Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It's that time of year again. With the All-Star Game in the rearview mirror, we take a look at the first half of the season and try to predict who is on their way to picking up hardware when NHL Awards season rolls around.
The first half of the 2008-09 campaign has had some surprises, none more shocking than the lights-out play of the Boston Bruins, who hold a comfortable lead atop the Eastern Conference standings.
It's not as surprising that San Jose is leading the West, but then again, the Sharks are tearing it up with a rookie head coach in tow.
The following are some of the players who deserve to carry home hardware if the season ended today.
HART TROPHY (MOST VALUABLE PLAYER)
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
The last time a skater won back-to-back Hart Trophies, Ovechkin was no more than a toddler, but he is on track to become the first to do so since Wayne Gretzky won an unprecedented eight straight MVPs during the 1980s. Of course, Dominik Hasek was the last player to win consecutive Harts, as the legendary goaltender won the award with Buffalo in 1997 and '98. Ovechkin claimed the prize in 2007-08 after leading the NHL in both goals (65) and points (112). He also willed his Capitals to the Southeast Division title, scoring seven goals during a seven-game winning streak to end the regular season. This year, the Russian superstar is once again pacing the NHL in goals (31) and he is third in the league with 60 points. Ovechkin's 314 shots on goal is also over 100 more than his closest competitor, and his ability to deliver big bodychecks helps make him the most dangerous player in the league. Most importantly, Washington continues to improve as a team along with its 23-year-old superstar and this year the Caps, who hold a 10-point lead in the Southeast, won't likely have to win out down the stretch to make the postseason.
Runner-up: Jarome Iginla, Calgary
NORRIS TROPHY (BEST DEFENSEMAN)
Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens
Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom has basically owned the title of the league's top defenseman this decade, but 2008-09 could buck that trend. Lidstrom has won three straight Norris Trophies and has claimed the award six times in the past seven seasons. He will be in the mix for the title again, but Markov has been the best all-around blueliner in the NHL so far this season. Already a strong defensive rearguard, the 30-year-old Russian has consistently improved as an offensive weapon year after year and had a career-high 58 points in 2007-08. Markov is on his way to surpassing that personal best this season, as he is tied with San Jose's Dan Boyle in blueline scoring with 38 points. The former sixth-round pick of the Canadiens will be mainstay on the Montreal blueline for years to come and may wind up with more than on Norris on his mantle.
Runner-up: Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings
VEZINA TROPHY (BEST GOALTENDER)
Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins
Earlier this season, when New Jersey's Martin Brodeur suffered an elbow injury that would cause him to miss the better part of three months it was obvious that the goaltender would not be earning his third straight Vezina Trophy. Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers quickly became favorites to replace Brodeur as the league's top goaltender, leaving Thomas in his usual role as an afterthought. However, Thomas has been one of the biggest reasons for Boston's success this year, as he's been the league's top puck-stopper with an NHL-best save percentage of .932. He is also boasting a stingy 2.15 goals against average and is 21-5-5 in 31 starts this year. In 2007-08, Thomas' success was overlooked probably because the former ninth round pick of the Quebec Nordiques lacks a blue-chip pedigree. But, when given a fair chance it's hard to think of another goaltender who comes up with more big stops than Thomas.
Runner-up: Steve Mason, Columbus Blue Jackets
CALDER MEMORIAL TROPHY (ROOKIE OF THE YEAR)
Bobby Ryan, Anaheim Ducks
Sidney Crosby's early success with the Pittsburgh Penguins had to be tough for Ryan to swallow. After all, he was taken just one pick after Sid the Kid in the 2005 draft, but didn't play a game in the NHL until after Crosby had already won his first Hart Trophy. This year, Ryan has finally displayed the ability that caused Anaheim to use its top pick on him over three years ago. The 21-year-old Ryan, a Cherry Hill, New Jersey native, is leading all NHL rookies with 17 goals this season and is second to Chicago's Kris Versteeg in points with 33. The youngster has been a force on the Ducks' power-play unit, scoring eight goals on the man advantage and his smart play at both ends has helped give Ryan a solid plus-11 rating. Ryan may never completely get out from underneath Crosby's shadow, but winning the Calder would be a big step in the right direction.
Runner-up: Kris Versteeg, Chicago Blackhawks
ADAMS TROPHY (COACH OF THE YEAR)
Claude Julien, Boston Bruins
This year's Adams Trophy is basically a two-horse race between Julien and Todd McClellan of the San Jose Sharks. McClellan gets bonus points for being a first-year NHL head coach who has so far led his team to the top spot in the Western Conference, but he also came into the 2008-09 campaign with bigger expectations than Julien's Bruins. After all, McClellan's predecessor Ron Wilson was fired for not being able to get an immensely talented squad past the second round of the playoffs. Coming into this season, nobody really believed Julien's club was exceptionally talented, but his ability to completely change that perception is what makes him the coach of the year thus far. Julien instituted a team-first defensive style in his first year with Boston in 2007-08, but the offense seemed to get lost in the shuffle. That club was the eighth seed in the East, while this year the Bruins appear to be running away with the conference's top spot. The Bruins are clearly more comfortable with Julien's system in 2008-09 and that has made all the difference.
Runner-up: Todd McClellan, San Jose Sharks