LAS VEGAS — Okay, I'm not really in Las Vegas. I'm in Pittsburgh, where it's gray and cold with a light snow falling – perfect weather for the Winter Classic 10 days after it rained on the Winter Classic – and I'm dreaming of the warm sun and the NHL Awards.
Halfway through the 2010-11 season, here is who I would take to Vegas, baby.
Not that we needed any more evidence that Crosby has been the league's most valuable player so far this season, but look at what has happened in the Penguins' past two games: Crosby has been out with a concussion, and not only have the Pens suffered back-to-back losses (one in a shootout), they have scored only one goal.
Maybe it's a hangover after all the HBO "24/7" and Winter Classic hype. Maybe it's the bug that has been going around the dressing room. Or maybe it's just that the Penguins aren't the same team without Crosby, who leads the league in goals (32) and points (66) and faceoffs taken (981).
Crosby has kept the Pens at or near the top of the standings at a time when Evgeni Malkin(notes) hasn't been as dominant as he can be and Jordan Staal(notes) has missed most of the season because of injuries. The captain racked up 26 goals and 24 points during a 25-game point streak that included a 12-game Penguins winning streak. Before his concussion, he was on pace for 64 goals and 132 points.
If the injury keeps Crosby out longer than expected or affects him upon his return, that could open the door for the Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos(notes), who challenged his supremacy earlier this season, or the Vancouver Canucks' Daniel and Henrik Sedin(notes), who won the Hart in Henrik's name last season.
But if Crosby comes back strong, it's hard to imagine he won't win his second Hart, his first in four years. Stamkos ranks second in league scoring, with Martin St. Louis(notes) close behind in fifth. Daniel ranks third, with Henrik fourth. Crosby? He's No. 1, and the next-closest Penguin is defenseman Kris Letang(notes), who ranks 35th with 36 points – 30 points behind.
Once again the best all-around defenseman is the splendid Swede, who at 40 still logs lots of minutes, masters positional play in his own zone and produces at a high rate offensively. He started strong this season, posting a career-best 11-game point streak and netting his first-ever hat trick, and he's known for finishing even stronger. If he wins another Norris, he will have seven, tying Doug Harvey for second-most all-time. Only Bobby Orr will have won more – and Orr, his career cut short by bad knees, will have only one more at that.
But the debate is as interesting as ever this season thanks to Dustin Byfuglien(notes), the best story of the first half. He played power forward for the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks last season. Then he was traded as salary-cap casualty to the Atlanta Thrashers, with whom he moved back to his natural position and now leads NHL defensemen in scoring with 41 points, two ahead of Lidstrom. He's tied for the lead in game-winning goals with six.
Byfuglien and partner Tobias Enstrom(notes) are putting up huge numbers even though they aren't playing with elite forwards like Lidstrom and Letang are. (Letang ranks fourth in scoring among defensemen and has a plus-21 rating.) But Byfuglien, Enstrom and Letang have a long way to go to reach Lidstrom's level defensively.
Lady Byng (most gentlemanly player): Lidstrom
It's amazing that Lidstrom has never won the Lady Byng. Perhaps the award would be better received if it were renamed for him, and it could be, because he fits the definition so well as "the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability."
No one in the NHL is more gentlemanly than Lidstrom, a classy captain who never says a rude word off the ice and never does anything rash on it. He never loses his temper. Does he have a temper? He's always under control, and he's almost always in control of the game.
Lidstrom has 10 penalty minutes this season. He has never had more than 50 penalty minutes in a season, and he has had less than 20 in a full season five times. This is a defenseman, not a skilled, cherry-picking forward. He wins battles not with brawn, but with skill and smarts, and continues to win so many that he could nab the Norris yet again. That's a pretty high standard that he's set and continues to meet.
Thomas won the Vezina in 2008-09, and now he might be even better than he was that season. He leads the league in goals-against average (1.84) and save percentage (.944). He's tied for the lead in shutouts (five). And he's doing it in his trademark way, battling for every puck, never giving up.
Not bad for a 36-year-old former journeyman who had hip surgery in the off-season and wasn't expected to be the No. 1 guy this season. A problem in Thomas's left hip limited his mobility. Then he tore a labrum last season and watched as talented 23-year-old Tuukka Rask took over. But surgery fixed the problem, and he is more mobile than he was when he won the Vezina.
Selke Trophy (best defensive forward): Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks
Kesler was the runner-up last season to the Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk, who won his third consecutive Selke. But now Kesler is the favorite, with Datsyuk in the midst of a multiple-week absence because of a broken hand.
Defensive play is always difficult to quantify, but Kesler is a plus-17 and winning 57.9 per cent of his faceoffs. And though offensive numbers officially aren't part of the equation, they equate to attention, which can equate to votes from the Professional Hockey Writers' Association. Kesler has 23 goals and 40 points already, putting him on pace for 46 goals and 80 points. His career highs: 26 goals, 75 points.
Calder Trophy (rookie of the year): Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks
Couture barely qualifies as a rookie. He played 25 games last season – one more, and he would have been ineligible for the trophy this season – plus 15 playoff games. But he qualifies, and he used that experience to get a head start on his Calder competition. He leads rookies in goals with 19, five more than anyone else, and the Sharks have needed the help with their superstars less productive than usual.
But the Carolina Hurricanes' Jeff Skinner leads rookies in points with 32, after an intense off-season training regimen with Gary Roberts prepared him to play with men. And the Edmonton Oilers' Taylor Hall, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 entry draft, seems poised for a strong second half. He is currently lurking with 12 goals, tied for third with the New York Rangers' Derek Stepan, and 23 points, tied for fifth with teammate Jordan Eberle.
Jack Adams (coach of the year): Craig Ramsay, Atlanta Thrashers
Guy Boucher is the next hot thing, and deservedly so. The rookie coach is young and innovative, and along with rookie general manager Steve Yzerman, he has turned Tampa Bay into the leader of the Southeast Division.
But Boucher and Yzerman inherited a team with talents like Stamkos, St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Victor Hedman. What did Ramsay inherit in Atlanta?
It's appropriate that general manager Rick Dudley hired Ramsay, a fellow hockey lifer and former teammate, on June 24, the same day he acquired Byfuglien from the Blackhawks. He thought Ramsay was a superb teacher who could bring out the best in Byfuglien and the Thrashers.
Ramsay has done that and more. While benefiting from great goaltending by Ondrej Pavelec, he has been able to implement his aggressive system more quickly than even Dudley anticipated. The Thrashers are seventh in the East and threatening to make the playoffs for only the second time in their 11-season history.