With Wednesday’s NHL opening night almost upon us and the team-based predictions already filed away, we’ve got one last chance to make some picks for the various individual awards. And you can bet there will be a few surprises as the season unfolds.
Literally, you can bet on that. The NHL isn’t like the NFL, where you can find someone offering odds on every little thing. But some online sportsbooks do release lines for various pro hockey player props, and that includes the major individual awards. Those odds can be a good sign of who’s expected to do what.1 And they can offer up a fun preseason challenge: figuring out whether any underdogs have a shot at earning some hardware.
So let’s take a crack at five major NHL awards. We’ll start by looking at the favorite and whether they really deserve that status. Then we’ll dig further down the list to try to find the best long-shot candidate, which we’ll define as anyone who’s listed at odds of 10/1 or longer. Finally, we’ll go off the board by picking a candidate who didn’t even make the oddsmaker’s list, but who still has a realistic chance at an upset win.
All of that ends up being harder than it sounds for a few of these awards, but nobody said this would be easy. We’ll start in the same place that most team’s chances of a decent season rest: with the guys in goal.
Vezina Trophy (best goaltender)
The Vezina is voted on by the GMs, who probably weigh traditional stats like wins and goals-against average a little too highly, but the results are about what you’d expect most years.
The favorite: Last year’s winner, Tuukka Rask, gets the top spot at 3/1, just edging out Henrik Lundqvist at 4/1. No argument here; these are the best two goalies in the league.
The long shot: I was all set to go with Cory Schneider, who was originally listed at 10/1. I guess I wasn’t the only one, as he’s since dropped down to 8/1. I also thought about going with Ben Bishop (12/1), just to confuse all the Lightning fans who are still mad at me for suggesting he may not be a sure thing.
Instead, I’m going with Pekka Rinne at 12/1, and it’s not a pick I feel great about, largely because I’m not big on the Predators’ chances. But Rinne was a finalist in 2011 and 2012, and if he’s healthy and can get Nashville into the playoff hunt, then he’d have a chance. Then again, those are two really big “ifs,” since he’s 31 and coming off hip arthroscopy, and the Predators look like they’ll have a tough time making much noise in the Central. I basically talked myself out of this pick in one paragraph. Let’s just move on.
Going off the board: There are only 17 goalies on the list, so we’ve got almost half the league to work with. And there are some good names to pick from, including Jonathan Bernier, Brian Elliott, Nicklas Backstrom, and maybe even Frederik Andersen. But I’m going to go with Jimmy Howard of the Red Wings, who’s been very good over the course of his career and should rebound from an off year in 2013-14.