As has become the annual tradition, tonight the NHL’s best will gather in Las Vegas for the distribution of some shiny trophies for the 2017-18 season.
Of course, the only award a Capital will be accepting on the stage in Vegas tonight is one that was already won back at the end of the regular season - and as we all know, the team already brought home the one trophy that matters the most. But that doesn’t mean we can’t hand out some imaginary hardware to those Caps who most embodied each of the NHL’s annual awards.
Let’s break it down...
WINNER: Philipp Grubauer
If it’s just about any other season, this is basically Braden Holtby’s trophy to lose… but this year, he did. Despite a decent October and a strong November, Holtby’s regular-season numbers (and his performance overall) just weren’t up to snuff, while Philipp Grubauer had what was easily one of his strongest performances to date. Sure, the Caps don’t win the Cup without Holtby – but it’s possible they miss the playoffs altogether without Grubauer.
WINNER: Nicklas Backstrom
It’s often hard to argue with the League’s finalists for this trophy, but the fact that Backstrom isn’t at least in the conversation on an annual basis is one of the great mysteries of life. He routinely faces off against opponents’ top lines while skating alongside linemates not necessarily known for their defensive prowess, kills penalties and wins faceoffs, and is usually among the team’s best in SAT percentage at even strength. Was this year’s performance necessarily his best when it came to playing defense? Perhaps not, as the whole team underwent a near season-long adjustment to the shutdown team they eventually became in the playoffs, but for his body of work as a whole he deserves the nod.
WINNER: John Carlson
2017-18 was the very definition of a career year for the Caps’ top defenseman, as he set new career-highs in goals, assists, points, points per game, game-winning goals, and power-play points. He led all NHL defensemen in points, narrowly beating out Dallas’s John Klingberg, while finishing top-ten in goals, top-five in assists, and second overall in power-play points.
Lady Byng Trophy
WINNER: Chandler Stephenson
On a team that often struggled to stay out of the penalty box, Stephenson was a model citizen, racking up just eight penalty minutes over the course of the whole season. Only 16 other players around the League played as many as 60 games this season and had eight or fewer penalty minutes like Stephenson - which is good, because as his role with the team grew, so did his presence on the penalty kill.
WINNER: Brooks Orpik
Look, no one is going to mistake Orpik for a Norris Trophy finalist these days, but there’s something to be said for what Orpik does do for the Caps - and that is provide a veteran presence on the ice and veteran leadership off it. With the Caps’ blueline as young and inexperienced as it was to start the season, there was the potential for things to fall apart very quickly and they didn’t, and that is in no small part due to Orpik’s guidance. And he’s filled this role for the team for the last few years despite the fact that he’s hardly the favorite of those mean people on the internet (*ahem*)... that’s not nothing.
King Clancy Trophy
WINNER: Devante Smith-Pelly
As a black player in a mostly-white League with mostly-white fans, Smith-Pelly carries a burden that most of us, and all but one of his teammates, could never understand. And yet he’s done so with the utmost grace, class, and thoughtfulness, speaking out against racism and standing up for his beliefs - often against an NHL culture that still tells players not to be “a distraction” or make anything about themselves (a big reason why there are still so many issues of, among other things, racism in the League). The kind of impact that can have in a city like DC, where over half the residents are black and minorities still struggle for even the means to play the game, can’t be overstated.
WINNER: Jakub Vrana
It wasn’t the smoothest of seasons for Vrana; he proved to be streaky at times and prone to defensive gaffes, and it was a while before the coaching staff trusted him with a larger role on the team. Still, when he was on… he was on. Caps fans were treated to many displays of just how talented, how fast, and how good the rookie’s moves were as he put together a very respectable 13-goal, 27-point season for himself. The future is bright for sure.
Ted Lindsay Award
WINNER: Evgeny Kuznetsov
He may have finished just shy of Ovechkin’s point total this season, and he’s not going to challenge the captain in the goal-scoring department anytime soon, but one could argue that the best player on the Caps’ roster this season from start to finish wasn’t the Great 8 - it was Kuznetsov. His emergence as a bona fide scoring threat allowed the team to put two balanced “top” lines on the ice on a nightly basis, and his creative vision and unpredictability brought out a different element to Ovechkin’s attack.
WINNER: Alex Ovechkin
It is rather insane to think that leading the League in goals, on a team that goes on to win a very tough division, isn’t at least worthy of a spot as a finalist for the NHL’s Hart Trophy… but there’s no question in our minds who the most valuable player for the Caps was this year. Over the years, Ovechkin has done everything that’s been asked of him by multiple coaches, to fit multiple systems, and he’s succeeded and failed and taken criticism and earned praise at various times for those efforts. This year, though, there was another level to his game - from the seven goals he posted in the season’s first two games, to the near-hat trick he posted in Game 82. And it wasn’t just the goal totals (although putting up 49 goals and leading the League in goal-scoring yet again is praiseworthy enough); it was how he was getting the goals, how he was doing little things away from the puck, and how he was carrying a team on his shoulders that no one thought would amount to much. We’re not gonna be suck this year? Damn right, Ovi.
Jack Adams Trophy
WINNER: Barry Trotz
...okay, yes, the field of potential finalists for this one was admittedly small. But the job Trotz did this year, with many of his key players departing the previous summer, another heartbreaking playoff loss to get over, and a surprising goaltending issue to juggle, was nothing short of miraculous. He was able to take this cobbled-together roster and lead them to yet another Metropolitan Division title in what has to be one of his best coaching performances to date - and that doesn’t even touch on the work he did in the postseason. He may be departing DC, but he’s doing so a champion and a Washington legend.
Thanks for everything, Barry.
GM of the Year
WINNER: Brian MacLellan
Like Trotz, there was really only one possible name in consideration for this award… and yet the way last summer went, MacLellan may not have been a shoo-in for many observers. The losses of guys like Justin Williams, Nate Schmidt, and Marcus Johansson stung, and the somewhat surprising long-term deals for Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie were viewed with some skepticism. But as the season progressed, and the team started to come together, MacLellan made some key moves, and non-moves, that really cemented what would become a championship roster. First, he locked up Lars Eller for five years at a cap-friendly rate - something that likely would not have happened after Eller’s performance in the playoffs (including the Cup-clinching goal). Second, he didn’t mortgage the farm to bring in a big name like Erik Karlsson or Ryan McDonagh at the deadline. And third, he pulled the trigger on a seemingly small deal to bolster the defense with Michal Kempny. Could the deals to Kuznetsov and, more likely, Oshie, become a burden down the line? Possibly - but you can’t argue with the results so far, in this season and in the past handful of years since taking over as the team’s GM.