SUN Hockey Pool

The best of the best

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:03 AM ET

The NHL's regular season ends in a month and, believe it or not, Ted Saskin and Chris Simon aren't the only ones grabbing headlines.

Even though it might seem that way.

While player suspensions and the NHLPA mess have been the hot topics lately, those issues should not be allowed to overshadow some of the outstanding stars who have strutted their stuff in 2006-07.

Like teen wonder boy Sidney Crosby, who is eyeing a scoring title at just 19 years of age.

Like goalies Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo, who have turned the at-times offensively challenged New Jersey Devils and Vancouver Canucks into legitimate contenders.

Like Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Vinny Lecavalier, who quickly is approaching his first 50-goal season.

And like Buffalo Sabres forward Daniel Briere, one of the few constants on his injury-ravaged team.

These five stars are among the front-runners vying for the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league's MVP. Over the next four weeks, it will be interesting to see if one of them can pull away from the others and become the clear favourite.

With the season ticking down, here is Rinkside's handicapping of the races for the NHL's five major awards.

HART (MVP)

Former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston insisted pitchers should not be eligible to win league MVP honours "because they have their own award, the Cy Young."

Under Gaston's logic, NHL goalies, then, could not win the Hart Trophy because they have the Vezina.

We're not buying it. After all, where would the Devils and Canucks be without Brodeur and Luongo?

Having said that, how can anyone argue against Crosby capturing the honour? Not only does he lead the league in scoring, but there is no way his Pittsburgh Penguins would be in the playoff race without Sid The Kid.

Lecavalier and Briere both have better supporting casts than the Crosby Show, but that should not take away from their superstar-like performances this season.

Others who deserve honourable mention include Dany Heatley (Senators), Marian Hossa (Thrashers), Joe Thornton (Sharks), Martin St. Louis (Lightning), Teemu Selanne (Ducks), Chris Pronger (Ducks), Marc Savard (Bruins), Nick Lidstrom (Red Wings), Alex Ovechkin (Caps), Jaromir Jagr (Rangers), Miikka Kiprusoff (Flames), Ryan Miller (Sabres) and Paul Kariya (Predators).

PICK: Crosby ... even if he's not legally old enough to swill some celebratory bubbly at the awards ceremony.

VEZINA (GOALIE)

This should be a two-horse race between Quebec natives Brodeur and Luongo, easily the class of the goaltending fraternity this season.

Brodeur's shutout total of 12 is amazing because it comes in an era in which defencemen no longer are allowed to tie up opposing forwards in front of the net.

Luongo, meanwhile, set the Canucks team record for goaltending wins in a season, his first in Vancouver.

Ryan Miller (Sabres), J-S Giguere (Ducks), Kiprusoff, Dominik Hasek (Red Wings), Rick DiPietro (Islanders) and Marty Turco (Stars) should also receive consideration.

PICK: Brodeur by a nose, although Luongo would be a deserving recipient as well.

NORRIS (DEFENCEMAN)

Anaheim's Chris Pronger appeared to be the front-runner until an unfortunate run of injuries plagued him in the second half of the season, opening the door for Detroit's Nick Lidstrom to capture his fifth Norris trophy.

Scott Niedermayer, Pronger's teammate in Anaheim, will get a look, as should Dan Boyle (Lightning), Brian Campbell (Sabres), Sheldon Souray (Montreal), Kimmo Timonen (Predators) and Philippe Boucher (Stars).

PICK: Lidstrom gets the nod again, with Campbell, Souray, Pronger and Niedermayer right behind.

CALDER (ROOKIE)

Sure, Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin is the favourite. But the real story is the influx of talent on a league-wide scale.

Colorado's Paul Stastny yesterday set a rookie record by recording a point in his 18th consecutive game, while fellow freshmen Anze Kopitar (Kings), Jordan Staal (Penguins), Kevin Bieksa (Canucks), Wojtek Wolski (Avalanche), Dustin Penner (Ducks) and Johan Holmqvist (Lightning) also serve as bright lights for the future of the game.

PICK: Malkin can keep Crosby company at the awards celebration.

ADAMS (COACH)

The fact that the once-lowly New York Islanders are vying for a playoff spot is an endorsement of Ted Nolan's coaching talents.

Anaheim's Randy Carlyle, Nashville's Barry Trotz, Detroit's Mike Babcock and Buffalo's Lindy Ruff have made sure their talent-rich rosters have played up to expectations while Vancouver's Alain Vigneault and New Jersey's Claude Julien have done outstanding jobs flying under the radar. Toronto's Paul Maurice has done an admirable job coaching a team with limited skills.

PICK: It's Nolan, barring a late-season collapse on the Island. Watch out for former Habs bench bosses Vigneault and Julien, too.


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