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Top Shelf: Handing out the first-half NHL Awards

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - With the majority of NHL teams already past their midway points of the 2014-15 season, it's time to take a closer look at the players who have stood out among their peers.

Although the league won't hand out its individual awards until the summer, debates about who deserves the trophies begin shortly after the season begins.

Sometimes guys run away with an award and distance themselves from the rest of the field, but the 2014-15 races appear to be extremely competitive at the moment.

So, without further ado, let's take a look at who's on their way to winning some of the most coveted hardware this spring.

HART TROPHY (MOST VALUABLE PLAYER)

Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

The problem with the Hart Trophy race is some of the best individual efforts this season have come from players on teams that may not even make the playoffs.

Philadelphia's Jakub Voracek leads the league in scoring and his teammate Claude Giroux isn't far behind, but the Flyers are struggling as a whole and the club's poor season will hinder both star players' MVP quests. Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars finds himself in a similar situation.

Malkin, meanwhile, is second only to Voracek in points and is leading a Pittsburgh team in the race for the Metropolitan Division title. The Russian star has 19 goals and 49 points in 42 games and could wind up winning his third Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer. Malkin also has a Hart Trophy to his credit, winning the MVP for the 2011-12 season.

We also can't count out Malkin's teammate Sidney Crosby, a two-time Hart Trophy recipient who has 47 points on 12 goals and 35 assists.

Anaheim centerman Ryan Getzlaf and Chicago winger Patrik Kane also are in the Hart race, as is goaltender Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators. Of course, it's extremely rare for a netminder to win the MVP. Jose Theodore was the last goalie to do it when he won the Hart with the Montreal Canadiens in 2001-02.

Other finalists: Getzlaf (Anaheim), Rinne (Nashville)

NORRIS TROPHY (BEST DEFENSEMAN)

Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames

The advanced statistics community has been talking up Giordano's Norris credentials for a few years now, but 2014-15 could be the season he actually wins the award for top defenseman.

Giordano received one first-place vote for the Norris in 2013-14, but wound up finishing 10th in the overall voting as Chicago's Duncan Keith won it for the second time in his career.

The difference in 2014-15 is Giordano has the offensive numbers to bolster his case. Last season he finished 12th in scoring among blueliners with 47 points. He is currently second with 10 goals and 26 assists in 43 games, and his 36 points are only one behind Kevin Shattenkirk of the St. Louis Blues.

While this season has served as a coming-out party for Giordano, he hardly has the Norris race wrapped up. Keith is likely to be in the mix again, and Shattenkirk, Nashville's Shea Weber, Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings are a few other names worthy of mention at the midway point.

Other finalists: Weber (Nashville), Keith (Chicago)

VEZINA TROPHY (BEST GOALTENDER)

Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

Like Giordano for Norris, Rinne is leading the way in a stacked field for the Vezina.

A trendy pick to win the Hart, the Finnish star has been hailed as one of the biggest reasons for Nashville's resurgence this season. The club finished out of the playoffs in 2013-14 and the Predators' struggles were due in large part to Rinne missing over four months due to a infection in his surgically repaired hip.

A healthy Rinne has helped alter Nashville's fortunes in 2014-15, with the team currently tied with Anaheim for the most points in the NHL. Rinne, a two- time Vezina finalist, has posted a 29-6-2 record in 37 games this season while sporting a 1.96 goals against average and .931 save percentage.

However, an injury suffered on Tuesday night against Vancouver could wind up derailing Rinne's award-worthy season. The 32-year-old suffered a sprained knee in a collision with Canucks forward Chris Higgins and it will cause Rinne to be sidelined until after the All-Star break.

Nashville fans are hoping the club is simply being careful with its franchise goaltender, but the injury does seem to open the door for another Vezina candidate to swipe the award.

The rest of the field is packed with worthy goaltenders like Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop, Montreal's Carey Price, Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury and Jaroslav Halak of the New York Islanders.

Other finalists: Halak (NY Islanders), Price (Montreal)

CALDER MEMORIAL TROPHY (ROOKIE OF THE YEAR)

Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers

It's not rare to see one standout rookie run away with the Calder Memorial Trophy, but 2014-15 gives us no shortage of worthy first-year candidates.

Earlier this season, it did seem like Nashville's Filip Forsberg would skate away with the Calder, but the gap has been closed considerably thanks to the emergence of guys like Aaron Ekblad, Johnny Gaudreau and Michael Hutchinson.

Ekblad gets the nod for me because it is so rare to see an NHL defenseman thrive as a rookie, let alone an 18-year-old. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, has made a seamless transition from Canadian junior hockey to the NHL and given Florida a cornerstone defenseman to build around.

The blueliner has helped Florida, a young team which was expected to be near the bottom of the NHL standings, stay in the race for a playoff spot this season. Ekblad is leading all rookie defensemen with 24 points on five goals and 19 assists and also is logging over 22 minutes of ice time per night. His point total trails only Forsberg and Gaudreau among all rookie skaters.

But, if this is purely a scoring race, Forsberg is still the leading candidate for the Calder. The 20-year-old Swede leads all rookies with 39 points over 42 games for Nashville, but Calgary's Gaudreau, the former Boston College standout better known by his nickname "Johnny Hockey," has been gaining ground on Forsberg.

Gaudreau only managed a goal and two assists through his first nine games this season, but he currently has 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) over 42 contests.

Hutchinson, meanwhile, is making a Calder case from the Winnipeg crease. The Jets goaltender has formed an effective tandem with veteran Ondrej Pavelec and the 24-year-old is 12-4-2 with a 2.00 GAA and .931 save percentage in 19 games.

There is plenty of time for any of these candidates to distinguish themselves from the pack, but Ekblad is my front-runner.

Other finalists: Forsberg (Nashville), Gaudreau (Calgary)

ADAMS TROPHY (COACH OF THE YEAR)

Peter Laviolette, Nashville Predators

Last season, Colorado's Patrick Roy earned the coaching award in his first season behind an NHL bench. In 2014-15, a mainstay of the coaching scene is leading the Adams field.

Peter Laviolette reached the top of the NHL mountain by leading Carolina to a Stanley Cup title in 2006, but the American has never won the Adams. However, Laviolette may get his hand on the trophy this season for his stellar work in his debut season with the Predators.

Laviolette was fired by Philadelphia after just three games in 2013-14 and was out of coaching until Nashville came calling last spring. He had big shoes to fill, taking over for Barry Trotz, the only head coach the franchise knew until he was fired for missing the playoffs in two consecutive seasons.

As mentioned above, a healthy Rinne has helped Nashville rebound in 2014-15, but Laviolette's impact cannot be forgotten, either. After all, we are in the middle of January and the Predators still have yet to lose consecutive games. That level of consistency is rare and has everything to do with a veteran coach like Laviolette knowing which buttons to push and when to push them.

Laviolette was tasked with transitioning the Preds from Trotz's defense-first style to a more up-tempo strategy and to say it has been a success would be an enormous understatement.

Nashville has gone from an average of 2.61 goals per game in 2013-14 to 3.00 goals per game this season, and it has done so while somehow improving on defense. The Preds were 23rd in the league in team defense (2.84 GPG) in Trotz's last season in Music City and are currently first with only 2.17 goals surrendered per contest.

The drastic improvement in overall play has Nashville at the top of the league standings and well on its way to the best regular season in franchise history.

It's worth mentioning that Trotz also could get Adams consideration for getting Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals to buy into his defensive system. Unlike Laviolette's Predators, who have been great from Day 1 of 2014-15, Trotz's changes needed time to take root, but the Caps are playing with great confidence at this point of the season.

Laviolette is a clear front-runner for the Adams with his stiffest competition coming from New York Islanders bench boss Jack Capuano, who has the Isles neck-and-neck with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Metropolitan Division crown.

Other finalists: Capuano (NY Islanders), Trotz (Washington)