Monday, April 1, 2013

Trophy Boys

When the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty accepted the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy last year at the NHL awards, he was proud, but, he was probably also a bit embarrassed. Pacioretty isn't the kind of guy who likes standing in front of a crowd making acceptance speeches. He's also not the type of person who feels good about receiving an individual award in a year in which his team finished dead last in the East, even if said award was very well-deserved for his personal triumph in returning to the game after a serious injury.

Canadiens fans, despite their disappointment with the season, were happy to see Pacioretty honoured, if only because his Masterton win was the first individual trophy a Canadiens player had claimed since Jose Theodore's Hart and Vezina wins in 2002. The end of the ten-year drought (okay, Saku Koivu's King Clancy trophy in 2007 technically counts, but we're talking about on-ice awards) for the Canadiens at the NHL awards awakened a bit of nostalgia for the days when the team picture was printed in red, white, blue and silver. Remember the 1989 team picture (above) with the Wales Trophy for winning the conference title, the Selke for Guy Carbonneau, Lady Byng for Mats Naslund, Vezina for Patrick Roy, Norris for Chris Chelios and Adams for Pat Burns? Or perhaps you remember the 1977 Habs with their Wales Trophy, Guy Lafleur's Art Ross, Hart and Conn Smythe awards, Larry Robinson's Norris and Ken Dryden's and Bunny Larocque's Vezina, with the big, beautiful Stanley Cup right in the middle? (Lafleur's Lester Pearson and Scotty Bowman's Adams aren't in the shot.)
It may be a while before a Canadiens team picture includes those kinds of riches again. Even so, several Canadiens deserve serious consideration for individual awards this season.

Michel Therrien is an obvious contender for the Jack Adams trophy as coach of the year. Anytime a coach takes a last-place team and turns it into a division leader in one season, he's got to draw some attention for his ability. Therrien has done that by tailoring his systems to bring out the best in the players he's got, rather than trying to make his team play a style for which it's unsuited. He's gone beyond even that, however, in that he's managed to change the very culture within the Canadiens' dressing room. His insistence that every player be accountable and drop the excuses for failing to do so, and his rewarding good play with good ice time have the team responding with a willingness to buy in to his message. There are few things that can create hate and discontent more than a feeling of being treated unjustly. Therrien's rules make sure that doesn't happen because there are real reasons for the decisions he makes, and everyone understands that. Even the "don't step on the logo" rule, which seems silly on the surface, is telling the players the Canadiens sweater deserves respect and instills a sense of pride in the men wearing it. Therrien has done a very good job in his return to Montreal, and deserves to be recognized for that.

With just fourteen games to go in the regular season, Brendan Gallagher has pundits and prognosticators including his name in lists of Calder trophy candidates as rookie of the year, although few are touting him to actually win it. While they're right to say Gallagher deserves consideration, it may be premature to dismiss his chances of going home with the silver. Florida's Jonathan Huberdeau and Tampa's Cory Conacher are ahead of Gallagher in points, with 25 and 24 respectively, compared to Gallagher's 20. They also have played 6 and 4 games more than the Montreal rookie. Interestingly, they are both minus players, while Gallagher is fourth on the Canadiens with a plus-8. Gallagher is smaller than Huberdeau and younger than Conacher, but he's still keeping pace with them.

Numbers aside, one could argue Gallagher has contributed more to the overall performance of his team than the other candidates for rookie of the year. Nobody can deny his net-driving tenacity creates chances in the offensive zone that add to his value beyond the points he scores himself. In the recent Boston comeback game, for example, Gallagher not only scored a goal in tight, but his screen in front of the Bruins' net led directly to Andrei Markov's equalizer. Scoring in the shootout to win it was just the flag on top of the mountain for him. He's got more game-winning goals (3) than any other rookie, even though his 13:37 minutes of ice time per game are the least among the top scoring first-year players in the league. Not bad for a fifth-round draft pick who should get some serious votes for the Calder.

That brings us to P.K.Subban. When his season started with a contract holdout, not many people thought he would be a Norris trophy contender when the campaign hit the home stretch.Yet, there he stands. The early-season favourite as the league's best defenceman, in the absence of Ottawa's Erik Karlsson, was Pittsburgh's Kris Letang. Now, with both Letang and Subban having played 28 games, they've scored 28 and 27 points, respectively. Subban, though, has ten goals, including 6 on the PP, to Letang's 3. In fact, those ten goals of Subban's put him at the top of the list for D-men. He's also a respectable +10, which is a testament to the fact that he's very solid in his own end. (Letang is a +11 on a powerful Penguins team, and has zero PP goals, incidentally.)

The other night, on Hockey Night in Canada, the broadcast team was idly discussing Subban's progress and agreed he should be considered for the Norris, likely winning it some day...but not this year. They said he'd have to play between 25 and 30 minutes a night to be a serious contender. Big minutes prove a defenceman's worth, apparently. On the other hand, it's impressive to note that Subban is putting up the kind of points he is while playing just 22:45 a night. That's about 3 minutes fewer than Letang and 5 minutes less than defensive scoring leader Ryan Suter. (28 points in 34 games.) You might be forgiven for thinking scoring more points in fewer minutes makes a guy a better player than those who need more time to achieve the same result.

Interestingly, in Subban's case, it seems his new all-business attitude is gaining him the respect he lacked earlier in his career. Gone are the triple low-fives after wins. No longer do we see Subban indulging in crazy goal celebrations or chasing opponents around while chirping and grinning at them. His interviews are brief and could call them terse...with little of his former "aw shucks" goofiness. Marc Bergevin and Therrien wanted a more workmanlike Subban who focused only on playing up to his potential and within Therrien's system. Subban, always the coachable guy, listened and transformed himself into the serious, dedicated player who's now getting mentioned in the same breath as the best defencemen in the game. Last year, even if he had scored at the same kind of pace as this season, he would never have been taken seriously by most of the people who vote for the Norris.

Back to the Masterton, since it seems to always go to a guy who comes back to play after serious illness or injury, Andrei Markov might have a shot this year. He's fifth in scoring among defencemen after playing only 65 games in the previous three seasons, due to a slashed tendon and his two major knee reconstructions. The fact that he's playing as well as he is (although probably not quite as mobile as he used to be) after all that adversity should get him a few votes.

So, when the Habs gather at the end of the year to pose for their final team photo, it's certainly possible a few lovely silver keepsakes could adorn the foreground. Somehow, though, you get the feeling most of the guys eligible to win them wouldn't be satisfied unless that big, silver Cup stands in the place of honour.

1 comment:

Steve said...

There will be so much Silver in Montreal this year the Spanish will invade.