Commentary

Vanek, Conacher lighting the quarter

Updated: February 11, 2013, 9:36 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

First-quarter awards utilize a small sample size in an 82-game season, never mind this season, when it means just a dozen games.

But we refuse to beg off our tradition of handing out the hardware each quarter of the season.

Without further delay, my first-quarter NHL award winners after the opening four weeks of the season:

HART TROPHY
(MVP)

Normally, this is such a difficult decision among a long list of worthy recipients. But for the opening four weeks of the season, it's not even close. Thomas Vanek has played out of his mind for the Buffalo Sabres, leading the scoring race with 23 points (11-12) in 12 games, and night after night delivering the goods for a struggling Sabres team that might not have a single victory if it weren't for him. Not sure he can keep it up, but for the first-quarter Hart? All yours, Thomas.
Other candidates: Craig Anderson, Ottawa; Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit; Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Chicago; Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh; Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay; John Tavares, New York Islanders

NORRIS TROPHY
(top defenseman)

The first-quarter struggles of Drew Doughty, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter have opened up this race. And there are lots of solid cases to be made. But my first-quarter Norris goes to Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues, a player who, if not this season, certainly over the next few years will win the real thing at least once. He's among the scoring leaders for blueliners and averaging north of 25 minutes per game; there are few things Pietrangelo can't do.
Other candidates: Zdeno Chara, Boston; Andrei Markov, Montreal; Niklas Kronwall, Detroit; Erik Karlsson, Ottawa; Kris Letang, Pittsburgh; Francois Beauchemin, Anaheim; Marc-Edouard Vlasic, San Jose; Tobias Enstrom, Winnipeg

CALDER TROPHY
(top rookie)

This is a close race among Cory Conacher, Justin Schultz, Vladimir Tarasenko and Dougie Hamilton. I usually lean toward defensemen because it's so much harder to play that position as a rookie. And Schultz had looked terrific while leading all rookies in ice time at 23:02 per game. But there's something about Conacher and the way he has had an impact given his 5-foot-8, 179-pound frame. He leads all rookies in scoring and he's the epitome of hustle. He's just too good a story to ignore.
Other candidates: Justin Schultz, Edmonton; Dougie Hamilton, Boston; Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis; Nail Yakupov, Edmonton; Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal; Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida

VEZINA TROPHY
(top goalie)

Do we even need to debate this? Craig Anderson has been out of this world for the Ottawa Senators, leading all NHL goalies in GAA and save percentage, and he has been counted on more than ever with the injury loss of star center Jason Spezza. Can Anderson keep it up? The Sens need him to in order to make the playoffs.
Other candidates: Corey Crawford, Chicago; Pekka Rinne, Nashville; Carey Price, Montreal; Roberto Luongo, Vancouver; Tuukka Rask, Boston; Viktor Fasth, Anaheim

JACK ADAMS
(top coach)

Just like the Hart and Vezina, another no-brainer here. How can you not hand the first-quarter coaching award to Pete DeBoer? The New Jersey Devils lost 51 goals between Zach Parise and Petr Sykora -- and Parise was so much more than offense for that team -- but the Devils reached the quarter mark with only one regulation-time loss in their opening 12 games. Unreal, right? Great coaches find a way to adjust to the hand that's been dealt to them. Barry Trotz and Dave Tippett have been doing it for years. And this season, Mike Babcock deserves credit for the way in which he's making that makeshift blue line work within his system in Detroit. The way Alain Vigneault has handled the goalie drama in Vancouver while leading the Canucks to a great start deserves mention, as does Bruce Boudreau's work with the surprising Ducks. But DeBoer is clearly the first-quarter coach winner.
Other candidates: Mike Babcock, Detroit; Claude Julien, Boston; Joel Quenneville, Chicago; Bruce Boudreau, Anaheim; Alain Vigneault, Vancouver; Todd McLellan, San Jose