Tuesday, October 6, 2015

NHL awards favorites and longshots

These days, the NHL loves Las Vegas. The league has spent the past year openly flirting with giving the city its first major pro sports team, with everyone expecting a team to begin play there by 2017. And that’s in addition to the league holding its annual awards show in Vegas, which it has already been doing for years.

If it’s good enough for the league, it should be good enough for us, so let’s use those same awards to get a taste of some Vegas action. With the preseason schedule mercifully wrapped up and real hockey just days away, it’s time to hit the sportsbook for our annual attempt to predict the coming season’s award winners. And since anyone can pick the obvious candidates, we’re going to take it a step further. For each award, we’ll pick one favorite, one long shot (defined as 10-1 or longer), and one off-the-board pick. We’ll be using the latest odds from Bovada as of Tuesday morning.

A look back at last season’s award winners reveals a mix of preseason favorites (Erik Karlsson was the top pick for the Norris, Alexander Ovechkin was listed second for the Rocket Richard, and Carey Price was third for the Vezina), one quasi-long shot (Aaron Ekblad was 7-1 for the Calder), and two big long shots (Price was listed at 50-1 for the Hart, and Jamie Benn was at 50-1 for the Art Ross).

If this season follows suit, there should be a chance to hit on at least a few surprises. Will I be able to find them? Looking back on past history, it’s fair to say I don’t love my odds. But if the NHL is willing to gamble on sticking another team in the desert, I can stick my neck out on a few underdogs. Hey, I’m probably due, right?

Art Ross Trophy (most points)

The favorite: Sidney Crosby sits alone at 7-4, ahead of Ovechkin at 6-1. But I’ll take the 5-1 choice: Islanders captain John Tavares, who narrowly missed out last season and seems like a guy who’ll win one or two of these over the course of his career. Might as well be this season.

The long shot: Defending champ Benn is listed at 15-1, and teammate Tyler Seguin is at 6-1. Former winner Evgeni Malkin is available at 20-1, and last season’s fourth-place finisher, Jakub Voracek, looks like a bargain all the way down at 50-1. But my favorite two picks here are a pair of guys who’ve had recent near misses. Ryan Getzlaf (25-1) was the runner-up in 2013-14, and Claude Giroux (30-1) was third in both 2011-12 and 2013-14. I’ll take Giroux, and hope he continues that every-second-year magic.

Off the board: Neither Sedin brother is listed here even though both have won the award since 2010, but given my pessimism on the Canucks, I’ll pass. Besides, another missing name jumps out here: Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom, who’s finished in the top 10 four times and led the league in assists last season. He’ll need to keep being an elite playmaker while nudging his goal scoring back up over the 20 mark to have a shot, but with an improved Caps team around him, that’s a decent bet to happen. He’s the pick.

Hart Trophy (MVP)

The favorite: It’s Crosby again, which makes sense — more often than not, the Hart goes to whoever wins the scoring title. Of course, 2014-15 was one of the “not” years, so we’ll have to keep our eye on the goalies here. There aren’t any at the top end of the list, though, with Crosby joined by Ovechkin (6-1) and Tavares (17-2). I’m already in on Tavares for the Art Ross, so I’ll stick with him here.

The long shot: We’ve got a big list to work with, with 18 players left on the board, including reigning champ Price at 10-1. The only other two goalies are Henrik Lundqvist (28-1) and Jonathan Quick (40-1), and Lundqvist is tempting.

But if we’re going to go out on a limb with our last pick, let’s go all the way out — down to the very bottom of the list, where we find Erik Karlsson at 50-1. The Ottawa defenseman has already won two Norris Trophies; maybe voters are getting tired of handing him that award and want to think a little bigger. True, defensemen almost never win the Hart — Chris Pronger in 1999-2000 was the last to pull it off — but we could have said something similar about goalies this time last season. I’m not high on the Senators this season, but if they surprise, it will be because of the player who’s far and away their best. At 50-1, I’ll roll those dice.

Off the board: Jakub Voracek is a notable omission here, and I could make a case for P.K. Subban under the same logic as Karlsson. There are also some decent goalie options, including Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask, and you know I’m fighting the urge to go with Phil Kessel, because trading a guy the year before he’s the MVP would be the most Leafs thing ever. But in the end we’ll go with Backstrom again; if he does come through and win the Art Ross, history says he’s the Hart favorite.

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