NHL fans have been through a lockout-shortened season before. And if anyone was wondering if asterisks would be accompanying award winners or even the Stanley Cup Champions, they can be assured that won’t be happening.
The New Jersey Devils of the shortened 1995 season are Stanley Cup Champions no less than any other team that has won it all. Either the Chicago Blackhawks or Boston Bruins will be the champions of 2013, and especially due to their fine play so far, no one should argue over their legitimacy.
The same leeway, however, may not be extended to all NHL award winners this time around. With only 48 games to judge, and no inter-conference play—meaning that general managers and professional hockey writers (the voters) did not see half of the league play live—some of the winners this year are particularly debatable.
And while the awards are often criticized for being either superfluous or too numerous (the Mark Messier Leadership Award comes to mind), they can have large implications regarding a player’s reputation, legacy, or even an upcoming contract negotiation.
Ovi the Great
Much ink will be spilled this offseason discussing whether or not Alex Ovechkin’s Hart Trophy win will greatly improve his reputation on and off the ice.
A two-time Hart winner (the last coming in 2009), Ovechkin has had his share of doubters, with some questioning his leadership qualities, the value of his enormous contract, and the gall of a Russian player who went on record saying he would neglect his NHL contract to play at home in the Sochi Olympics if an agreement was not reached between the NHL and International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Even more debatable is the fact that the Washington Capitals winger essentially won the most valuable player award for his performance in the second half of a half-season. Ovechkin’s first half was notably poor (10 goals in his first 27 games) while other Hart nominees like John Tavares and Sidney Crosby lit it up.
Then, he rattled off 22 goals in the final 21 games, helping his team to an 11–1–1 finish and the division title.
Similarly, in 2011, Ducks forward Corey Perry seemingly won the Hart with his own late-season surge with 19 goals in his last 16 games. And while players of this ilk will be called “closers” for good reason, they benefit from playing their best hockey when the awards voting begins in earnest.
Just imagine if the opposite was true and Ovechkin scored 22 goals in the first 21 games and then fell off towards the end; or if Crosby missed the first month with injury instead of the last.
When Russian netminder Sergei Bobrovsky was traded from the Philadelphia Flyers to the Columbus Blue Jackets, he likely thought he was leaving a team with opportunity for a team of futility. Instead, Philly remains a goaltender’s graveyard and exactly 51 weeks after the transaction, Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy, the highest honour in his position.
The start of Bobrovsky’s season however was also checkered. He began the year dueling with Steve Mason (now a Flyer) for top billing and experienced early struggles with only three wins total in January and February.
If Philadelphia’s goaltenders were six feet under, then Columbus must have felt just a little deeper.
Then came March and an immediate five-game win streak for Bobrovsky, followed by a stretch of 18–5–3 to finish the season, missing the playoffs on a technicality. He was in goal for his team’s last nine games, winning eight, and finished the year with a 2.00 goals against average.
Unlike Ovechkin, who only had four more first-place votes than Sidney Crosby, Bobrovsky won his award in a landslide, beating out former winner Henrik Lundqvist and the underrated Antti Niemi.
But Bobrovsky is now a restricted free agent, meaning the Blue Jackets have a decision to make. Do they reward a stellar performance and put in place a stopgap to settle a young, rebuilding team? Do they play hardball with found money? And what of the reported offers from the KHL and the ever-present threat of Russian hockey players leaving for home?
Bobrovsky has seen his stock improve in more ways than one since his season ended. The Vezina win, offers from the KHL, a nomination to appear on the cover EA Sports’ NHL 14, the celebrity brought on by the calls of “Bobrovsky!” by Jay Onrait of SportsCentre, and now the threat of an offer sheet from another NHL team looking to poach the Jackets of their young star all combine to spell dollar signs for the NHL’s second-half standout.
Only Columbus has recently restocked its front office, bringing in the first European general manager in the NHL in Jarmo Kekalainen and the distinguished John Davidson as Team President. Davidson, a former NHL goalie himself, has not only managed many teams out of obscurity, but was certainly brought in to do things the right way after the many blunders of former GM Scott Howson.
This front office will not react to short bursts of success. Which makes the offers from the KHL that much more ominous. When asked about the chances of him signing in Russia, Bobrovsky remained non-committal.
But the Blue Jackets are correct in questioning such sporadic results from a young goaltender. Bobrovsky is the youngest Vezina-winner since Jim Carey in 1995-96. Interestingly enough, Carey began his NHL career with an 18–6–3 record, followed by a Vezina-winning season the next year. He played 63 more uneventful NHL games before retiring in 1999.
Bobrovsky appears to have benefitted more from this lockout-shortened season than Ovechkin by turning 26 games into a potentially career-altering offseason. With that said, Ovechkin may have saved his career trajectory, which sounds ludicrous to say given that this is his third time as league MVP.
Both players still risk a downward trajectory if they cannot find consistency in the traditional 82 game NHL season. And though voters, in hindsight, got it right in the last shortened season of 1994-95 by choosing Eric Lindros as the Hart Trophy winner and Hall-of-Famer Dominik Hasek for the Vezina, time will have to tell where Bobrovsky and Ovechkin go from here.