On the Road with DotCom: All-Star Break Awards
Monday, 01.28.2008 / 1:35 PM CT / Feature
By J. Douglas Foster
Eastern media bias. It’s a term often thrown around in sports, and sometimes it almost comes off like blatant paranoia.
But in the National Hockey League, sometime it seems there is an overwhelming focus on the Eastern Conference. To those of us in the west, it seems quite apparent that to some, if it’s not happening in New York or Toronto, it’s not happening.
Well, as we get back to regular season play after the 2008 All-Star weekend, one thing is certain -- if little changes in the league from the break on out, it should be the Western Conference taking a clean sweep of all the major individual awards this season.
Sure, some people are having quality seasons in the east. Yet when you weigh them against what’s happening in the west, it’ll be hard to justify not taking the west finalists when handing out hardware.
So with just one game scheduled in the next four days, let’s look at who should be taking home those awards.
Right now, the clear frontrunner is former Dallas Star prospect and Calgary Flame Jarome Iginla.
At the break, Iginla sits third in the NHL with 32 goals, fourth with 63 points, second with 12 power play goals and tied for second with six game-winning goals.
Pretty good numbers. But the real selling point is this: When the notoriously slow-starting Flames did their usual limp out of the gate, it was Iginla who carried them back into contention. The Flames are 15-4-4 in their last 23 games, and during that stretch Iginla has 18 goals and nine assists, along with a +11 rating and four game-winning goals. When the Flames got hot, it was Iginla sparking the flint.
Sure, Alexander Ovechkin is having a great season, registering nearly 40 goals before the break. And Vincent Lecavalier leads all of hockey in scoring. But let’s be honest – the Captials and Lightning both stink. And this scribe always has trouble naming anyone the league’s “Most Valuable” when they play on a rotten team.
Iginla’s best competition, most likely, could come from Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson. Thanks to his seven-point outburst on Thursday, he now leads the league with 67 points. The Senators’ captain is key to their success, but at the break, we’re giving the edge to Iginla.
Again, it stays in the west.
But my money, unlike others, isn’t on Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo.
Sure, he’s having another typical Luongo season, currently sitting third in the NHL in goals-against average (2.11), save percentage (.925) and shutouts (six). But he’s also just one game over .500 at 21-16-4 (yes, an overtime loss is a loss. So that’s 20 losses).
That’s why I’m taking a surprise pick – Columbus’ Pascal Leclaire.
On a team that has just two real scoring threats, Leclaire is second in the league in GAA (2.06), fifth in win percentage (18-9-3, .650), second in save percentage (.925) and leads all of hockey with seven shutouts. Consider he’s 33rd in the league in goals in support, getting just 2.5 per game from his team, and he very easily could have the best record of any netminder.
Detroit’s Chris Osgood is having a stellar season as well, potentially his best ever, and is certainly worthy of consideration as well. Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers had a great start as well, but New York has struggled of late, and he’s just 10th in the NHL in GAA (2.33).
Bottom line? It’s time for some new blood in this department. And Leclaire is the answer.
It’s really not as easy as just giving it to Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom.
Well, maybe it is.
Look, I long for the day when the league wises up and finally gives a Norris to Sergei Zubov. And it looked for some time like this might be his year as he got out to such a great start.
But injuries have slowed him some, and as the year has progressed, Lidstrom has proved to be just as good as he’s ever been. His 45 points is best among league defensemen, and his +39 rating is tops in the entire NHL.
He’s simply the best defenseman in the world. He might be the best player in the world, and some have called him the best defenseman since Bobby Orr. Matters of opinion (pretty good ones too), but the facts are that this summer, he’ll be a six-time Norris Trophy winner, trailing only Orr (eight) and Doug Harvey (seven) in that category.
This one is a two-player race.
And the two players happen to play on the same team – in the Western Conference.
Rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have brought excitement back to Chicago Blackhawks hockey, and there’s no doubt they will both be great players for years to come.
Kane, mostly because of health, gets the edge right now with 12 goals and 33 assists in his 49 games. Toews, who has played 36 games, has 15 goals and 17 assists, as well as one super highlight-reel goal (which was the best yet this season until Rick Nash’s goal last week against Phoenix). Many believe Toews, because of his size, will be a better NHL player, but Kane will get the honor as league’s best rookie unless his teammate goes on a real tear in the season’s final 30 games.
Again, we stay out west, and the two-man race for this title seems to be adding a third contender – and he’s a great one.
Detroit bench boss Mike Babcock has every reason to be given this award, no matter what kind of talent he has at his disposal. The bottom line is this Red Wings team is on pace to challenge the league record of 62 wins in a season, set by the 1995-96 Red Wings. If Detroit does that, it seems there’s no way you can’t honor its coach as the league’s best.
Meanwhile, former Dallas boss Ken Hitchcock is making quite a case in Columbus as well. All he’s done is get the once lowly Blue Jackets into playoff contention. At the 50-game mark, Columbus has more wins, a better win percentage, has allowed fewer goals and has the best penalty kill and power play of any team in franchise history at the same point. If the Blue Jackets make the postseason, how can you not consider Hitch?
And don’t look now, but Wayne Gretzky has the Phoenix Coyotes playing as well as anyone in hockey. Phoenix has the best divisional record of any team in the Pacific and has recently climbed within two points of the eighth and final playoff spot. Once criticized for creating a “country club atmosphere” in the resort town of Phoenix, Gretzky seems to have found some way to motivate his charges. If he keeps it going through the 82nd game, he’ll certainly earn some votes for the league’s best coach.
Can we give it to Jere Lehtinen despite the fact he’s missed 32 games?
OK. Probably not. But this is DallasStars.com, and you can’t blame us for playing favorites.
Instead, it’s should be time for Anaheim’s Sami Pahlsson earned his due, along with his first Selke Trophy. However, he’s got to get healthy to do that.
A relentless forechecker, tenacious puck battler and great penalty killer, Pahlsson probably should have won the Selke last season. But it seems this award always falls a year or two behind, so Pahlsson took a back seat to Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour.
Never a bad pick as Brind’Amour approaches opposition shut down by not allowing them to get the puck, thanks to his uncanny ability to win seemingly every faceoff. A great player, no doubt. But Pahlsson has played like the league’s best defensive forward the last two seasons, and if he returns from his current abdominal strain in time to play at least the final 20 games – at the same level he played prior to the injury – he should join Lehtinen and Sergei Fedorov as the only non North Americans to capture the Selke.
We’ll pass on picking a winner for the Lady Byng, because you probably couldn’t find a player in the NHL who cares about winning it. So if they don’t, why should we?