The 2008-2009 NHL season has reached its mid-point and it has been a very enjoyable ride.
It is the 100th birthday of the league's most storied franchise, the Montreal Canadians, and the All-Star festivities this weekend should promise to be nothing short of spectacular.
Of course, the Canadians are not the juggernaut that all the pundits had predicted prior to regular season action, but they are deep in the playoff hunt and we all know it does not matter where Le-Bleu-Blanc-et-Rouge are seeded in the Eastern bracket, they always seem to find a way.
It is ironic in some respects that the top spot in the Eastern Conference is occupied by one of the Hab's greatest rivals, the Boston Bruins.
The consensus was that the B's were a year or two away from blast off, but Claude Julien has the boys zooming through regular season play and is conditioning them for a gritty Stanley Cup run.
While we are on the topic of the Original Six members, it is great to see that five of the six teams are well above water in qualifying for the playoffs.
Detroit is still the Big Red monster, Chicago continues to mature and the Rangers are in the midst of a three way dog fight for the Atlantic division crown but still own the potential 5 seed in the Eastern bracket.
Not since the 2001-2002 season has this many Original Six members qualified for postseason play.
Toronto, although still only 9 points away from the eighth and final seed, seem to be the only member that will be left out of this year's Cup quest.
While it is easy to cackle at the Leafs for their championship impotence, you cannot knock them for their ability of bringing in a crowd and helping the NHL continue its rebound from the ugly lock out hangover as they continue to stay near the top of league attendance rankings.
Television ratings have been up as well and with the success of the Winter Classic at Wrigley it would be a wise move to make the outdoor extravaganza an annual event.
Now...... onto the hardware predictions.
These picks are based on first half performance and probably should include a few more names, but as of now, I feel pretty strongly about these nods.
My two September picks to meet up in the Finals (San Jose and Philly) still seem like a strong possibility though I wouldn't take these to Vegas if I were you.
Besides the Finals, can you wager on NHL awards at sports books?
If you can throw money at the Coney Island hot dog eating contest, I'm sure there is someone taking bets on who is going to win the Mark Messier Leadership award.
Let me know.
Jack Adams Award- Best Coach
Be honest, did you really think the Boston Bruins would be where they are at right now?
If you said yes, you are either a supreme homer or you are lying.
I felt they were a year, maybe even two from reaching their potential they have on paper.
Head Coach Claude Julien has this youthful bunch playing with confidence and looking sharply prepared on a nightly basis.
Bruce Boudreau- Washington Capitals
Of course, it doesn't hurt to have the best player in the world set to smash with your top line every night, however, Alex Ovechkin can't play between the pipes nor is he Mr. Miyagi with the secret healing powers.
Boudreau has found a way to keep his injury riddled, AHLer filled team among the league's best.
Peter Deboer-Florida Panthers
With the exception of Radek Dvorak (yes he's still in the league) name me five guys on the Florida Panthers roster.
Tough gig, huh?
Does not matter with DeBoer, he's got this underappreciated Miami franchise battling for the 8th spot in the East with Carolina and the disappointing Penguins.
After years of playing and coaching in the minors, DeBoer, this is his rookie year as an NHL bench boss, has finally got his chance at the big league level and he is certainly making the most of it.
Calder Trophy- Top Rookie
If Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason can keep up the brilliance he has displayed in his first 30 starts, he will walk away with this award convincingly. He has posted six shut outs this season, two of them were against Ovechkin's Capitals at home and in Washington, no easy task. Keep in mind, he plays for COLUMBUS.
Kris Versteeg- Chicago Blackhawks
Another Chicago blue chipper. The abundance of young talent in Chicago is amazing and Versteeg has been an outstanding addition. He leads all rookies in points.
Bobby Ryan-Anaheim Ducks
Ryan leads all rookies in power play tallies and points per game.
Vezina Trophy- Top Goaltender
Right now it has to be Mason. He ranks 4th in the league in save percentage, 1st in shutout victories and 1st in goal against average with a GAA slightly over two.
Of the 22 victories the Blue Jackets have collected this year, seventeen of them came with Mason in net. The Jackets sit in the 10th spot for the playoffs right now and if they do sneak into that last eighth spot, Mason's stellar play is reason number one.
Honorable mentions -
Niklas Backstrom- Minnesota Wild
He ranks 4th in wins and 5th in goals against average, but the one stat that really impresses me with Backstrom is his save percentage. He ranks sixth among all goaltenders with a .926, of the top ten guys in this category, the two goalies closest to matching as many starts as Backstrom are New Jersey's Scott Clemmenson and Mason both with 29, 10 less then Backstrom's 39. The league's most consistent work horse to say the least.
Tim Thomas-Boston Bruins
Considering he works in a platoon with Manny Fernandez, Thomas is a definite dark horse to carry away the Vezina.
However, he ranks 1st among all net minders in save percentage and second behind Mason in goals against average.
Selke Trophy- Top Defensive forward
Philadelphia's Mike Richards seems like the leading candidate for this under the radar award. He is the Flyers best penalty killer and is a big reason why they are first in short-handed goals scored.
Pavel Datsyuk- Detroit Red Wings-
This guy is so smart and has such great instinct in the neutral zone. Its amazing at how clean he plays considering how gritty a defensive presence he is.
Mikko Koivu-Minnesota Wild-
Considering Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire has played with Bob Gainey and coached Guy Carbonneau, for Lemaire to rate Koivu's defensive abilities by saying he does " things other guys can't do", Koivu certainly deserves some consideration.
Will he get it?
Let's hope so.
Indeed, another dark horse.
Norris Trophy- Best Defenseman
I think it is the year Zdeno Chara finally gets some recognition. Sure, his teammate Dennis Wideman has the slightly better offensive numbers, but Chara is the General of that Boston blue line corps and his masterful play in his own end is Norris worthy.
Danny Boyle- San Jose Sharks-
Boyle leads all defensemen in scoring and is one the better power play quarterbacks. It's no coincidence that the Tampa Bay Lighting defense has turned abysmal upon the departure of Boyle. Any serious Cup contender needs a player like Boyle on their blue line.
Nicklas Lidstrom- Detroit Red Wings-
Are you really shocked? Even if one of these other guys does win the award this year, it could be just a loan from Nick. He has been the gold standard among NHL defensemen over the last decade and he shows no signs of slowing down.
Hart Trophy- Most Valuable Player
As it stands right now, Washington's Alex Ovechkin has dibs on this piece of hardware. Not only is he the most exciting player on the ice these days, he is the most valuable to his team.
Zach Parise- New Jersey Devils
The hockey world was ready to leave the Devils for dead when Martin Brodeur went down with an early season injury.
Parise came through like a stud and assumed the role of franchise player.
Besides, when Brent Sutter calls you a hard worker, you're doing something right.
Jarome Iginla- Calgary Flames
Sure the Flames defense is a monster with six heads and goalie Miikka Kiprusoff is one of the better netminders in the league, Iggy is the pulse of this team and they are quietly marching to the playoffs ready to pounce with him leading the way.
Mike Richards- I apologize for the fights, honest!
Alexander Ovechkin-The fun side & the holy jumpits side!