Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby (87). (CPimages/Jonathan Hayward)
Will it be Sidney Crosby or Roberto Luongo? "You're talking royalty here," Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke said Tuesday. "They've both had phenomenal years."
Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils, Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning and reigning NHL MVP Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks also merit consideration for their outstanding seasons.
But where would the Pittsburgh Penguins be without Crosby, or the Vancouver Canucks without star goaltender Luongo? They wouldn't be in the playoffs, let alone possibly beginning the playoffs with home-ice advantage.
"There are good arguments and other viable candidates for sure," Penguins GM Ray Shero told The Canadian Press. "But from my standpoint, Sidney Crosby is on a team that's gone from 58 points to over 100, and he is the lead guy for sure. He's the guy that drives our team, emotionally, on and off the ice."
Crosby - it's easy to forget he's still only 19 - led all NHL scorers with 117 points (36-81) before stepping on the ice Tuesday night, sporting a plus-11 rating and playing more than 20 minutes a game.
"In addition to leading this team, there's the added pressure of being the go-to guy off the ice for the league," said Shero. "But on the ice it doesn't affect him at all. It's hard not to say enough good things about the kid.
"He's a team-first player. He never takes a shift off. When your best player is your hardest-working player, it's great."
Luongo, acquired by Canucks GM Dave Nonis in the trade of the decade last summer, was second in the NHL with 45 wins before his game Tuesday night as well as third in the league with a .922 save percentage and seventh with a 2.27 goals-against average.
But the numbers don't tell all the story. Luongo, who turns 28 on Wednesday, has single-handedly changed the fortunes of the rebuilt Canucks.
"No one can argue that he hasn't had the biggest impact of his team of any player in the National Hockey League this year," Burke said of Luongo. "And if Sidney wins, it's certainly well-deserved. He's a great player. He took a dramatic step forward. Last year he was impressive. This year he's dominant. ...
"But no one could fault anyone for saying that the one guy who's made the biggest difference to a team in this league this year is Roberto Luongo."
Luongo said he's more concerned about Vancouver finishing first in the Northwest Division than being named the NHL's top player.
"Personally, it's not my job to be worrying about that," he said Tuesday after the pre-game skate in Vancouver.
"I try and do my job every night. If ever I'm up for a nomination, it's because of everybody in this locker-room. It's not one player on this team that represents the Vancouver Canucks."
So ... Luongo or Crosby?
"It's a flip of a coin, it really is for me," said another NHL GM.
CP's pick: Crosby, by the slimmest of margins. We feel both players deserve the award but can't ignore Pittsburgh's dramatic rise from an NHL doormat last season to a Cup contender this year.
A look at CP's other picks for this year's awards:
Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins and Paul Stastny of the Colorado Avalanche are the favourites and that's not surprising given they're 1-2 in NHL rookie scoring.
Also worthy of consideration are Jordan Staal of the Penguins, Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings, and San Jose Sharks blue-liners Matt Carle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
"It's hard not to say that Malkin has had the biggest impact," argued Shero.
Malkin led all rookies with 85 points (33-52) before Tuesday night's game while sporting a plus-2 rating and playing more than 19 minutes a game.
"The thing with Malkin," added Shero, "is that he's 20 years old, he's played a lot of wing, he's played centre, and to see what he came through to get here ..."
Stastny, 21, has had a huge second half to make the Calder debate more interesting. He had 72 points (26-46) heading into Tuesday, a plus-2 rating while playing more than 18 minutes a game.
"What's amazing with him is that as good as he is offensively and as good as he sees plays, his positional play around the ice without the puck is perfect. It's unbelievable," Avs head coach Joel Quenneville told CP last month.
And don't forget the 18-year-old Staal, with 29 goals before Tuesday night.
"There's a guy who stepped on the ice at our rookie camp last September and he was still 17 years old," said Shero. "It's hard to believe. He has played the vast majority of the season on the wing and he's a natural centre ice man. And he's on the ice in the last minute of a game, protecting a lead.
"It says a lot about where he's come from, the hockey sense he has."
CP's pick: Malkin. You need a pretty compelling reason to ignore the top scoring rookie in the NHL.
Only three names have been on this trophy this decade: Nicklas Lidstrom, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger.
And we argue they once again should be the three nominees.
Lidstrom picked up his fourth Norris in five seasons last year and hasn't lost a beat this year in Detroit despite losing key veterans Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan. More than ever, he's carrying the Red Wings on his back.
Before Tuesday's game, he was third among NHL defencemen with a plus-36 rating, fourth with 61 points (13-48) and third in ice time at over 27 minutes a game.
"He's one of the best ever," Wings GM Ken Holland said Tuesday. "We've slipped in special teams this year but we're still among the leaders in goals-against. He's in top five in plus-minus, among the leaders in defencemen scoring, and we're in the hunt again for the most points in the league.
"What can I say, it's the same stuff from the last decade."
Niedermayer and Pronger make compelling cases as well but probably hurt each other's chances by playing together on the Ducks.
"They're two different players," said Burke. "Scotty's a thoroughbred and Pronger is a championship Clydesdale. Pronger does more of the heavy lifting and he's got the big shot from the point but Scotty is the guy that skates the puck out of trouble and makes things happen.
"We're just so fortunate to have them both. But when you have two, the vote tends to get split."
Pronger missed a month with a broken foot so that will hurt his chances but he still has 57 points (13-44) and a plus-27 rating.
Niedermayer has a better shot, leading all NHL defencemen before Tuesday night with 67 points (14-53) and playing 27:36 minutes a game, second among all blue-liners.
"He's indispensable," said Burke. "This is a guy that controls the pace of the game. He's put up impressive numbers, scoring-wise and ice-time wise, and he's definitely a worthy candidate. There's no way you can put a list like this together without him on it."
CP's pick: For the second year in a row, Lidstrom by a thin hair over Niedermayer. They both deserve to win it.
JACK ADAMS AWARD
The candidates are once again numerous this season.
"You can make a case for six or eight coaches," said Holland. "There have been some great jobs behind the bench this season."
That list should include Alain Vigneault in Vancouver, Randy Carlyle in Anaheim, Mike Babcock in Detroit, Michel Therrien in Pittsburgh, reigning winner Lindy Ruff in Buffalo, Barry Trotz in Nashville, and Claude ... oops, scratch that last name after the New Jersey Devils fired Julien on Monday.
"I think he's in that group of guys that have done a great job," Nonis said of Vigneault. "When I hear people talk about it I'm not surprised."
Holland said Babcock should be a candidate.
"We lose Yzerman, we lose Shanahan, and what he's done to bring along the Hudlers and Filppulas on our club ... I just think Mike deserves to be in there," said Holland.
Carlyle might get passed over because the voters like to reward teams that have overachieved.
"In my mind, a coach shouldn't be penalized in the voting merely because he's got good personnel," argued Burke. "Randy took a non-playoff team last year and took it to the final four. And he's had his team in first place virtually wire-to-wire this year. He deserves consideration for this award.
"The problem is, there's a whole bunch of coaches that also deserve consideration."
Such as Therrien, who oversaw a dramatic rise in Pittsburgh.
"I said the other night, 'Finally in the second half he's getting the accolades that I think he deserves,"' Shero said of Therrien. "He's taken a team from 58 points and also help mould a team from the combination of young players that we have with the veteran players. He's made people accountable.
"It's hard to say he shouldn't be considered."
CP's pick: Trotz. Long overdue for the only coach in Predators history. To use Burke's argument, why penalize a coach because his team is great?
Luongo and Brodeur are automatic nominees given their Hart Trophy talk, and should be joined by either Detroit's Dominik Hasek or Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff, last year's winner.
Luongo's case was spelled out above in the Hart Trophy debate. Brodeur, amazingly, is having a career year but may still lose out on the award he collected in 2003 and 2004.
CP's pick: Luongo. A first of several Vezina Trophies for the Montreal native who went to the same high school as Brodeur.
The NHL's best defensive forward?
Brodeur says it's Jay Pandolfo from his own team.
"I'm in a good position to say that Jay does great work every game against the other team's best offensive line," Brodeur wrote in his weekly Journal de Montreal column. "He excels, for example, in shutting down Jaromir Jagr, who he sees eight times a year. Pandolfo is a key player in our defensive system and I hope his work will finally be recognized."
Another underrated player is Ducks forward Samuel Pahlsson, a key penalty killer and shutdown guy whose work has gone largely unnoticed around the league.
"Sami's a Swede but he doesn't know he's a Swede - he thinks he's from Red Deer," said Burke. "He's physical, he's a great faceoff man, he's a vicious hitter, and he shuts down the top centre on whoever we play and he does it consistently well. The guy's a warrior, he's a Viking."
Holland argues star forward Henrik Zetterberg should win the award.
"I think Zetterberg is the best two-way, centre-ice man in the game today," said Holland.
All good arguments, all solid defensive players. But we have our own man.
CP's pick: Mike Fisher. The Ottawa Senators centre came third in voting last season and we feel he's due for his first Selke. He plays in all situations and against the opposing team's top players game in and game out.
With files from CP sportswriter Jim Morris in Vancouver.