With the regular season nearing its conclusion, it's time to take a look back at the 2011-12 NHL campaign and hand out some of the league's major awards.
The NHL's biggest individual prize, the Hart Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the league's most valuable player, should be an easy one to predict as Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin has set himself apart from the field with a dominant season.
With two games left in the regular season for every NHL club, Malkin appears to have the scoring title, also known as the Art Ross Trophy, in hand. He's the only player this season to have reached the century mark, posting 105 points in just 73 games. Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, who is the only NHLer with more goals than Malkin, is 10 points behind the Penguins' superstar in the Art Ross race.
Quite simply, Malkin earned the MVP by returning to the form he displayed during the 2008-09 season, when he won his first scoring crown and landed the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Although captain Sidney Crosby was obviously a huge part of Pittsburgh's championship season in 2008-09, Malkin's combination of size and skill made him the most unstoppable force in the NHL that season.
What followed in the next two seasons for Malkin was a dip in production that was related to injuries. The 25-year-old Russian had 77 points in 67 games during the 2009-10 campaign and had 37 points in 43 games in 2010-11 when his season was cut short due to torn ligaments in his right knee.
This season, however, was a different story for Malkin, who along with winger James Neal carried the Penguins while Crosby sat out most of the season with a concussion and neck issues. Pittsburgh still had a chance at claiming the East's top seed until earlier this week and Malkin deserves a great deal of the credit for the Pens' success this season.
Along the way, Malkin posted five-point nights on four separate occasions and he also recorded three hat tricks.
Malkin has finished twice as the runner-up in the Hart voting, but the award should finally have his name on it for the 2011-12 season.
Despite his team not qualifying for the playoffs, Stamkos should be included among the three Hart finalists for being the game's most dangerous goal scorer. His 58 tallies in 80 games has him 10 ahead of Malkin for the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy and somehow Stamkos has been able to log a plus-six rating for a team that will finish this season with the most goals allowed in the NHL.
The other finalist spot is a bit trickier, as New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has worked himself into the conversation. It's normally difficult for goalies to win the Hart, but the Swedish backstop has been the best player on a Rangers team that has already claimed the East's top seed and could finish No. 1 in the entire NHL.
If Lundqvist is kept out of the final three, it will likely be due to the inclusion of Philadelphia Flyers centerman Claude Giroux, who has recorded 92 points through 76 games while playing a strong two-way game.
It would certainly be odd to not have a Western Conference player included among the Hart finalists, but nobody from the conference has set himself apart. In fact, heading into the final days of the regular season, the top seven spots in the scoring race all belong to Eastern Conference players.
With the Hart Trophy covered, here are some thoughts on other major awards:
VEZINA TROPHY (Best Goaltender)
Winner: Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers
Other finalists: Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles; Pekka Rinne, Nashville
Lundqvist was nominated for three Vezina Trophies over his first six NHL seasons, but his best chance to win the award will come from his performance in 2011-12.
Lundqvist was the best player for a powerful Rangers club and the Swede is having the greatest season of a career that is full of nothing but great seasons. "King Henrik" has set personal bests in wins (39), goals-against average (1.93) and save percentage (.931), while also recording eight shutouts.
St. Louis goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott have had possibly the best seasons out of anybody, but the duo will likely cancel each other out for the Vezina. Halak has started 45 games to Elliott's 37, leaving both netminders with a small sample size when it comes to winning the Trophy.
Lundqvist's real competition for the Vezina is Los Angeles goaltender Jonathan Quick, who leads the NHL with 10 shutouts for a Kings team that struggled to score goals until recently. Quick is 35-21-11 with a 1.89 GAA and .931 save percentage and his season likely meant more to L.A. than Lundqvist's campaign did for a Rangers team that is blessed with the stronger defense.
In the end, Lundqvist's overall body of work will finally help him land a Vezina. He may have deserved it in years past, but having his best-ever season on a great Rangers team gives Lundqvist the winning formula in 2011-12.
Best of the rest: Mike Smith, Phoenix; Halak and Elliott, St. Louis.
NORRIS TROPHY (Best Defenseman)
Winner: Shea Weber, Nashville
Other finalists: Erik Karlsson, Ottawa; Zdeno Chara, Boston
Karlsson is likely the front-runner to win this award and that would be a fair outcome considering he is easily the most prolific scorer among NHL blueliners this season. However, the slick-skating 21-year-old should finish second to Weber, who distinguished himself as the best all-around defenseman in the league for a second straight season.
Many folks believed Weber was robbed of the Norris last year, when Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom won the award for a seventh time despite having a minus-2 rating for the season.
At 6-foot-4, 234 pounds, the 26-year-old Weber plays a bruising brand of hockey and he has proven himself as the league's best goal-scoring defenseman. Weber is tied with Karlsson for the league lead in goals by a defenseman at 19, marking the fourth straight season that Nashville's captain has posted more than 15 goals.
Chara would be another solid choice for the award after posting a 12-goal, 52- point season and posting a better plus/minus rating (plus-33) than any other rearguard.
The voting for the Norris could be the closest of any of the awards handed out this season. Weber gets the nod here, but it would be hard to argue against either Karlsson or Chara winning the award.
Best of the rest: Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis; Kris Letang, Pittsburgh; Ryan Suter, Nashville.
ADAMS TROPHY (Coach of the Year)
Winner: Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis
Other finalists: John Tortorella, NY Rangers; Barry Trotz, Nashville
The Jack Adams Trophy for best coach will likely land in the arms of a man who didn't even have an NHL coaching job when the season got underway back in October.
The Blues were 6-7-0 when the organization decided to fire head coach Davis Payne and replace him with Hitchcock. It was a fairly surprising move at the time because a 6-7 record through 13 games seemed about right for a young St. Louis club, but that was before Hitchcock unleashed the true potential of the Blues.
Since taking over the post in early November, Hitchcock's Blues have gained at least a point in 53 out of 67 games, boasting a stellar 42-14-11 record over that stretch. In getting the young, but talented Blues to realize their potential, Hitch took a club that before the season started was expected to be at best one of the last playoff seeds in the West and turned them into a powerhouse.
The Blues claimed their first division title since the 1999-2000 campaign, winning the extremely competitive Central over the likes of Detroit, Nashville and Chicago.
After missing out on the postseason in five of six seasons following the lockout, St. Louis finally seems ready to reap the rewards of a long rebuilding project. The first step for the Blues was a dominant regular season. Next up is proving that it wasn't a fluke in the playoffs.
Best of the rest: Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh; Alain Vigneault, Vancouver
CALDER TROPHY (Rookie of the Year)
Winner: Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado
Other finalists: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton; Matt Read, Philadelphia
Luckily for Landeskog, Nugent-Hopkins probably would've run away with the Calder Memorial Trophy if he could have only managed to stay healthy this season.
Nugent-Hopkins and Landeskog, overall picks Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the most recent NHL Entry Draft, enter the final two games of the season tied at 51 points for the rookie scoring lead. Nugent Hopkins has reached his point total in 60 games, while Landeskog has played in all 80 for the Avalanche.
The Calder Trophy is often awarded to the highest-scoring rookie, but Landeskog has gained traction in the race for the prize because he plays a strong two-way game. The Swede displays the maturity of a player who has been in the NHL for years, making it hard to believe at times that the 19-year-old was still playing junior hockey last season.
Nugent-Hopkins has already shown he can be a prolific scorer even during his injury-shortened campaign, but other areas of his game need to improve before he becomes an elite player. Landeskog may not have the same offensive upside as Nugent-Hopkins, but his value to the Colorado franchise is already clear.
The Avalanche have landed themselves one of the best all-around forward prospects to come down the pike in years and Landeskog may very well be the team's captain at some point. For now, he is content to lead the way for an overachieving Colorado club that is somehow still in the race for a playoff spot out West, a fact that has a great deal to with Landeskog's terrific rookie campaign.
Best of the rest: Adam Henrique, New Jersey; Carl Hagelin, N.Y. Rangers