What a year we’ve already had in the NHL this season, and we are only at the halfway point. While it’s common knowledge that playoff hockey is not only one of the most exciting sports to watch, it also is a great opportunity to see teams you may not root for or normally see, as the action is so magnetic you are instantly drawn in. In this first hockey piece for PCU, I wanted to highlight some of the best the NHL has to offer this year, a preview to the year end awards. While I’m not hitting all the awards, I’m making sure to cover all positions and coaching (not touching GMs right now, would rather at the end of the year and wouldn’t be able to do it without getting really nerdy). The one exclusion you’ll notice is the rookie class; as I feel that subject deserves it’s own piece due to how this year’s class is so special.
Hart Trophy (MVP)
Disclaimer: I didn’t include goalies on this section for the mid year. This will change when we get to the season end, especially if Holtby continues his run.
This year has seen the rise of the duo of Seguin and Benn in Dallas, Alex Ovechkin’s return to one of the best, and Jaromir Jagr’s stellar play at his age drive the narrative. The one constant for the last half decade, however, is the overall dominance of the Chicago Blackhawks. That dominance this year is led by the young all star winger in Patrick Kane. After an offseason that nearly saw him indicted on sexual assault charges, it seems like Kaner is in a New England Patriots style “F You” mode, and is lighting the league up. When you look at his stats, he’s not only leading in goals, assists, points, AND goals created, but the numbers themselves have the potential to be all timers if he continues on that pace. The advanced stats (Corsi, PDO, and Zone Starts for all you deep divers) show that the team is feeding off this. There’s something to be said for his line being an absolute terror to everyone in the league, and Artemi Panarin is getting quite the rookie experience working with a player like this. One last thing before I start gushing over actual numbers, when you watch him skate, he has the same effect that Steph Curry has in the NBA this year, it almost doesn’t seem like he’s skating, rather the ice is moving below him, and his ability to shift or sprint on a dime will leave you laughing over it’s ridiculousness.
One of the players everyone’s been talking about, Jamie Benn is leading the Dallas Stars to a potential Presidents Trophy this year. When you talk about Benn, you also have to look at Tyler Seguin, his linemate and fellow all star. In choosing between the two, it all comes down to stats, where Benn has the slight, and I mean SLIGHT edge over Seguin. Even strength they look almost identical, but Benn has the edge on the powerplay and with overall efficiency percentage. Another factor in favor of Benn is his leadership as captain. While I don’t think he’s quite on the top tier level of Toews in Chicago or Ove in Washington, he’s leading the best team in the league, and it’s all by example. Watching him play with Tyler Seguin on that first line, it doesn’t seem like anyone can stop them when clicking, and it all seems to stem from Jamie Benn’s stick
Over the past decade, there’s been a fairly ridiculous debate on who the best in the NHL is, between Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. This is so because they play such a different style, Ove being a sniper like winger and Crosby being a creator centerman (who has a great shot as well). This year Ove took a leap, and is truly earning the “C” on his jersey, as his team sky rockets to the best in the Eastern Conference. His stats are good every year, so what makes him stand out this year is him working with the team around him, whether it be giving a little more feeding of the puck to his great linemates in Nick Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, but also he seems to have a second effort defensively, and it’s clear that he’s taken a step from really working for his stats, to now working for the Cup. He’s made these adjustments while not missing a beat on his shooting intensity and accuracy and his fast pace physical game. There are times he’s coming end to end like a freight train where I can’t imagine anyone getting in his way without just bouncing off him. He’s gonna be a guy that we need to watch in the post season, where he can really cement himself as not only the best Russian player ever (Federov is still right there too), but one of the best of all time of any nationality.
Norris Trophy (Top Defensemen)
For all you hockey people, this is far from a hot take. Karlsson has been touted as the best defensemen in the league for much of the season. A lot of that has been the offensive production, as those numbers are much easier to analyze, and, frankly, a lot more obvious. There’s no doubt that he’s strong defensively as well, and it would be curious to see if his goalie, Craig Anderson, would have the really solid numbers he’s had this year without Karlsson. He takes up a huge amount of ice time, one of the highest in the league, and is a constant danger from end to end for the other team. While in other years people like Duncan Keith and Shea Weber have contended pretty competitively for the Norris, this year it’s looking like Karlsson is going to run away with it.
This one pains me to write. As much as I dislike the LA Kings, I cannot ignore the stud that Drew Doughty has been this year. For me, up until this point he’s just been the guy that frustrates me on a daily basis in the playoffs, on a team that seemed a little overrated. After last years gut check when the team missed out on the playoffs, they look to be looking to make a statement this year, and it all comes down to Drew Doughty taking an extra step to an absolute elite level defensemen. There was a thought before this year that he was being propped up by his linemate Jake Muzzin, but with the line up change this year, it’s pretty clear that he’s just a special talent. In addition, there’s a lot of hype about Jonathan Quick, and, in my opinion, Quick is as good as he is stat wise because Doughty is such a strong and effective defensemen. Not saying Quick is bad, but we should be giving credit where credit is due, which is all on Doughty (and Darryl Sutter to a grander extent).
This one might have casual fans raising their eyebrows, but for really diehard hockey nuts, it’s an obvious choice. The story for the Coyotes this year are the rookie sensations in Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, but we should not be selling Ekman-Larsson short either. He’s right up there stats wise with guys like Karlsson and Doughty, and he’s doing it with a lot less talent on the ice with them. While the Coyotes aren’t bad without him, they would definitely be letting in a lot more goals with just an average defender. You could see this in his plus/minus stats. When you’re watching him on the ice, it’s clear that he’s all star level (saying all star with the Coyotes makes me angry after the Jon Scott situation CORRECTION: SCOTT IS IN, REJOICE), but that one stat isn’t great, which I think lends itself to the Coyotes at large rather than Ekman-Larsson himself. There’s a decent amount of young guys on this team that will only get better, which I believe will improve that stat. Also, we can’t ignore that he’s leading that team in goals right now.
In order to be a nice size chunk to read, we will stop here for part one of the mid year awards. Come back later this week for part two, where I will look at Goalies and Coaches!