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Cullen: NHL awards through three quarters of the 2013 season

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Scott Cullen
4/5/2013 3:07:37 PM
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With a quarter of this shortened NHL season left to play, a look at the NHL award races heading into the stretch run.

Injuries are playing a factor in some races. It's a short season already, so it doesn't take long before the time missed becomes a significant percentage of the overall season. Nowhere is that more of a question than in the Hart Trophy Race, where the leader through three quarters of the season is easy pickings. It's a question of how to measure value if the current leader doesn't play again until the postseason.

In any case, here's my take on the NHL awards for the first three quarters of the 2013 NHL season:

HART TROPHY
Winner: Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh
Runners-up: Jonathan Toews, C, Chicago; Ryan Getzlaf, C, Anaheim
Comment: There's little debate that Crosby has been the best player in the league this season, so it's easy to hand him the award through three quarters of the season. The more intriguing question becomes what happens if he's sidelined for the rest of the regular season? Is playing three-quarters of the season enough to warrant MVP? When was the last time an NHL MVP missed more than 20 games in a season?

Even goaltenders that have won the award (Jose Theodore, 2001-2002 and Dominik Hasek, 1996-1997 and 1997-1998) played more than 62 games.

In the last lockout-shortened season, 1994-1995, Eric Lindros was named MVP and played 46 of 48 games.

However, in 1992-1993, the Hart Trophy was awarded to Mario Lemieux, who played 60 games, scoring 160 points, still finishing a dozen points ahead of second-place finisher, Pat Lafontaine. Crosby currently has an eight-point lead over Steven Stamkos (56 to 48) in the points race, one that seems likely to be overcome by season's end.

If he doesn't win the scoring title, and still wins the Hart Trophy, then that would make Crosby the first player to do so while missing at least 25% of the games in that MVP season. As great as Crosby has been this year, has he been 25% better than the second-best player in the league? That's a big gap.

However that question is answered, if Crosby doesn't win, the race goes wide open (which might make Crosby the easier default choice). Jonathan Toews would have to battle teammate Patrick Kane for votes; Ryan Getzlaf, Stamkos and Eric Staal are others deserving of consideration to this point. There's still time for others to insert their name into the discussion.

NORRIS TROPHY
Winner: Kris Letang, Pittsburgh
Runners-up: P.K. Subban, Montreal; Ryan Suter, Minnesota
Comment: Like Crosby, Letang is a leading candidate to this point but, currently out of the lineup with a broken toe after having already missed time with previous injuries, he faces the same questions over how many games should be played to warrant a season-long award. Letang also has closer competition than Crosby. P.K. Subban has been excellent for Montreal and veteran Francois Beauchemin is in the midst of a career season.

Ryan Suter started slowly in Minnesota, but is very much a contender now. Perennial contenders Shea Weber, Suter's former Nashville teammate, and Boston's Zdeno Chara aren't far off the pace either.

VEZINA TROPHY
Winner: Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus
Runners-up: Antti Niemi, San Jose; Tuukka Rask, Boston
Comment: The Ottawa Senators have received unbelievably great goaltending this season, but Craig Anderson got injured and while there's barely been a drop-off when rookie Robin Lehner mans the crease. However, neither has really played enough games to qualify as the best. None of the goaltenders, to this point, have separated dramatically from the group, but Columbus' Sergei Bobrovsky has the best save percentage (.930) among goaltenders to have played in at least 20 games. The next best? Rask and Niemi.

Some other contenders: Cory Schneider, who has claimed the crease in Vancouver; Henrik Lundqvist, great as always and Chicago's Corey Crawford, backstopping the league's winningest team and having a bounceback year.

CALDER TROPHY
Winner: Brendan Gallagher, RW, Montreal
Runners-up: Brandon Saad, LW, Chicago; Jonas Brodin, D, Minnesota
Comment: While there's certainly an argument to be made for Panthers rookie Jonathan Huberdeau, who leads all rookies with 25 points (ni 37 games), the top two forward nominees -- Gallagher and Saad -- have worked their way into more signficant roles for winning teams as the season has progressed. Gallagher, my midseason leaders, still holds the edge, but Saad has been gaining ground.

Ever-steady Brodin, who pairs with Suter on the Wild's top tandem, is starting to put up better traditional stats (six points, plus-8 in last 12 games) which might help him gain notice that is otherwise lacking for how effective he is against high-quality opposition.

Not unlike the Vezina race, none of these rookies have pulled away enough to feel secure ahead of the crowd. Defencemen Jake Muzzin, Dougie Hamilton and Justin Schultz could factor into the face, as could forwards Huberdeau, Cory Conacher and Nail Yakupov.

SELKE TROPHY
Winner: Patrice Bergeron, C, Boston
Runners-up: Pavel Datsyuk, C, Detroit; Jonathan Toews, C, Chicago.
Comment: Using www.behindthenet.ca to look at strength of opposition, zone starts and shot differential, it becomes apparent which forwards are asked to do more than score. Bergeron is a perennial favourite for the award and his play this year hasn't done anything to remove him from consideration. He's currently sidelined with a concussion, though, so his return may be a deciding factor in his candidacy.

This is the same trio of leaders that I had in midseason. Toews and Datsyuk are elite two-way centres who consistently face hard matchups, are 1-2 among forwards in takeaways and are both winning more than 55% of their faceoffs. In fact, among players with at least 500 draws, Bergeron (61.5%) and Toews (60.5%) are 1-2 in that category. Datsyuk is merely seventh, at 55.8%.

The Blues' David Backes is having a hard time scoring, which shouldn't detract from his strong defensive play and tough assignments, but scoring does tend to gain more notice for the two-way types that contend for the Selke.

JACK ADAMS AWARD
Winner: Joel Quenneville, Chicago
Runners-up: Michel Therrien, Montreal, Paul MacLean, Ottawa
Comment: The Jack Adams is always a difficult award because not everything a coach does is going to show up on the ice and sometimes team results don't always mean that the coaching is superior. There's guesswork involved because no one is on the inside for all 30 teams to know what is happening from a coaching perspective.

Exceeding preseason expectations, significant improvement over the previous season or overcoming notable injuries during the season usually warrants consideration for the honour. If it's improvement from last season, Montreal, Anaheim, Toronto, Columbus and even the Islanders could qualify. However, it gets difficult to separate the value of goaltending from the coach's impact.

Is Toronto that much better because they are playing a superior brand of hockey or is it because they have an above-average goaltending tandem? Given the Leafs' rank 28th in shot differential, it's hard to ignore the goaltending angle. Same goes for Columbus.

No team has handled injury adversity better than the Ottawa Senators, who lost their two best players, Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza, relatively early in the season. Head coach Paul MacLean deserves credit, but the Senators also have goaltenders stopping an unbelievable 93.9% of the shots they face, which doesn't seem like it's necessarily a result of coaching strategy. That doesn't mean MacLean isn't a candidate -- he could easily win -- but it's a factor to weigh into the decision.

Montreal's Michel Therrien has guided the Habs to significant improvement and done so while Carey Price is playing at about his average level (as opposed to some of the goaltending performances already noted). Montreal allowed 1.2 more shots against per game last season and now outshoots the opposition by 2.9 per game, an indication that their turnaround is legitimate and not based on unsustainable percentages.

As it stands now, my (theoretical) vote stays with Joel Quenneville, whose Blackhawks didn't lose in regulation through the first half of the season and haven't slipped much even with Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp missing time with injuries.

I could still listen to arguments for Bruce Boudreau (Anaheim), Dan Bylsma (Pittsburgh), Alain Vigneault (Vancouver), Mike Yeo (Minnesota) and Mike Babcock (Detroit), but it's always tough to limit the contenders for this award.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Sidney Crosby (Photo: Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
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