PHT’s midseason trophy picks (Joe Yerdon’s choices)

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Most teams are approaching, at or beyond the 41-games played mark, so the PHT gang will make its choices for the NHL’s trophies at this point in the season. Feel free to call us evil/wrong in the comments. If you missed James’ picks yesterday, fear not, we’ve got your hookup right here.

Hart Trophy – Sidney Crosby

Yeah, really going out on a limb here but Crosby has been, by far, the best player in the NHL . Crosby’s season has been so good to this point he’s made the other Hart candidate, Steve Stamkos, seem average by comparison and that takes serious effort. Crosby’s absence from the Penguins lineup of late and the Penguins lack of success only shows how important he is to them.

Suffice to say, when you’ve got 32 goals and 34 assists through 41 games you’re doing pretty damn well and worthy of the platitudes that are given to you. Love him or hate him, Sid is the real deal and he’s proved it this year. Now if only he can keep his melon safe the rest of the way.

Vezina Trophy – Ondrej Pavelec

Contrary choice I know but let’s discuss things here. Tim Thomas has been great this year and would likely be the #1 choice on anyone’s ballot and rightfully so. That said, whether it’s through pity or looking to reward a guy for putting in “harder” work, I’ve always been more on the side of guys that don’t play behind stifling defensive systems. I was never a Brodeur guy, I was always a Hasek guy.

In this case, Ondrej Pavelec is playing the role of Dominik Hasek while Tim Thomas is Martin Brodeur (save the fat jokes for now). Pavelec doesn’t play behind a team that makes defense their first priority and his numbers are astounding in leading the Thrashers. His .932 save percentage is incredible while his 2.27 goals against average is equally stunning. Before you ask, no, I’m not being swayed by what a great story this would make after how Pavelec’s season began with him passing out on the ice before the start of their first game. Pavelec has simply been the rock-solid starter Atlanta desperately needed and he’s proved himself.

That said, if the award were to be handed out today I have absolutely zero doubts that Tim Thomas would be a runaway winner and rightfully so. I’m sticking with Ondrej.

Norris Trophy – Nick Lidstrom

How do you not pick Nick Lidstrom? It’s a virtual no-brainer this year. After struggling last season being one of the only Red Wings to not suffer an injury, Lidstrom has bounced back in a huge way this year with 11 goals and 28 assists all while being the Wings’ most dependable guy going the other way. He’s 40 years-old and leads all Red Wings skaters in time on ice playing an average of 23:44 per game.

He plays as much time on the power play as he does shorthanded and he’s the straw that stirs the drink in Detroit. There’s a reason they call him “The Perfect Human” there and it’s always steady play on the blue line that does it. His main competitors this year in Dustin Byfuglien and Chris Pronger are great at what they do and are/were having great seasons by anyone’s standards, Byfuglien in particular, but Lidstrom’s work is on another level. It’s tough being perfect.

Jack Adams Trophy – Craig Ramsay

By far this is going to be the toughest choice this season if things hold up. James and I had an Internet arm wrestling match over who to pick on this one and you can decide on who you think the winner was, but my choice was made easy getting to pick Atlanta’s Craig Ramsay. Ramsay compares well with Tampa’s Guy Boucher, and while both teams were bad last year, with the Thrashers dumping Ilya Kovalchuk confidence was very low in what Ramsay would be able to do there.

Instead, Ramsay has turned the Thrashers into a hard-nosed team with Andrew Ladd leading the way with the forwards with Evander Kane emerging as a star. Ramsay’s noted work with defensemen is paying off in big ways with Dustin Byfuglien as he leads the team in scoring, but also with Tobias Enstrom who is no longer a strictly offensive blue liner and has become the team’s ice time horse averaging over 24 minutes a game. Add in those factors along with Ondrej Pavelec’s great season and you’ve got yourself a guy in Craig Ramsay who’s made something out of nothing overnight with no superstars to speak of.

Calder Trophy – Logan Couture

This one is a tighter race than just about any of them and we’re sure people are going to complain about the prior work Couture got to do last season and in the playoffs but frankly that doesn’t sway me. He’s got 19 goals already this year and has emerged as one of the most reliable Sharks scorers on a team loaded with star power.

Other Calder candidates are still looking very good and some might not get more consideration because of their position. Guys like Carolina’s Jeff Skinner, Colorado’s Kevin Shattenkirk, Philly’s Sergei Bobrovsky, Edmonton’s Jordan Eberle, and Nashville’s Anders Lindback are all seriously in the hunt here but it’s Couture who’s shown the most grace under pressure, something which his superstar teammates should take note of to improve their games.

Selke Trophy – Ryan Kesler

You can put Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit down here as 1B to Kesler’s 1A in the race for this award. You could choose either of these players and not have to hear anything from fans of the other team because both guys are equally as great as defending forwards. Kesler’s game has evolved greatly over the past few seasons to the point where Kesler is getting the call consistently against top forwards. Kesler’s game is also improving in ways that help him finally catch up to the heights Datsyuk has reached over the years in that he’s added the ability to make opponents pay for their mistakes with goals.

If we told you that Kesler had 23 goals already this year, you’d likely think we’re nuts but that’s how it is right now. He’s the forward that averages the most time on ice on the Canucks roster and considering that includes the incredible Sedin twins that’s saying something. Much like with the Vezina race, we’d expect that Datsyuk gets the call to win this award but Kesler is making the decision a lot harder and I’d expect some votes to change this year if Kesler keeps potting goals while shutting down opponents.

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Leon Draisaitl lands on injured reserve for Oilers

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After missing his team’s 6-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night, the Edmonton Oilers announced on Monday that forward Leon Draisaitl has been placed on injure reserve.

He was injured one week ago in a game against the Winnipeg Jets and has been sidelined with an eye injury and concussion symptoms ever since. It’s a big blow to an Oilers team that is off to a slower than expected start having won just one of their first four games.

Draisaitl signed an eight-year, $68 million contract over the summer making him a significant part of the Oilers’ core alongside Connor McDavid. He finished the 2016-17 season as one of the top offensive players in the league and is going to be counted on to help carry the offense again when he is healthy. The Oilers don’t have a ton of forward depth and are going to need McDavid and Draisaitl to be the focal points once again if they are going to live up to the preseason hype that made them one of the odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

Before he was injured this season Draisaitl had recorded one assist in three games.

The Oilers host the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.

It is not yet known how long he will be sidelined.

SPHL gets creative, adopts ‘pick your opponent’ playoff format

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When discussion about the NHL’s playoff format comes up, there is a section of fans who would like to see the league allow for an even greater reward for top teams other than home-ice advantage.

That idea has become a reality thanks to the Southern Professional Hockey League.

The 10-team SPHL announced on Monday that they are overhauling their opening round and turning it into what’s being dubbed the “Challenge Round.” The top three teams will get to choose their first-round opponent during a “Challenge Round Selection” event which will be broadcast to fans on Sunday, April 8, the day after the regular season concludes. After the top three seeds select their opponents, the No. 4 team will be matched against the leftover side.

Every playoff series, including the President’s Cup Final, will remain best-of-three with re-seeding taking place for the second round.

The idea for this change came to SPHL commissioner Jim Combs over dinner in June with Axel Bammer, Chief Operating Officer of the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga. When Combs heard that the league’s top teams get to pick their opening round opponent, he could imagine the buzz and interest it would generate. (Sweden’s Elitserien did this in the past as well.)

A week after meeting with Bammer, Combs met with the league’s owners and received zero pushback about the idea. The new playoff format was widely embraced as the group felt this was the future of the hockey.

Feedback has been mixed on the change. But Mike Campos, who covers the SPHL for The Sin Bin, sees it being a big plus for the league.

One of the benefits of being at the bottom rung of the professional hockey ladder (second-lowest, if you consider the FHL a pro league) is there is flexibility to implement radically new ideas other leagues can not. If the “Pick Your Opponent” format change generates buzz among fans and rivalries between teams resulting in a spirited postseason, the decision could be a winner for the SPHL.

As Campos notes, lower levels of hockey allow for plenty of onnovation while not straying far from the fundamentals of running a hockey league. This new format will certainly make the end of the regular season much more interesting and provide bulletin board material for teams and storylines heading into the playoffs. It’s an idea worth exploring, and the SPHL is no stranger to implementing ideas that catch on elsewhere.

It was the SPHL where 3-on-3 hockey began over a decade ago. It was deemed a silly gimmick at first, but now that we’ve seen it at the NHL level for two seasons, it’s clearly a welcomed change — one that’s made overtime hockey must-see television.

Combs said the league will see how it this playoff format idea plays out in April before deciding whether to keep or tweak it in the future.

So what do you think? Would you want to see the NHL go in this direction for the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Stick-tap Scotty Wazz

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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With Perreault out four weeks, Jets call on prospect Kyle Connor

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Kyle Connor has been a scorer just about everywhere he has played — the USHL, the University of Michigan, and the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League.

He’s only had a brief taste of life in the NHL, playing 20 games for the Winnipeg Jets last season, scoring two goals and five points.

The 2015 first-round pick hasn’t yet experienced the same success at the NHL level, although he’s about to get another opportunity with the Jets after getting recalled on Monday. The move comes after Winnipeg placed Mathieu Perreault on injured reserve. He’s expected to miss up to four weeks.

Perreault has yet to play a full 82-game schedule with the Jets because of injuries, but he’s been an important player when available, with consistent production and strong possession numbers. That said, the 20-year-old Connor is a promising prospect with the potential for significant upside, especially considering the role he should find himself in.

Per NHL.com on Monday, Connor skated on the wing with Bryan Little and sophomore scorer Patrik Laine. That, it would appear, is Winnipeg’s second line, which gives them a difficult top-six group of forwards — the top line consisting of the red-hot Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler — for the opposition to face.

“Speed. That’s the big piece that he can add to that line,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “Patrik’s such a great shooter. Bryan’s a really quick player. What Perreault did well was he got in and he got on it. He was quick enough to get in there to create some offensive zone time and allow those guys to do the things they do well and Kyle should be able to add that.”

The Jets have won three in a row, with Connor Hellebuyck giving them a trio of impressive performances in net. They host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, although according to Sara Orlesky of TSN, Steve Mason is expected to get the start.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Eddie Olczyk to return to broadcast booth for Blackhawks-Blues Rivalry Night showdown

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The Chicago Blackhawks visit the St. Louis Blues for Wednesday’s Rivalry Night contest on NBCSN, and there will be a familiar voice on the broadcast.

Eddie Olczyk will return to the broadcast booth for this contest — the first meeting of the season between these two Central Division rivals — just over two months after it was publicly revealed that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer and was undergoing treatment following surgery to remove a tumor.

“We have some dates that we have highlighted and hopefully I will be strong to do the job,” Olczyk told USA Today. “If I am not feeling good, I just have to be honest with everyone and tell them I can’t do it.”

Read more: Blackhawks announcer Pat Foley gives shout out to Eddie Olczyk at Wrigley Field

Olczyk played 1,031 NHL games for six teams, including the Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, New York Rangers, L.A. Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins, from 1984 to 2000, scoring 342 goals and 794 points.

After coaching the Penguins during the 2003-04 and 2005-06 seasons, Olczyk moved to the broadcast booth as an analyst for NBC Sports’ coverage of the NHL and also Blackhawks games on NBC Sports Chicago.

In a statement in August, Olczyk vowed to return to broadcasting after his treatment.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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