Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It's hard to believe the NHL All-Star break is already upon us. But, with nearly four months of the hockey season in the rearview mirror, it's time to take a look back at what has transpired so far.
The biggest story in the NHL this season has been the dominance of the Detroit Red Wings out West. Mike Babcock's club leads the league with a whopping 78 points heading into the break, and has a 17-point advantage over the next teams in the conference standings (Dallas & San Jose).
It should come as no surprise that the Red Wings had three players voted as starters to the Western Conference All-Star squad in defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Zetterberg, however, has been battling a sore back lately and will sit out the All-Star Game.
Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby will also be missing from All-Star weekend as he continues to recover from a high ankle sprain. Crosby won the Art Ross and Hart Trophies last year as well as the Lester B. Pearson Award, but it will be hard to take any of those accolades home this year while the phenom sits out six-to-eight weeks of the season.
Now that we are at the unofficial midway point of the campaign, it's time to choose who would deserve to hoist some of the NHL's hardware if the season ended today.
HART TROPHY (MOST VALUABLE PLAYER)
Jarome Iginla heads into the break with 63 points.
Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames
Once upon a time, Iginla nearly won the Hart Trophy. It was the 2001-02 season, and Iginla won the NHL's scoring crown and the Lester B. Pearson Award, which is for the league MVP as voted on by the players. However, Jose Theodore, a goaltender, won the Hart after posting his career year with Montreal. Fast forward to the present, and it's obvious which player has done the most since that time in following up on the previous accolades. After all, Iginla is still a perennial All-Star, while Theodore is trying to become a No. 1 goaltender again. This year Iginla heads into the break with 63 points, four points behind Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson for the league lead. The 30-year-old Edmonton native leads Calgary in goals (32) and assists (31), and is tops on his team with a plus-17 rating. Iginla is also Calgary's captain, and not just because he is by far the best offensive weapon on his team, but for his gritty and physical style of play as well. The Flames follow the example of their leader, and that is why Calgary is just one point out of the Northwest Division lead heading into the break. Iginla is the equivalent of a five-tool baseball player, and quite possibly the best all-around player in the NHL.
Runner-up: Alex Ovechkin, Washington
NORRIS TROPHY (BEST DEFENSEMAN)
Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit
Surprise, surprise. Lidstrom has already won five Norris Trophies in his storied career, and is almost certainly going to land another one for the mantle at the end of this season. The Swedish star is the captain of the Red Wings and has the uncanny ability to take over a game from the blue line. Lidstrom leads all defensemen with 46 points (5 goals, 41 assists) this year, and is the envy of every NHL team's power-play unit. And that only covers Lidstrom's offensive abilities. The 37-year-old is also known for playing mistake-free hockey in his own end of the ice, and is first in the NHL this season with a plus-40 rating. About the only negative thing one could say about Lidstrom is that he doesn't bring a physical side to his defensive brilliance, but that's hardly a big issue when talking about possibly the greatest European player to ever take the ice in the NHL.
Runner-up: Andrei Markov, Montreal
VEZINA TROPHY (BEST GOALTENDER)
Roberto Luongo, Vancouver
Other goaltenders may have better numbers than Luongo, but no backstop means more to his team than No. 1 does to the Vancouver Canucks. Last year, Luongo won a franchise-record 47 games and led his club to the conference semifinals, where the Canucks lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks. Just like last season, Vancouver is once again an offensively-challenged team, as the Canucks are 23rd in the NHL with an average of 2.54 goals per game. Luongo, meanwhile, is third in the league with a 2.10 goals against average and fourth with a .925 save percentage. The 28-year-old Montreal native lost out on the Vezina last year to legendary New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur, but this year should belong to Luongo, the netminder who does so much despite having such a small margin for error.
Runner-up: Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose
CALDER MEMORIAL TROPHY (ROOKIE OF THE YEAR)
Patrick Kane has become the symbol of renewed hope for the Blackhawks.
Patrick Kane, Chicago
Kane is just 19 years old and is generously listed at 5-10, 170 pounds. This time last year, he was playing in juniors with the London Knights of the OHL. It simply seemed that this year would be too much, too soon for the young winger that Chicago made the No. 1 overall pick in last summer's draft. As it turns out, that couldn't be further from the truth. Kane posted 13 points in his first nine NHL games, and has led rookies in scoring for most of the season. He enters the break holding that distinction, as his 45 points in 50 games places Kane four points ahead of Washington's Nicklas Backstrom. More importantly, Kane has become the symbol of renewed hope for the Blackhawks and their long-suffering fans. If hockey is to make a comeback in the Windy City, Kane will be the man leading the charge.
Runner-up: Nicklas Backstrom, Washington
ADAMS TROPHY (COACH OF THE YEAR)
Guy Carbonneau, Montreal
Coach of the Year is always a tough award for which to pick a winner. Do you go with the coach of the best team in the league, or instead choose the leader of a team that began the year with low expectations only to transcend them? Mike Babcock would be an excellent choice for the Adams Trophy, but unfortunately, I adhere to the latter definition of what a Coach of the Year should be. Carbonneau took over the Canadiens head coaching job at the start of the 2006-07 season and the fans in hockey-crazy Montreal immediately threw their hopes and dreams upon him. However, Carbonneau himself played over a decade with the Habs and already knew the kind of pressure involved with being the head coach of Montreal's first love. Last year, the Canadiens finished just outside of the playoff race, but were still picked by many, including myself, to finish last in the Northeast Division. Instead, Carbonneau has led the Habs to a 26-15-8 record in the first half of 2007-08 and has his team just six points behind Ottawa for the Northeast and Eastern Conference leads. The team that was supposed to be too young to compete has 60 points at the All-Star break, and Carbonneau deserves a large share of the credit.
Runner-up: Bruce Boudreau, Washington
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Mike Richards, Philadelphia
The NHL doesn't give out a Most Improved Player award, but if they did, Mike Richards would be a lock for the 2007-08 season. Richards, a first-round pick of the Flyers in 2003, had underachieved in his first two NHL seasons, but exploded out of the gate in October and hasn't looked back. The 5-11, 195- pounder out of Kenora, Ontario leads Philadelphia with 55 points and 21 goals and has been the best player for the Flyers despite the fact that the team signed prized free-agent Danny Briere in the offseason. Already an assistant captain at the age of 22, Richards has been compared to Flyers legend Bobby Clarke because of his tireless work ethic and his willingness to do anything necessary in order to help his team win. He already showed in his previous two seasons that he could lead a power play, kill penalties and drop the gloves, but once the Flyers saw his scoring ability develop, they locked Richards up with a 12-year, $69 million deal in early December. The money hasn't changed his attitude or scoring touch so far, and that is good news for the Flyers, because Richards will be in Philadelphia for a long time.
Runner-up: Patrick Sharp, Chicago