Tomorrow is a day that I usually have marked in my calendar every year. A day that my imagination runs wild before my dreams seem to get crushed year after year. It's the day that the NHL Playoffs start. Needless to say, this means that I end up with hockey on the brain during this part of the year.
The first of my posts is going to be a retrospective on the NHL season that was, as I hand out my picks for awards. While I will look at the major ones (Hart, Calder, Vezina, Norris, and Adams), today I will look at five other awards that I feel are more interesting than the Lady Byng and the Selke combined.
Comeback Player of the Year
Paying respects to the players who are coming back from a rough season or two, by putting up good numbers in 2007-08.
Honourable Mention: Chris Osgood, Jeremy Roenick, Todd Bertuzzi
Second Runner Up: Mike Riberio, Dallas Stars
This must really hurt Habs fans out there. Riberio bounced back from some pretty sub-par seasons to show the promise that he exhibited early in his career. He was able to set a career high in goals, assists, points, plus/minus, and penalty minutes, not bad I dare say.
To top it all off, he was selected as a reserve for the All-Star game. Not a bad year for someone who was thought to be a complete bust a few short years ago.
First Runner Up: Jose Theodore, Colorado Avalanche
It seemed like it was all over.
After having a miracle season in 2002, Jose Theodore appeared destined to join the most elite of NHL goalies. However, then things went horribly, horribly wrong. He encountered a series of off-ice problems and it became apparent that he needed to get out of Montreal. He was traded for David Aebischer, a serviceable back-up, to Colorado. While he played well at first in his new home, things went very quickly downhill the following year.
He quickly became the highest paid back-up goalie in the league, and the Avalanche reportedly looked to dump his $5 million salary on any other team, however there were no takers. Somehow, someway, things changed this year as Peter Budaj struggled, and Theodore was thrust back between the pipes. While he has not quite regained his form from 2002, he still has far exceeded expectations this year, and has proven to be quite the story.
2008 Winner: Alexi Kovalev, Montreal Canadiens
As you have probably noticed from the two runners up, there are several players who are able to bounce back after leaving Montreal. Perhaps the city, and the pressure, makes certain players crack.
During last season, it appeared that Alexi Kovalev may be another player added to that list, however, something turned around this year. He showed heart, determination, and skill, many things that he hadn't shown in years. This translated into Kovalev finishing 11th in the NHL scoring race with 84 points.
And to think, at his point last year people were ready to ride him out of Montreal...
Most Improved Player
In a contrast to the last award, these guys were never really that big of names before this season but they won't be soon forgotten now.
Honourable Mention: Ryan Getzlaf, Andrei Markov, Dan Ellis,Alexander Radulov, Pascal Leclaire, Brad Boyes, Illya Bryzgalov
2nd Runner Up: Ty Conklin, Pittsburgh Penguins
Before this season, Conklin's most remembered moment is one that he would hope to forget. In Game 1 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals, Oilers goalie Dwayne Roloson suffers a freak injury, and who should replace him but Mr. Conklin himself, having spent the last several weeks watching the games from the bench. In trying to play the puck, Conklin slips, and the Hurricanes score a goal, and go on to win the game 5-4. Conklin then spends the rest of the series on the bench again, as the Oilers go with their 3rd string goaltender instead.
When Marc-Andre Fleury struggled and then suffered a high ankle fracture, many expected the Penguins to look for another goalie, with names like Curtis Joseph, Jaroslav Halak, and Ilya Bryzgalov getting tossed around. Unbeknown to pretty much the entire planet, the Penguins had the right answer all along, Ty Conklin.
Conklin played remarkably well in Fleury's absence, starting a whopping 33 games, and posting a respectable 2.51 GAA, and getting a whopping .923 save percentage, good enough for 2nd in the league.
Even if Conklin has to watch the entire playoffs from the bench, it sure will be an improvement over his last trip to the post-season, that's for sure.
1st Runner Up: Mike Green, Washington Capitals
Hands up if you knew who he was before this season.
If your hand is up you either: a) Are a die-hard Capitals fan and therefore don't exist, b) Know a ridiculous amount about hockey, or c) Are a pathological liar.
Green was drafted way back in 2004, and didn't make the NHL until last season. Even last year, he hardly lit the league up, posting 12 points in 70 games. However, something amazing happened this year. He got better. A lot better.
This season he had 18 goals, second in total for all defensemen (Note: Dustin Byfuglien was listed as first, and he spent a large portion of the season playing forward, so really Green wins those honours), and saw a tremendous amount of Power Play Time, and was a huge contributor to the Capitals amazing late season success.
Mike Green has made tremendous strides this season and I fully expect him to be a member of Team Canada in 2010 if he can keep this up.
2008 Winner: Mike Richards, Philadelphia Flyers
Who the hell saw this one coming?
I mean, I knew Richards was good from his days in Junior but....wow...
While his play was impressive, Richards hardly turned any heads in his first two NHL season, but sometimes a year makes a world of difference. Richards was able to lead the Flyers with 75 points this season, despite playing in only 73 games, and essentially shove free agent coup Daniel Briere down to the second line. Richards was rewarded for his awesomeness with a staggering 12 year contract extension by the Flyers.
What's more impressive is the growth in character that Richards has shown this year. As great as Jason Smith is, it seems like only a matter of time to me before Richards finds a C on his jersey. I suppose he can get used to it, he'll be in Philadelphia for a while now.
The MANLY Bling Award
Meant to be a complete opposite of the Lady Byng, given to the most obnoxious player you can think of who bends the rules on a routine basis.
(Note: I need to thank my hetero-lifemate Troy for suggesting this award,)
(Dis?) Honourable Mention: Jordin Tootoo, Colton Orr, Darcy Tucker, Jarrod Boll, and many, MANY more
2nd Runner Up: Jarkko Ruutu, Pittsburgh Penguins
This guy is just plain and simply a pest.
I would never condone Chris Simon's imfamous skate stepping incident, but you have to wonder what this guy did or said to incite it. I'm sure it wasn't the most politically correct of things.
I mean, look at that picture and just tell me that you don't want to punch him in the back of the head!!!
1st Runner Up: Sean Avery, New York Rangers
I honestly don't think that this guy knows how to shut up. He started a fight with Darcy Tucker before a game even started this year by running his mouth (Note: I'm sure Mr. Tucker was not innocent in the whole affair).
To make this guy even more obnoxious he can score too, as he was able to pop in 15 goals in 57 games this season. Also, he has been linked romantically to Rachel Hunter and Elisha Cuthbert, plus has been rumoured to be involved with Mary-Kate Olsen, and the prostitute that New York Governor Elliot Spitzer was caught with. Oh he was also named one of People Magazine's sexiest men alive.
So this guy really has the perfect ingredients to annoy the hell out of anyone. He'll score goals, brag about it, beat people up, and I can only assume that he has sex with his opponents girlfriends before, after, and perhaps during games. Not because he needs to, but because he can.
2008 Winner: Daniel Carcillo, Phoenix Coyotes
Remember this name, because he will be driving you crazy for years to come. This guy is only 23 and in his first full NHL season he lead the league in penalty minutes. By a lot.
He was able to amass 324 penalty minutes in a mere 57 games, or an average of 5.7 penalty minutes a game. To put that in perspective, the 2nd place in the penalty minute category, Jared Boll, had 226 penalty minutes in 75 games, or 3.0 penalty minutes a game.
Yes, you read that right, Carcillo had 98 penalty minutes more than second place on the list while playing in 18 less games. It's fitting that he plays on Wayne Gretzky's team because this dude is going to shatter some records, sure they won't be scoring records, but I'm sure he'll be in the record books for something. Doesn't every little kid want to grow up to break Tiger Williams's record of 3,966 career penalty minutes?
To make Carcillo's numbers even more scary, he missed a substantial amount of time this season with a knee injury, and he was sent down to the minors on multiple occasions to "learn discipline". So think about this, he was playing a lot of the season hurt, and had having "learned more disciple" (which I assume is some sort of a Clockwork Orange style brainwashing), and he still tore the league up (literally?).
I can't help but wonder what potential for chaos this kid would have if the Coyotes didn't try and indoctrinate him, and instead just went all out and spliced his genes with a Tasmanian Devil and let it be done with.
Move over Tiger, there's a new monster in town.
Most Underrated Player of the Year
You won't be forgiven if you don't know how amazing all of these unsung heroes actually are.
Honourable Mentions: Antoine Vermette, Pascal Leclaire, Brandon Dubinsky, Patrick Sharp, Mark Streit, Mike Komisarek....the entire Montreal Canadiens Roster, Dustin Brown, Shane Doan, Ryan Malone, any other players that were too underrated for me to mention....
2nd Runner Up: Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins
Earlier in the season I mentioned "All he does is play his heart out and succeed, and his team constantly looks for replacements." While the team seems to have warmed up to the idea of having Thomas as a starting goaltender, there do remain some interesting questions for next year when Fernandez finally gets to be healthy for this team. Thomas has put up solid-to-spectacular number playing for a team that has been solid-to-un-spectacular this season. What does this guy have to do to get mentioned with the average, if not the top flight goalies this season?
1st Runner Up: Tomas Plekanec, Montreal Canadiens
I know I gave honourable mention to the entire team, but this guy deserves special mention. This guy has had a hell of a year, notching 29 goals (Note: that's more than Jaromir Jagr...) and proven to be valuable at both ends of the rink.
He has damn near doubled his career stats in all offensive categories this season alone, I considered putting him as a candidate for "Most Improved Player", but that would assume that most people would have some idea as to who the hell he was to begin with. His emergence has been a huge part of Kovalev's resurgence. Approaching the trade deadline, everyone was saying that Montreal needed an "Impact Forward" to play with Kovalev, but Gainey stuck with Plekanec.
Hard to argue with Bob on this one.
2008 Winner: Marc Savard, Boston Bruins
I would say that the second Bruin on the list would be considered a favourite for this award, but that would assume that you'd all know who he is.
To put it in perspective, when I did my No-Star Team back in January, it took me three tries to find a picture of Marc Savard, with me finding Patrice Bergeron and then Jiri Slegr after search for Savard both times. Even Google doesn't know who this guy is, and they know everything.
Savard finished 3rd in the league with 63 assists, finishing behind Joe Thornton and Pavel Datsyuk in that category. To make Savard's numbers even more impressive, he missed 8 games over the course of the season with a variety of injuries, and he does not have the caliber of linemates that Thornton and Datsyuk have.
Savard's success this season is hardly a shock, as he has been able to have high point totals for the past several years, yet for some reason he never gets more than a cursory mention to be a member of Canada's Olympic Team. He was added as a reserve (to replace the injured Heatley) in the All-Star game, and how did he do? Oh right...he only scored the winning goal in the last second.
Not bad for a player who Google doesn't even recognize.
General Manager of the Year
The finale of my segment will be an award that I legitimately don't understand why the NHL doesn't have...
Honourable Mention: Ken Holland, Brett Hull/Les Jackson, Paul Holmgren, Doug Wilson
2nd Runner Up: Darryl Sutter, Calgary Flames
Sure he didn't make any blockbuster trades this year, but that's fine. His team really is good enough.
What he did this year was far more impressive than a simple mega-deal. He kept his team together. Over the course of the season, Sutter has resigned Robyn Regher, Dion Phaneuf, Miikka Kiprusoff, and Jarome Iginla over the next five years, with a cap hit of only $23.3 million. When you look at that impressive core list of talent, you have to wonder how that is even possible. He still has more work to do if he decides to keep Daymond Langkow and Kristian Huselius, but even if he doesn't, he has the cap room to look elsewhere.
To make it even more impressive, he did something that very few General Managers would have the courage to do, he made Mike Keenan his coach. Iron Mike, has a reputation of being a GM Killer, but Sutter's strong personality, and will to win, will ensure that Keenan focuses his attention on the ice.
1st Runner Up: Bob Gainey, Montreal Canadiens
The old saying "Patience is a Virtue" never seemed to apply in professional sports. That is for everyone except Bob Gainey.
The man had a ton of pressure on him to sign a "Big Name Player" in the off-season, and reportedly came close to landing Daniel Briere. When they lost Sheldon Souray, and only got Bryan Smolinski and Roman Hamrlik to free agency, everyone predicted that the Canadiens would struggle this season, with most (*cough* except me *cough*) predicting them to miss the playoffs.
Gainey shrugged the criticism off, and his team played great. Then there was more pressure on him to get a "High Impact Forward" to help take his team farther, but he felt that the Thrashers were asking way too much for Marian Hossa, and everyone else seemed to have been taken.
What makes Gainey such a great GM this year, is not any particular move that he did, rather it's what he didn't do, panic. Gainey shrugged off the ruthless Montreal media and stuck with his team that he felt could win. Shockingly, he was right.
2008 Winner: Brian Burke, Anaheim Ducks
Was there really any doubt on this one?
Brian Burke has had a phenomenal year as a General Manager, no questions asked. Last year, the team that he built proved to be the unquestioned class of the league, rolling over every other team en route to the Stanley Cup.
He then hit a slight bump as two of his top players, Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne both retired. What does Burke do? He fills those holes by signing Mathieu Schneider and taking a gamble on Todd Bertuzzi. He was also able to lock in his young players like Chris Kunitz and Ryan Getzlaf to long term deals.
When centre Andy MacDonald struggled, Burke had no hesitation to trade him to St. Louis for Doug Weight. While viewing that as a straight up hockey deal, it looks bad, but it allowed him to free up the cap space in order to do something really amazing. Bring Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne back out of retirement.
Is it also worth pointing out that he has Edmonton's first round draft pick in a solid draft year (plus a few more picks in coming years), and it only cost him an underachieving (and now overpaid) Dustin Penner? Yeah the rich get richer...
After both Stanley Cup finalists from 2006 missed the playoffs the following year, it seemed as if dynasties would be hard to build in the new Salary Cup and parity NHL. Right now, it looks as if Burke is proving them all wrong.
And that concludes these awards. Tune back later in the week as I post my thoughts for the REAL Awards, plus some playoff predictions, and much, more as hockey week continues.
Until next time,