By Matt Larkin
Ironic that in Las Vegas, the epicenter of American excess, the big winners at the NHL Awards had a distinctly European flavor.
The Hart and Vezina Trophies, respectively, were a long time coming for Russia’s Evgeni Malkin and Sweden’s Henrik Lundqvist. As thrilled as both players were to win the top honor for a skater and goalie, they saw the night as more of a win for the NHL than Europe.
“We don’t really take any pride in Europe against the U.S. or Canada,” Lundqvist said. “We’re in this together. We just try to promote the sport. Especially this week, it’s all about having fun, meeting the guys, getting the sport out there as much as possible.”
For Malkin – who took home not just the Hart as league MVP, but the Ted Lindsay Award for MVP as voted by the players and his second Art Ross as scoring champ – winning the night’s big prize was the culmination of his gradually adjusting to North American life in his dominant six-year career.
“Every year I’m a little bit more comfortable, more English, watch TV,” Malkin said. “I have more friends in Pittsburgh and go out with friends and teammates and I’m really comfortable right now. I enjoy to play.”
Though he said he didn’t think about winning the Hart much, he felt his game elevate this season and credited the Penguins’ handling of him for it.
“I had a great line this year beside James Neal and Chris Kunitz,” he said. “And (coach Dan Bylsma) believed in me. Power play and I play 20, 25 minutes, I know that’s a lot for me.”
On a night when international players were front and center, it was only fitting to hear ‘Geno’ was thinking ahead to the Sochi Olympics in his homeland in 2014.
“I want to come to Russia and play the Olympics and I hope NHL says yes and all best players go,” Malkin said.
Lundqvist, the New York Rangers’ backbone, has been the NHL’s most consistent goaltender since the lockout, ranking in the top five in wins, shutouts, goals-against average and save percentage. His first Vezina was almost a pat on the back for so many years of sustained excellence. No wonder he was on Cloud Nine.
“I’m so happy right now,” Lundqvist said. “To be selected to win. To be on that list with a couple of my heroes, Patrick (Roy) and Dominik (Hasek) – Marty (Brodeur) had a great career. It feels good. It’s been a goal for me and a dream for a long time. “
Of course, ‘King Henrik’ stayed true to Swedish modesty by saying he was happy Malkin beat him for the Hart.
Is 2012 Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson already on the path to challenging the seven trophies belonging to Nicklas Lidstrom, the freshly retired legend to whom he’ll endlessly be compared for years to come?
“I don’t like to look too far ahead,” Karlsson said. “I’m here right now, it’s a great feeling and something I know I want to be a part of again and I’m going to work very hard to try and do that.
It’s easy to forget Karlsson is still just 22 years old – but seeing how wide-eyed he was on awards night was a good reminder.
“I’m happy to be here, but when I got nominated I don’t really think I understood how it works and how big it was until I came here,” said Karlsson, who described himself as the most nervous he’s ever been in his life. “Once I came here and sat down and saw the first prize was mine, I didn’t really know what to do. I’ll probably have to take a look at the tape a couple of times to figure out what really happened.”
Young and green? Sure. But not immature. Karlsson sang the praises of fellow Norris finalists Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber. “I still watch them on TV like I did a couple years ago and (the award is) something I know is very rare and special and I’m very humbled,” Karlsson said.
The double-take stat of the night: hearing “first,” “Jack Adams Award” and “Ken Hitchcock” in the same sentence. Somehow, a man with a Stanley Cup, seven division titles and a .595 career points percentage had never been named the NHL’s best coach before.
Maybe ‘Hitch’ was simply evolving to this moment - the pinnacle of coaching, not just in terms of his famously tough, taskmaster style, but also his deep understanding of the space between his players’ ears.
“I study people,” Hitchcock said. “I pride myself in staying current. I like their music, I listen to their music. I like the things they think and do. I study them to understand what they’re doing. I’m not sitting and resting on my laurels.
“Five years ago, if you dealt with the players the same way you do know, you would have no success. They’ve changed a lot and you’ve got to adapt. “
Listening to Hitchcock’s goalies, Jennings Trophy winners Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, made it clear how appreciated his progressive approach is.
“He’s genuine,” Elliott said. “What you see in the media is how he is. He’s making jokes. You’re not afraid to walk by your coach in the locker room because you lost a game. He’s been around long enough to know everything will be all right.”