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Friday, April 4, 2008
The awards debate continues ...

By Scott Burnside and Damien Cox
ESPN.com

Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!

This week's topic: It's down to the nitty-gritty for teams with playoff dreams and it's crunch time for folks who vote for end-of-year awards. Tough decisions or clear as glass?

Scott Burnside: Hello, Damien. Are you able to sleep with all the worry about what will happen to poor Mats Sundin?

Damien Cox: Funny you mention Sundin. After wrestling with the issue for a couple of days, I finally reached the correct answer: It matters not whether he comes back to the Leafs. Now we can all move on.

I think, arguably, this could be the toughest season for trophy voting in a long, long time. You and I have talked about the Hart -- and received much mail from the D.C. area for our discussion of one Alexander Ovechkin -- but I think the other trophies are just as contentious. It's like we've had nine different seasons, each featuring different stars at different times.

Burnside: I don't want to get sidetracked on Sundin, whose name will come up in no discussion for any postseason award (unless they have one for abstinence, in which case he's in), but I agree, it doesn't matter what he does. End of story. And it's funny how so many good players, young and old, have had up-and-down seasons. I think the Vezina Trophy will be fascinating given that the perennial favorites, Roberto Luongo, Miikka Kiprusoff, Henrik Lundqvist and even Martin Brodeur, to a much lesser degree, have been all over the map.

Cox: Good place to start. Why? Well, I don't even think Luongo is a finalist this season. The Canucks have been an enormous disappointment and, frankly, he just hasn't been as dominant a performer as he was a year ago. The asterisk that goes with his marvelous talent (* -- has never won anything in the NHL) seems destined to stick for at least another season. You left out Evgeni Nabokov. I think the three finalists should be Nabokov, Brodeur and Lundqvist, and until somebody says they'd pick either of the others over him, I think it's still Brodeur. And yes, I suppose I am slightly biased.

Burnside: I wasn't even going to note that you authored, with Mr. Brodeur, a fine book about the best goaltender of this generation (and a much nicer man than Patrick Roy -- I thought I'd just throw that in). And I agree with Nabokov being in the top three with Lundqvist and Brodeur. I have Brodeur at the top of my list as well, given that the Devils once again think hockey is a game to be played while scoring as few goals as humanly possible. I think Luongo's mediocre (by his standards) season is more a reflection of GM Dave Nonis' failings in building a team that can take advantage of Luongo's skills rather than leave him all by his lonesome.

Cox: I think the Devils and Canucks suffer to some degree by building around their goaltender without adequate resources to provide enough in other areas, like scoring. Maybe the same goes for the Rangers with Lundqvist. The Sharks are a more balanced team; but, for me, Nabokov has to do it for more than one season, although I know that's not the way the Vezina works. But tell me this: If you were GM Doug Wilson, would you trade Nabokov straight up for Brodeur? Of course you would. And, amazingly, Brodeur's cheaper!

Burnside: It's hard to argue with GM Lou Lamoriello's record of success in New Jersey; but if, as I predict will happen, the Devils go out in the first round, likely to New York, it may force the Devils to reassess how they build their teams. The Rangers play pretty close to the vest, too, but I don't think you can say they're built "around" Lundqvist, not with Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan in the lineup.

Cox: I agree with you on the Rangers; as for the Devils, I don't think Lamoriello's changing anything. That said, at some point, Brodeur's going to wonder why he took less to leave more for others under the cap as the roster keeps getting weaker.

Burnside: That hometown discount is only available for so long, no? Hard to imagine Brodeur in a jersey other than that of the Devils, though. So if the Vezina is a tough one (but not really all that tough), what's the most difficult? I think the rookie of the year may end up a bit of a surprise for all of those who assume that young Patrick Kane in Chicago is a sure bet.

Scott Niedermayer
Is 40-something games enough to warrant a Norris Trophy win for Scott Niedermayer? Our gurus are on opposite sides of the fence.

Cox: Well, we'll get to coach of the year in a bit. But the Calder race is tough, and I usually find it tough because, to me, you have to assess not just which freshman has played the best as a first-year player, but also, to some degree, which one is simply the best player. Kane has all the points, sure. But to me, Jonathan Toews looks like the best player even though he has played fewer games. And might not Carey Price be better than both?

Burnside: Like any of these awards, it's hard to pick out who is the best player as opposed to who has had the biggest impact. I also think, with the rookie award especially, it's about a progression or evolution. That's why I like Nicklas Backstrom in Washington. Yes, he's playing with the game's best player in Alexander Ovechkin, but I don't think the Caps get back into the playoff race if Backstrom doesn't raise the level of his game from the first month or so on. And I'm with you on Toews. He's a stud. Plays both ways like a veteran, and the only reason the Blackhawks were still thinking playoffs at the start of the week was because of Toews' play. I don't think Price has enough starts to win the hardware, but he might well be on the final ballot. And, of course, he may also be looking at a Conn Smythe Trophy if Habs fans thinking of Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy are right.

Cox: Interesting point about Price because it will impact one of the other awards. See, I think 39 games is enough, particularly for a goaltender who, if he's playing on a good team, might only be required to play half the games.

Burnside: I know we're not talking "GM of the year," because there really isn't such a thing (at least not a league-sanctioned piece of hardware, even though there should be), but that leads nicely into a discussion of coach of the year. Is Guy Carbonneau the front-runner?

Cox: Hang on now. Just because the league doesn't have an executive of the year trophy doesn't mean we can't have a say. I like to call it The Sam (after Sam Pollock), and I'd be torn between Ducks GM Brian Burke (I guess he gets some carryover from last season) and Nashville's David Poile. Who would have thought the Preds would be able to stay competitive, let alone make the postseason?

Burnside: No doubt, Poile has done wonders, although I think Bob Gainey -- who made his roster decisions on his own as opposed to being hamstrung like Poile was in Nashville by the disgraceful exit of former owner Craig Leipold (did I just say that?) -- deserves The Sam. And Paul Holmgren has turned a last-place club in Philly into a playoff contender in less than a year. Pretty good work by my accounting.

Cox: And the aforementioned Doug Wilson? Didn't he get the biggest bang for his bucks at the trade deadline? Or was it Washington's George McPhee? More than a few guys doing good work this season. Another tough, tough category in which to pick the best.

So Carbonneau, huh? Hard to differ. This was a Montreal team that finished behind Toronto last season, don't forget, and the pressure on the coach in Montreal is absolutely excruciating at the best of times. Moreover, Carbonneau and Gainey aren't always on the same page, but they seem to make it work. Two other good candidates: Michel Therrien in Pittsburgh for making that team better even without Sidney Crosby for chunks of the season and Joel Quenneville in Colorado, a team battered by terrible injuries all season but now destined to make the playoffs.

Burnside: I think what's interesting is some of those names that will be in the mix -- Carbonneau, Therrien, John Stevens in Philly (hey, he went from 30th overall to playoff contention), even Quenneville -- were guys whose jobs were in jeopardy (at least in the eyes of the media). Here's another one: Ron Wilson. He was, again according to the media, hanging on by a thread before January and will hit the postseason with the best team in the NHL. How does he not get a shot at the Jack Adams?

Cox: Yeah, he does. OK, we're doing a great job of listing candidates, and just so the readers know, it's the broadcasters who vote for coach of the year. So pick a winner and get off the fence.

Burnside: Darn, I knew you were going to do that. OK. My Jack Adams pick would be Carbonneau, Ron Wilson would be my runner-up and Therrien would be my runner-runner-up. You?

Cox: Carbonneau. Therrien. Quenneville. So let's move on to the Norris: the best defenseman who hasn't stomped on anyone's leg so far this season or taken more than one suspension in the most recent set of playoffs.

Burnside: All of a sudden you're trying to exclude Chris Pronger? Even without the stomping, I don't think Pronger's been up to his usual Norris Trophy-nominee standards. And Scott Niedermayer doesn't get enough at-bats to qualify in my book. And, really, is there much of a discussion at all about whether Nicklas Lidstrom is in line for yet another Norris? I think the issue is who else gets on the ballot and, for my money, Sergei Gonchar is Norris ballot worthy and not just because of his point totals.

Cox: Looks like we're going to argue again, although Lidstrom is certainly the favorite and the likely winner. But I do think Niedermayer has played enough (46 games) to be eligible, and there's no question the Ducks have been much, much better with him than without him. The point is whether the man is one of the best defensemen in the game, and he is. Period.

My other candidate with a qualifier is Brian Campbell. For much of the season, he was pretty good on a so-so Buffalo team. In San Jose, however, he's been terrific, a difference-maker. Doesn't that warrant him serious consideration for the Norris?

Burnside: I like Brian Campbell, too, but he's a world away from Lidstrom. Are you ignoring Gonchar just to annoy me?

Cox: Yes.

Burnside: OK, so give me your top three. Me? Lidstrom, Gonchar and Boston's Zdeno Chara (somebody's got to get credit for a pretty impressive showing by a pretty unimpressive squad).

Cox: Lidstrom, Niedermayer, Chara (forgot about him for a minute). So that's the Hart, Norris, Calder, Adams and Vezina. We know who will win the Art Ross and Maurice "Rocket" Richard trophies (Ovechkin), and I don't care much about the Lady Byng and the Selke, and I'm guessing, unless you have a Thrasher in mind for one or the other, neither do you. Does that mean we're done?

Burnside: Put a bow on it and send it to Gary Bettman. Now, the playoffs. Can't wait. Until next time, my friend.

Cox: Can we have a revote tomorrow if I realize I was completely off in every category? Talk to you later.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."