Top Shelf: Handing out the first-half NHL Awards

Philadelphia, PA ( - The official midway point of the 2013-14 season is still a few games away for most NHL teams, but with the league taking a three-day break from action for Christmas this week, it's an ideal time to take stock of the first half.

This time last year we were still anxious about whether or not there would be a season at all, but the return of a full 82-game schedule has kept hockey fans busy for months now.

We've learned that the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks are still a force to be reckoned with, but they'll still have their work cut out if they want to repeat in the stacked Western Conference.

Although the league's realignment plan implemented at the start of this season leaves the 16-team East with two more members than the West, the latter conference still boasts nine of the 13 NHL teams with 45 points or more so far in 2013-14. Still, the East boasts plenty of star power with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk setting up shop in the conference and they could garner a share of the spotlight come awards time.

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


Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Crosby is well overdue for the second Hart Trophy of his career, as injuries over the last few years likely robbed him of a few MVPs. Last season was one of those years, as "Sid the Kid" finished just four points behind Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis for the NHL scoring lead, despite playing in 12 fewer games than the Lightning winger. In the end, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals won the Hart Trophy for a third time, and the Russian superstar is looking like Crosby's main competition for the award in 2013-14. Ovechkin had an NHL-best 32 goals in 48 games last season and he already has 30 in 35 games to lead the league this season. Crosby, however, is leading the NHL with 54 points (20 goals, 34 assists) in 38 games this season, a pace that is slightly behind his output from last year's lockout-shortened campaign when No. 87 had 56 points in 36 games.

Pittsburgh's captain has been the model of consistency this season, having been held without a point in just eight of his 39 games this season. He's the biggest reason the Penguins are poised to run away with the Metropolitan Division title this season and for a change Crosby has been the healthy one, while Pittsburgh has dealt with injuries and suspensions to just about everybody else. Sid has played in every game so far for the Pens. If he manages to stay healthy and wins the scoring title, even a 70-goal year from Ovechkin may not be enough to keep Crosby from his second Hart.

Other finalists: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim)


Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks

Although it's an award designed to honor the league's best defenseman, it's no secret the Norris usually goes to the NHL's best offensive blueliner, leaving the stay-at-home guys out in the cold. It's pretty clear Ottawa's Erik Karlsson is the best offensive weapon from the back end, as he is leading NHL defensemen in both goals (10) goals and points (37). Still, Karlsson currently has a minus-8 rating for the disappointing Sens and that could disqualify him from contention. Even if plus/minus is a horribly flawed statistical barometer for quality defensive play (and it most certainly is) it still matters to voters when they're picking the league's "best defenseman."

Although last year's winner P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens is having another strong season (5G, 22A, plus-11), it seems like Chicago's Duncan Keith is the best option for voters looking for a guy who offers both scoring and top-end defensive play. Keith currently is second only to Karlsson with 33 points (3G, 30A) and his plus-16 rating places him in the top-10 of NHL defensemen this season. Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville has said Keith is playing the best hockey of his career at the moment, and that's saying something for a guy who won the Norris in 2009-10 and has been the go- to defenseman on a pair of Stanley Cup championship teams.

Minnesota workhorse Ryan Suter, who averages close to 30 minutes of ice time a game, could also be a finalist if he picks up the scoring pace in the second half. Suter's 22 assists place him near the top of NHL defensemen in 2013-14, but he has yet to score a goal.

Other finalists: P.K. Subban (Montreal), Ryan Suter (Minnesota)


Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

Fresh off leading the Bruins to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance last spring, Tuukka Rask was rewarded with an eight-year, $56 million contract. The pressure of performing under the weight of that lucrative deal hasn't seemed to bother the 26-year-old Finn, as he's off to his best-ever start to a season in 2013-14. Rask is 18-8-2 with Boston this season and is sporting superb numbers with a 1.87 goals against average and .936 save percentage. That's the type of stingy net play that Tim Thomas delivered while winning a pair of Vezina Trophies for Boston in 2008-09 and 2010-11, and Rask has shown he's capable of playing at the same level. Now, if Rask could deliver a Stanley Cup title like Thomas did in the spring of 2011, he'll join the ex-Bruin in franchise immortality. Time is definitely on Rask's side, as Thomas didn't even make his NHL debut until he was 28 years old and he wasn't the club's regular goalie until he was in his early 30s.

Rask, however, faces some pretty stiff competition for this year's award, with Minnesota's Josh Harding and Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning among those who are turning in Vezina-caliber seasons. Still, Rask is the clear front- runner at this stage and it doesn't hurt that he plays behind one of the best all-around defensive clubs in the NHL. He has yielded one goal or fewer in 14 of his 29 starts and Rask has the best chance to keep up that type of pace in the second half.

Other finalists: Ben Bishop (Tampa Bay), Josh Harding (Minnesota)


Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

With 15 goals, San Jose's Tomas Hertl was well on his way to winning the Calder, but a recent knee injury that is expected to cost him over a month of action should make a race out of this one. Hertl's 15 tallies are five more than the next-best rookie, Calgary's Sean Monahan, who has 10 goals but only 16 total points. The Sharks forward is also pacing NHL rookies with 25 points, leaving him four ahead of Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers and Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon, who was the first overall pick at the 2013 draft. Obviously, if either Kreider or MacKinnon catch fire while Hertl is on the shelf than they could easily vault into front-runner status.

There is also the case of Boston defenseman Torey Krug, who is leading all rookie blueliners in both goals (8) and points (19). Like Kreider, Krug already has made a name for himself in the NHL playoffs, but he is still eligible for this award due to a shortage of regular-season games heading into this season.

We'll know more about this award in three or four weeks when Hertl should be nearing a return from his knee surgery. If Kreider, Krug or MacKinnon all fail to take advantage of Hertl's absence then the Sharks centerman could finish strong and still win the award.

Other finalists: Chris Kreider (NY Rangers), Torey Krug (Boston)


Patrick Roy, Colorado Avalanche

A lot of folks had some fun when Colorado named Patrick Roy as their head coach, especially because the news came less than two weeks after the club promoted Joe Sakic to executive VP of hockey operations. Of course, both guys were part of two Stanley Cup-winning teams for the Avalanche as players, but the moves reeked of Colorado desperately grasping at nostalgia to try and reverse the downward cycle the club found itself in.

But, jokes about the clueless Avs "getting the band back together" stopped as soon as the season began. Roy, in his first NHL coaching job, led the Avs to wins in their first six games and the club was 12-1-0 through 13 contest. Not a bad way to get the rest of the league's attention while turning punchlines into respect.

Colorado has cooled off considerably since that white-hot start, but at 23-10-3, the Avs would still be in the playoffs if the season ended today. For a team that was supposed to finish at the bottom of the NHL standings, that is saying something. In fact, expectations were so low for the talented but young club heading into this season, that Colorado may not even have to make the playoffs for Roy to win this award. If they do qualify for the postseason, however, it's a safe bet Roy can add an Adams Trophy to an overcrowded mantle that already includes a slew of Vezinas and Conn Smythes.

Other finalists: Joel Quenneville (Chicago), Bruce Boudreau (Anaheim)