Thursday, June 22, 2006
Updated: June 23, 6:34 PM ET
The ESPN.com Anti-NHL Awards
By Scott Burnside
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The NHL awards ceremony is always a feel-good affair.
Winners smile. Hey look, there's Joe Thornton, MVP.
Losers smile. Hey look, there's Jaromir Jagr, not the NHL MVP.
Everyone's happy, even those who were subjected to the CBC's eye-poppingly bad jokes.
But, let's be honest, wouldn't you like some awards with a little less smarminess and a little more edge, a little more bite?
Take the Hart Trophy, for instance. What a great race between Thornton and Jagr. But at the beginning of last season, there were lots of guys who might have been expected to be in this race, too. Same with the Jack Adams Award for top coach and the Vezina Trophy for top goalie. Here's a look at some awards that might have made the night more interesting.
The ESPN.com Anti-Hart Award
Markus Naslund, Vancouver: In honor of the host city for this year's awards ceremony and entry draft, we highlight the work of the Canucks' captain, who managed to see his production drop over that of 2003-04 at a time when he was expected to be among the league's leading scorers. Worse than his uninterested 79 points was Naslund's absolute inability to coax anything remotely resembling passion out of the Canucks during their free fall out of the playoff race in the final weeks of the regular season. He finished a team-worst minus-19. Yikes.
Alexei Zhamnov, Boston: Good value for the dollar there as Zhamnov signed a whopping three-year, $12.3 million deal and played 24 games, scoring once. No wonder GM Mike O'Connell walked the plank. Now the issue for incoming GM Peter Chiarelli is whether he'll be able to buy out the big center.
Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh: Remember the excited possibilities a year ago when the Penguins won the Sidney Crosby lottery? Lemieux, Crosby, Mark Recchi, Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, et al.? Well, that went down the tubes pretty quickly, no thanks to Lemieux, the owner/captain who mailed it in with seven goals in 26 games and a minus-16 before packing it in for good.
The ESPN.com Anti-Vezina Award
There were so many good goaltending stories, from youngsters Cam Ward and Ryan Miller to veterans shining in the twilight of their careers, such as Dwayne Roloson and Curtis Joseph. It's easy to forget the guys who, well, didn't quite answer the bell in the new NHL.
This is a crowded field thanks to some lamentable performances, including John Grahame's meltdown in Tampa Bay that prompted the classic "I'm tired of the 25 percent rule" comment from coach John Tortorella during the playoffs. Or Jocelyn Thibault's career-ending turn in Pittsburgh, where every puck looked like a grain of sand to the veteran netminder. Or Ed Belfour's losing battle with time in Toronto, where he turned in a 3.29 goals-against average and .892 save percentage, then disappeared in time for the team to make a late-season push for a playoff berth.
But the hands-down winner has to be Nikolai Khabibulin, who went from Stanley Cup-winning netminder in 2004 in Tampa to full-blown bust in Chicago. No doubt GM Dale Tallon didn't have a 3.35 GAA and .886 save percentage in mind when he made Khabibulin the highest-paid goaltender in the NHL.
For the single worst performance of the season, one has to look to Atlanta's Mike Dunham, who might have single-handedly cost the franchise millions of dollars when he allowed five goals on 23 shots in the Thrashers' second-to-last regular-season game, a game they desperately needed to win to earn their first playoff berth but which they lost 6-4 to the lowly Washington Capitals.
Honorable, honorable mention:
Toronto Maple Leafs netminder Mikael Tellqvist, who -- in back-to-back games against division rival Montreal down the stretch -- gave up 11 goals on 59 shots in two losses that for all intents and purposes cost the Leafs a playoff berth and relegated the Swedish netminder to a perpetual backup role.
ESPN.com Anti-Jack Adams Award
The Jack Adams Award for coach of the year is always interesting because it generally rewards coaches who got more out of their teams than they reasonably should have been expected to get, given their level of talent. In that sense, winner Lindy Ruff is an admirable choice, as were co-nominees Peter Laviolette (he of the Stanley Cup-winning Carolina Hurricanes) and Tom Renney of the overachieving Rangers. But what about the coaches who got so much less than fans bargained for?
Fans in Pittsburgh could have expected something other than the leaky tar paper shack coaches Ed Olczyk and successor Michel Therrien provided. What's more surprising is that Therrien, who suggested quite aptly that his players should give back some of their money, will return to the scene of the crime next fall. Anyone have an umbrella?
There must have been times when Chicago coach Trent Yawney wished he were back with AHL Norfolk. And given the way his Blackhawks played for long stretches last season, Yawney must have wondered whether he had actually left. As did Hawks fans.
Honorable mention (playoff category):
If, as the Ottawa Senators insist, their stunning five-game loss to the Buffalo Sabres in the second round wasn't about the goaltending, then one has to wonder why Bryan Murray couldn't coax more out of his first-class team. Likewise, Mike Babcock will be under significant pressure in Detroit to stop what has become the annual playoff decompression of the talent-laden Red Wings.
ESPN.com Anti-Lady Byng
Let's be honest. No one cares about the Lady Byng. In some ways, it's like being told you're the most polite person at a rave. What about an award for players who drive opponents crazy with rage and disgust? That would seem more fitting.
Sean Avery: Duh. The dictionary definition of "loose cannon," Avery was dismissed from the Kings for a multitude of sins, chief among them the innate ability to enrage everyone with whom he comes in contact both in opposing dressing rooms and his own. An unrestricted free agent, Avery will be available to the highest bidder this summer; because he brings considerable tools, including good wheels and not bad hands, someone will bite the bullet and bring him aboard, much to the delight of beat writers in that town, if not his new teammates.
Darcy Tucker, Toronto: Tucker has big-time offensive tools but often hides them behind soccerlike histrionics or Jack Nicholson-like rants when he feels his honor has been besmirched.
ESPN.com Anti-Frank Selke
The Frank J. Selke Award is an underrated award that recognizes old-time, two-way hockey: Guys who can be counted on to produce in a timely fashion but who also go over the boards to kill penalties or protect a one-goal lead. Rod Brind'Amour, this year's winner, is the prototypical Selke winner. And he has a Stanley Cup ring to prove it. But for every Brind'Amour, there are others who think two-way hockey means drive the net, then make two wide circles near the blue line, then go to the bench.
This one is a dead-heat draw. Marc Savard and Ilya Kovalchuk combined for 195 points for the Atlanta Thrashers, but both possess only a rudimentary understanding or familiarity with the defensive zone. For most of the season, Savard was among the league leaders in minor penalties, most of which were taken in the offensive or neutral zone. Although he finished with 97 points, more than half (50) were piled up on the power play. As for Kovalchuk, when the Thrashers were in a desperate bid for their first playoff berth, Kovalchuk repeatedly came to play with an illegal stick and was guilty of taking ill-timed penalties. Tsk, tsk.
ESPN.com Anti-Whatever That GM Award Would Be
There really isn't an official award for the best GM (The Hockey News names an executive of the year, which is nice), but there should be. And if there were, you know Carolina GM Jim Rutherford, Buffalo's Darcy Regier and Anaheim's Brian Burke would have been among the nominees. But what about the guys whose team building more closely resembled a sand castle?
Again, this is a crowded field, although we hate to kick a man when he's down, which would be the case if we named O'Connell and/or Craig Patrick, both of whom are unemployed. But for sheer surprise at how things went south so quickly, we have to turn our attention to Dave Nonis in Vancouver. The Canucks went from Stanley Cup contenders in October to a team in disarray by mid-March. Perhaps no GM will face more pressure to right his ship in the coming weeks and months than Nonis.
Honorable mention (playoff edition):
John Muckler, Ottawa: Tell us again why it was a good idea to put the Senators' Stanley Cup hopes squarely on the fragile shoulders of a 42-year-old goalie who hadn't played regularly since the end of the 2002 season?
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.