond his years in the defensive zone.
VEZINA TROPHY (BEST GOALTENDER)
Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins
In fantasy drafts, Thomas could usually be had in about the 20th round, due to the fact that most pundits expected Tuukka Rask to be the Bruins’ starting goaltender for the year. Well, Thomas is one of the hardest players to figure in the NHL. With no definitive style except a Dominik Hasek-like “save the damn puck any way you can” determination, Thomas won the Vezina two years ago. Last year, he looked ordinary and prematurely washed-up at 35 and questions arose whether he was one in a long line of one-year wonders in NHL nets. Yet in 2010-11, he has put up outstanding numbers — a league-best 24-5-6 win percentage, a league-best 1.81 GAA, and a tied-for-league-best seven shutouts. The Bruins are a very good team, but Thomas is the top reason they are at the top of the Northeast Division at the break.
Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens: How many cars were overturned in Montreal when the team traded last-year’s playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to make room for Price between the pipes? Well after 24 wins and a 2.36 GAA, we think they can turn those cars back over again.
Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers: Where would the Rangers be without him? With a 2.29 GAA, a .924 SV%, and a tied-for-tops in the league seven shutouts, Lundqvist has solidified his position in the NHL netminding elite.
NORRIS TROPHY (BEST DEFENSEMAN)
Dustin Byfuglien, Atlanta Thrashers
With all the hype he received in last season’s Stanley Cup run as a left wing on the Chicago Blackhawks, it is possible that Big Buff was still underrated. The former eighth-round pick is a physical anomaly. At 6’5” and nearly 260 pounds, he is impossible to beat in the corners or in front of the net, and can skate with almost any rearguard in the NHL. An extremely smart player, he has mastered the art of knowing when to join the rush in his first full season on the blueline, as evidenced by his NHL defenseman leading 16 goals, and he remains among the leaders at his position for hits. Perhaps most astounding is his six game-winning goals, tied for the lead-league with a group of forwards which include stars Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos.
Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings: It’s splitting hairs between Lidstrom, likely the second-best d-man in the history of the NHL after Bobby Orr, and Byfuglien. Though Lidstrom almost never makes a mistake and has been fantastically productive with 11 goals and 31 assists in just 49 games, we chose Big Buff simply because of his physical presence, the one attribute which Lidstrom has ever lacked.
Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins: If the NHL gave an award for most-improved player, Letang might also win that. He was always solid both offensively and defensively, but Letang has exploded into the elite this year with 41 points and a sick +22 rating.
HART TROPHY (MOST VALUABLE PLAYER)
Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks
Sorry Canada — a major reason your Canucks are primed to win their first Stanley Cup is an American hero in Kesler, a guy who has meant more to his team than uber-Canadians Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos have to theirs. What can’t Kesler do? Now that he has added goal-scoring to his arsenal (27 goals, tierd for third in the NHL, six game-winners, tied for first), Kesler’s game is truly without a flaw. Along with Pavel Datsyuk, he is the best defensive forward in the NHL. There may be no center better on faceoffs, and Kesler is as tough as they come, ready to defend a teammate against all comers. This year he has simply been the most dominant player in all three zones in the entire NHL, and will undoubtedly begin to receive more acclaim as an MVP candidate as the season winds down.
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins: What a truly sublime talent this guy is. With all the backlash against him (this means you Caps fans), he is without a doubt the best player in the NHL, maybe the best we have seen since the glory days of Gretzky and Lemieux. Unfortunately, concussion problems may slow him the rest of the way.
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning: Seen Stamkos? Wow, he has become simply electric to behold, leading the league with 38 goals and 67 points and knocking on the door of Crosby-and-Ovechkin-like elite status.
BREAKTHROUGH PLAYER (WE MADE THIS ONE UP)
Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche
In his second season at just 20 years old, Duchene has taken the next step, netting 20 goals and 25 assists in 50 games. He is an unbelievable skater and shooter, an electric talent who is worth the price of admission alone. Just a tick below the elite forwards in the NHL, expect him to be mentioned alongside top-NHL centers Crosby, Datsyuk, Stamkos, Sedin and Kesler very soon.
Dustin Byfuglien, Atlanta Thrashers: We have to include him here, too, but they don’t call you “Big Buff” unless you take up a lot of room.
Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers: You can make the argument that he broke through with his stellar performance in last year’s Philly playoff run, but Giroux’s skating, stick handling and on-ice vision are astounding. He has amasses 47 points in the Flyers’ first 50 games, and clearly has all the earmarks of a future 100-point producer.
Do you have a question about your fantasy hockey team? Email Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org, and he’ll add it to the Fantasy Mailbag. Or follow fantasyhockey.com on Twitter for up-to-the-minute updates, general hockey discussion, and any fantasy hockey questions that you have. You can also become a fan on Facebook.