When it comes to the NHL awards, there are certain names that are a pretty safe bet to see among the nominees. You know that if he’s healthy, Sidney Crosby will be in the conversation for the Hart. Shea Weber, even if he’s never won the darn thing, will get plenty of votes for the Norris. And Henrik Lundqvist is going to be in the running for the Vezina year-after-year.
There always seems to be someone, however, who makes a run for each of the awards that no one saw coming. Consider Brian Elliott, who went from being the worst goaltender (if not worst player) in the NHL in 2010-11, to leading the league in save percentage and goals against average, being named to the All-Star Game, and garnering a first place vote for the Vezina in 2011-12. Granted, it was the only vote he received, but it’s still remarkable. This season, unfortunately, the universe has righted itself and Elliott has the second worst save percentage in the league, but that’s beside the point.
While no one quite as surprising as Elliott has emerged, each of the awards has a surprise candidate (or two) that has seemingly come out of nowhere.
Hart – Craig Anderson
I have always thought of Anderson as a good, but not great, goaltender. I definitely thought he was a number one goaltender, but I never saw him as a guy who could carry a team. He was just a solid, unspectacular goaltender, nothing more.
Now, however, it’s fair to say my opinion has changed. Anderson currently leads all goaltenders in goals against average and save percentage, and has kept the injury-riddled Senators in playoff position. While he was injured in a game against the Rangers last week, it looks like he’ll be returning to the lineup soon, with the Senators hoping that the injury doesn’t impact his game. If the Senators manage to make the postseason without Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, Anderson should definitely be in consideration for the Hart.
Art Ross – Thomas Vanek
It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see Vanek in the Art Ross race. After all, he has two seasons with 40+ goals, with one of them being his sophomore season in the NHL when he scored 84 points. The problem is that he’s been overshadowed by other stars around the league (Crosby had 120 points in the season Vanek scored 84) and he hasn’t scored at a point-per-game pace since his 84-point season.
This year, Vanek exploded out of the gate, scoring 5 points on opening night, then posting another 5-point night in his sixth game. Vanek had 23 points in his first 11 games and, though he stumbled slightly after that, is still third in league scoring, just a few points behind Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby.
Vanek has been known as a streaky scorer during his career; his challenge will be maintaining his scoring pace, particularly since the Sabres don’t have much in the way of secondary scoring. Vanek is going to constantly see his opponents’ top defensive players when he hits the ice and will also need to battle for motivation as the Sabres see the possibility of the playoffs slip further and further away.
Vezina – Corey Crawford
If Craig Anderson picks up where he left off once he comes back from injury, he’ll run away with the Vezina trophy, but the player closest on his heels is a massive surprise to me. Corey Crawford is posting superb numbers as Chicago has gotten off to a record-setting start to the season.
Quite frankly, I have a very low opinion of Crawford. I think he’s been overrated as a goaltender thanks to one decent playoff series in 2011 and has managed to get by as an NHL starter only because he plays on a very good team. It’s pretty damn hard to argue with his numbers this season, however, as he has a .941 save percentage and 1.50 goals against average, good for second in the NHL behind Anderson in both categories.
Crawford’s previous highest save percentage in a full season was .917 and it was down to .903 last season. He credits improved focus for his turnaround, which is as good an explanation as any, I suppose. There are those that would credit the team in front of him for his standout statistics, but it isn’t that different from the team he played behind last season. His improved play, as well as the resurgence of Ray Emery, has played a huge role in Chicago’s dominance.
Norris – Francois Beauchemin
It seems very odd to bring up Beauchemin’s name in relation to the Norris trophy. In Toronto, he’s most fondly remembered for getting them Jake Gardiner, Joffrey Lupul, and a first round pick in a trade with Anaheim, rather than how he played on the ice. After the trade in 2011, he posted a minus-14 plus/minus, second lowest on team, though, to be fair, while playing tough minutes. While plus/minus is a flawed statistic, it’s never good to be that far on the wrong side of it.
In any case, Beauchemin has definitely never looked like a Norris candidate during his career. His career high in points was 34 in his rookie season and he’s never gotten into the 30s since. And yet, there he is tied for fifth in scoring from defencemen with 13 points in 18 games. His plus-13 is tied for second in the NHL, while still playing tough defensive minutes for the Ducks. For him to even be in the conversation for the Norris is a massive step for him. It’s just too bad that it’s not going to last.
Beauchemin may be playing well for the Ducks, but he’s also benefiting from the bounces. He currently has an absurdly high PDO of 1111 thanks to an on-ice shooting percentage of 15.38 and on-ice save percentage of .957. When those bounces stop going his way, and they will eventually, Beauchemin will come back down to earth.
Or maybe Beauchemin will keep his good fortunes rolling throughout the shortened season and convince some voters he’s worthy of a Norris nomination.
Rocket Richard – James Van Riemsdyk
The top goalscorers in the league right now look about right: Stamkos, Neal, Vanek, and Marleau all look like they belong there. Even Tavares, whose career-high is 31 goals, looks at home among those names. But James Van Reimsdyk? Really?
While I could see Van Reimsdyk as a 30-goal guy, it’s hard to imagine him competing for the Rocket Richard, but he is currently tied for 6th in the league with Jeff Carter after scoring 11 goals in 21 games for the Leafs. It’s not just luck, either. Van Reimsdyk is 10th in the league in shots with 70, just 11 shots behind the league lead.
So, uh, Philadelphia…how’s Luke Schenn working out for you?
Calder - Drew Shore
Right now, you’re all saying Who? and I’m saying Exactly. Shore is overshadowed by another rookie on the Florida Panthers, Jonathan Huberdeau, who is currently one of the favourites for the Calder trophy, along with Cory Conacher, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Galchenyuk, Nail Yakupov, and Justin Schultz.
Shore is fresh out of the NCAA and is quietly putting together a solid season for the Panthers. He has 9 points in 17 games, good enough to tie for seventh in rookie scoring. Moreover, he’s third in assists and second in shots, and will likely pick up more goals as the season progresses and his terrible shooting percentage approaches normalcy. Considering he wasn’t necessarily expected to make the Panthers this season, he has to be considered a big success so far.
In order to get real consideration for the Calder, however, he’ll need to catch up to Conacher in points, which will be a tough task. He does have 4 points in his last 4 games, so he’s on the right track.