The NHL Awards came and went Saturday night, and no Toronto Maple Leaf picked up hardware. That’s not a travesty, of course. There wasn’t a compelling argument for any Leaf to be nominated or win any awards, although the PHWA placed Dion Phaneuf 11th in Norris voting, Randy Carlyle came 7th in Jack Adams, and Sporting News bro Jesse Spector gave James Reimer a 5th place Hart Trophy vote.
Here’s where I’m particularly surprised: Phil Kessel, the fourth-leading scorer among players on teams that made the playoffs, did not get a single vote for the Hart Trophy. I thought going in that he had a case to be at least in the discussion, if not among the finalists,. He ought to have merited consideration for the top five most valuable players in the NHL, but he wasn’t.
Phil Kessel did not get a single vote for the Hart Trophy, left off of all 179 ballots cast.
Sean Leahy has the Twitpic for how the voting broke down. Pascal Dupuis, Evgeni Nabokov and even François Beauchemin were apparently more valuable to their rosters than Kessel, who was the catalyst on one of the NHL’s 6th-ranked offence and helped lead his team to its first playoff appearance since smart people thought Evgeni Nabokov was any good.
Those three are probably the most egregious examples, but Jeff Carter, who played on the second line of the team that was defending Stanley Cup champions, got a fifth-place vote. Ilya Kovalchuk, who spent a quarter of the season on the shelf and had a lower points per game and goals per game rate than Kessel, got a fourth place vote.
Three writers thought Chris Kunitz was worthy of being named among the top five most valuable players in the league. Kunitz had two more goals than Kessel and the same number of points… playing on the same line as Sidney Crosby. Kessel had more goals and even strength goals.
More importantly… where would the Leafs be without Kessel? The same place they are without James Reimer — out of the playoffs. Even in a season where it took him forever to get going, Kessel is still 6th in points and has 19 goals to his name. When I count scoring chances each night, he’s factoring in on four or five scoring chances, and is either taking or setting up every single chance the Leafs get when he’s on the ice. I can’t say that last bit about Henrik Sedin.
Kessel is a zone entry king, turning possession in the neutral zone into a burst of speed in the offensive zone that has a defender on its heels. He’s so strong at shooting off the rush, and when he doesn’t, he pulls up and has all kinds of space to work with, finding a trailer coming into the zone and rarely ever having to just dump the puck in and give up possession because he’s played his way into a spot he can’t play out of.
He’s a hard player to appreciate because he doesn’t latch onto the spotlight, give a lot of interviews, do a lot of commercials and isn’t particularly handsome (although he looks exactly like my friend Tony, and Tony is a real hit with the ladies). His star in Toronto has an asterisk next to it considering what the Leafs eventually gave up to trade for him. But Kessel can’t control that, all Kessel can do is play well when he’s on the ice. The Leafs have more unblocked shots with Kessel on the ice than any other player. At last check, the Leafs had more scoring chances with Kessel on the ice per 20 minutes than any other Leaf as well, and in the last two weeks I think it’s safe to say he’s cleared James van Riemsdyk in that regard.
I think the argument still holds up. Kessel caught fire in the postseason and put to bed any doubt that he couldn’t play in big games, or couldn’t play against the Boston Bruins.
It’s amazing that one of the league’s 10 best players can play in the league’s biggest market and have nobody recognize him for being kind of good. I can understand why an individual writer wouldn’t have Kessel in the top five—there were a lot of deserving candidates—but to have a player of his calibre left off all 179 while guys like Carter, Kovalchuk, Dupuis and Kunitz all break onto the board is hilarious.
Somewhat related, the Leafs Nation had a year-end nominees and voting in a few categories. We still haven’t unveiled the winners so that will happen tomorrow.