JIMMY HOWARDRed Wings
The NHL's most glaring All-Star-ballot snub has improved his game each season. Even as the venerable Red Wings show signs of slowing, the 27-year-old Howard only seems to pick it up. More confident and willing to challenge shooters than he was early in his career, he now leads the NHL with 23 wins, has a goals-against average under 2.00 and hasn't allowed more than four goals in 67 consecutive starts, including last spring's playoffs.
Despite Edmonton's historic array of young stars, no Oiler has ever won the Calder. Puck magician Nugent-Hopkins should change that. Though he won't turn 19 until the playoffs that his team will likely miss, he is on pace to join Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin as the only rookies to average more than a point a game since the lockout season of 2004--05. At times Nugent-Hopkins shows his age. When Oilers players sported facial hair to raise money for cancer prevention in November, his attempt to grow a mustache proved futile. The Oilers still want their prized rookie to add some bulk to his 6'1", 175-pound frame, but Nugent-Hopkins's strength and balance are deceptive. His highlight hit on Dallas's Brenden Morrow in November left the 6-foot, 209-pound forward seeing stars.
The 23-year-old center (right) announced his graduation from good to great in the first period of the Flyers' opener against Boston, when he eluded 2009 Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara with an outside-in move and then beat reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas by darting inside-out for the team's first and still most memorable goal of the year. Giroux hasn't slowed since then. Despite suffering a concussion that knocked him out of four games in December, he still has 46 points.
It's about time to acknowledge Weber as the NHL's best two-way defenseman. In today's game, which seemingly penalizes excessive breathing, Weber commands his space with controlled menace yet has amassed only 24 penalty minutes. With a 103-mph slapshot, he also quarterbacks Nashville's No. 2--ranked power play and leads the team with 29 points. He's +14 on a team with no forward above +3.
JACK ADAMS TROPHY
Hitchcock has a history of building successful teams, and wearing out his welcome once his calls to discipline wear thin. (He's been fired three times.) But of the 12 coaches who have taken over since the end of last season, none has boosted his team's fortunes more than Hitchcock, who is 15-5-5 since Nov. 6, when he replaced Davis Payne, who was just 6-7-0. Players say the 60-year-old Hitchcock has mellowed, but even without the tantrums, his impact is still immense.
MARK KONEZNY/SOUTHCREEK/ZUMAPRESS.COM (HOWARD)
HOWARD'S TEND It's not a stretch to say that the Wings' goalie has kept an aging roster from declining more rapidly.
JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES (GIROUX)