Monday, March 3, 2008
Injuries make awards races that much more debatable
By Scott Burnside
With one month to go before the NHL's regular season concludes, you have to wonder what kind of impact injuries to some of the game's top players are going to have when it comes to handing out the end-of-season hardware.
Sidney Crosby was well on his way to returning to the Hart Trophy ballot for the league's MVP. He had 63 points in 46 games, working himself back to the top of the scoring list, when he went down with a high ankle sprain on Jan. 18. He'll be back soon, which is good news for the Penguins and their playoff hopes, but not soon enough to successfully defend either his scoring title or MVP award.
With Crosby out, Pittsburgh teammate Evgeni Malkin has taken over the NHL scoring lead and now looks like a dark horse to become the second straight Penguin to capture the Art Ross and Hart trophies.
Look for Malkin to duel draft class colleague Alexander Ovechkin for both awards; although, if Ovechkin's Capitals can't close the gap on Carolina and sneak into the playoffs, that will strip away some MVP support. The last time a Hart Trophy winner came from a nonplayoff team was in 1988 (Mario Lemieux).
Ovechkin has a chance to be the first since Lemieux, but there's less likely going to be support for another top scorer on a losing team, Vincent Lecavalier. The classy Bolts leader was eight points behind Malkin in third place heading into Monday's action.
Last season, Crosby beat out Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo in the Hart category. While Brodeur will likely return to the Vezina Trophy ballot this season (Luongo's not a lock), only he has a chance of returning to the MVP ticket. Brodeur might get a shot because other MVP hopefuls Daniel Alfredsson and Henrik Zetterberg have been slowed by injuries that will keep them from winning the scoring title. Both have missed just seven games and are back in action, but their production has slightly dropped and they aren't likely to be considered for one of the game's highest honors.
Injuries may also play a role in how the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) voting plays out.
Jonathan Toews is likely the best complete player among a strong rookie class, but he missed 16 games with a sprained knee he suffered on Jan. 1. Despite playing as many as 20 games less than other top rookies, Toews was tied for third among first-year scorers with 43 points in 47 games heading into Monday. Toews' teammate Patrick Kane still leads all freshmen scorers (55 points in 65 games), but his production has dropped off in the second half.
Another injury-related development may be voters' reaction to the knee injury suffered by Detroit's world-class defender Nicklas Lidstrom, who has won five of the past six Norris Trophies as the league's best defenseman.
Lidstrom still leads all blue-line scorers with 57 points, five more than Pittsburgh's Sergei Gonchar. It's possible, if not likely, Gonchar will end up leading all defensemen in scoring as the Red Wings will be loath to rush Lidstrom back to action.
Even if Lidstrom doesn't play again during the regular season (no one is suggesting this might be the case), it's hard to imagine he wouldn't end up on the Norris ballot. But would it be enough to keep him from winning yet again?
History shows that players who miss significant time from injuries do not end up winning major trophies.
In the five seasons he won the Norris (2000-01, '01-02, '02-03, '05-06 and '06-07), Lidstrom played in 80, 80, 82, 78 and 82 games, respectively.
|Nicklas Lidstrom's knee injury could keep him from winning another Norris Trophy.|
If Lidstrom doesn't return in a timely fashion, it would certainly set up an interesting voting pool, including Gonchar and Montreal's Andrei Markov, who ranks third among defensemen with 50 points but is a minus player. Boston's Zdeno Chara, Calgary's Dion Phaneuf and Anaheim's Chris Pronger might also get consideration.
Another potential Norris candidate who won't be on the ballot thanks to his time in the infirmary is the often underrated Sergei Zubov of Dallas. The gifted Russian is out another 3-4 weeks recovering from a foot injury. He had 35 points in 46 games before fracturing his foot in a Jan. 17 game.
After being criticized for his unorthodox trade-deadline maneuvers, Montreal GM Bob Gainey woke up Monday morning to find his Canadiens leading the Eastern Conference. Montreal went 3-0-0 after Tuesday's trade deadline, after which rookie netminder Carey Price was thrust into the spotlight following Gainey's trade of nominal starter Cristobal Huet to Washington. Price has allowed just four goals on 92 shots over that span. Now, Gainey won't be free from criticism until Price proves himself in the postseason, but this was as good a start to the Price era in Montreal as anyone could have expected. The team's recent play reinforces that the Habs look are a team capable of doing plenty of damage come playoff time.
It's hard to believe, but the worst NHL team over the past 10 games stretch has been by far the once-immortal Detroit Red Wings, who were 1-7-2 before Sunday's 4-2 win over Buffalo. Detroit, as everyone knows, has been crushed by injuries to key defensive personnel, including the aforementioned Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Chris Chelios and Niklas Kronwall, along with netminder Dominik Hasek and forward Dan Cleary. Some have started to trickle back into the lineup (Kronwall and Hasek were back Sunday), but it appears the Wings are going to take some time to get back on track. There is a growing sense the Red Wings are now the third-best team in the West behind Anaheim and Dallas, which imported former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brad Richards at the trade deadline. This may all play into the Wings' favor -- it's nice to start the playoffs with as little pressure as possible, especially if you're still the top team in the conference.
Stuck in neutral
The Maple Leafs are on fire after going 6-1-1 in their past eight games. It hasn't done them much good, though; they sit five points out of eighth in the Eastern Conference having played two more games (67) than eighth-place Philadelphia. Predictably, captain Mats Sundin is likewise on a roll with nine points in five games. This after refusing to waive his no-trade clause to facilitate a trade at Tuesday's deadline and sign a contract extension to prove his loyalty to a team that very much wanted to trade him. Sundin, by his own stubbornness and significant talent, could scuttle the team's future as the Leafs now look to finish out of the draft lottery, but still fall short of the playoffs. Oh, what a tangled web.
Our top story lines of the week
1. Adam Foote's good name is taking a pounding following his trade-deadline move from Columbus to his old stomping grounds in Colorado. Foote never wanted to leave Denver in the first place, but he was victim to the team's cost-cutting after the lockout. Foote signed in Columbus as a free agent before the start of the 2005-06 season. Word out of Columbus, courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch beat writer Aaron Portzline, is Foote jacked up his salary demands when discussing a contract extension with rookie GM Scott Howson, asking for $8 million over two years. Then, when the Blue Jackets kept pace with their offer (in the neighborhood of $7 million for two years) and asked to continue talks after the deadline, Foote reportedly told the team he had no interest in staying and wanted out. Portzline reports Foote had a private jet waiting to ferry him to Calgary to join the Avs for a game Tuesday night. Couldn't wait to get out of town, eh, Adam? If true, expect the hockey gods to have their revenge on Mr. Foote before this is done. When Foote becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer, there isn't an NHL team anywhere that will approach the kind of money his camp was allegedly asking for last week.
2. One of the question marks surrounding Ryan Smyth when he signed a five-year, $31.2 million deal with Colorado last summer was the durability of the tough-as-nails former fan favorite in Edmonton. The question was asked more in terms of the final years of the deal, but it's become a more pressing issue now rather than later. Smyth, who missed three games in December with a neck injury and 18 more with a broken ankle, is now out indefinitely after being rocked Saturday night by a Jack Johnson check. The Avs are in a mighty struggle to simply qualify for the postseason and Smyth's continued absence is going to make that quest even more difficult.
3. Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough seemed surprised at backlash from media and fans when the team acquired longtime miscreant Chris Simon from the New York Islanders at the trade deadline. The one thing Risebrough could have done to mitigate any kind of anger at his bringing in one of the NHL's most-suspended players would have been to bring in a player who might have a chance of making a positive contribution to the team and its stated goal of being a contender. Someone that could win faceoffs (they are 29th in the NHL) or help out along the blue line might have done the trick.
4. When the Bruins produced their annual late-season fade from playoff relevance last season, one had to wonder if Tim Thomas (or Timothy Thomas Jr. as he is now known) had the materials to shoulder a full-time NHL starter's load. Would the likeable, longtime minor leaguer ever be able to deliver the goods? Guess that question has been answered with an emphatic yes. Thomas' .925 save percentage is second in the league, his 2.36 GAA is 11th and he has 23 wins. More important, Thomas is 5-0-1 in his past six decisions, and he continues to shine down the stretch as the Bruins are within hailing distance of Montreal and Ottawa at the top of the Northeast Division and Eastern Conference.
5. OK, we've never been asked to coach an NHL team. But it was a bit mystifying to see Olaf Kolzig in net Saturday for Washington a day after newcomer Cristobal Huet shut out the New Jersey Devils 4-0 in his inaugural start for the Caps. It's not like Huet was too worn out. He faced just 18 shots against New Jersey and his last start was Feb. 21. But this may be function of coach Bruce Boudreau trying to appease too many folks now that he has three netminders following the Huet trade. Not necessarily faulting classy veteran netminder Kolzig (he allowed three goals on 25 shots in Saturday's 3-2 loss to the Leafs), but the Caps have precious little wiggle room in chasing Carolina for top spot in the Southeast Division -- the only realistic path to the playoffs for Washington. Don't you ride the hot hand? Isn't that why you brought Huet in? Not that anyone asked us.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.