Technically, it isn't the midway point of the season but the All-Star break is generally a good time to assess a team's performance, so I am going to hand out awards to the Hurricane players who stood out in both positive and negative ways. It's been a year full of disappointments for Carolina but there are still a lot of things to point out and not all of them are bad. One interesting thing about this year is that a lot of categories are wide open, especially when deciding who the team's "MVP" was in the first half. I eventually settled on a few choices that I'm satisfied with but you may not be, which is why I'm looking forward to debating about this subject.
Without further ado, here are my choices:
MVP: My original pick was going to be Jeff Skinner since he has been our best forward (and arguably our best player) this season, but he missed over a month of action with a concussion so that makes me hesitant to put him here. There's a lot of guys who I could name for this award since there isn't a clear-cut favorite but if I had to pick one, I would say Tim Gleason. He has been the only Canes blue-liner that's been matched up against the opposing team's top lines and I think he deserves a lot of credit for that. He is always playing on the top defense pairing and has maintained very good possession rates when you take into account that he starts only 40% of his shifts in the offensive zone. He also has the highest zone start/finish delta among Carolina defensemen, so the Canes are getting the puck moving in the right direction when he is on the ice. He's also got a modest 14 points, which is pretty good for him.
I know that Bryan Allen has better underlying numbers but he was on the third pairing for nearly a month, but Gleason has been used on the shutdown pair all season so I had to give him the nod here. Cam Ward is another name I heard being thrown around and while he has been stellar this month, his play before that wasn't very good. Although, he certainly has a lot of value to the team. No question about that.
Biggest Surprise: The biggest shocker of the year so far has to be Justin Faulk completely bypassing the AHL and making the Canes opening day roster. He made the transition from college to the AHL last season for the playoffs but I don't think anyone expected him to be ready to play top-four minutes in the NHL at the age of 19. While Faulk's possession numbers might indicate that he's struggling, his puck-moving ability is what is the most impressive. He manages to get the puck through the neutral zone at a much more efficient rate than any other of Carolina's healthy defensemen and it's one of the reasons why he's getting so many minutes. Faulk's also outperformed Jamie McBain in a lot of areas (puck-moving & play in own zone mostly) was even inserted into the lineup over him on a few occasions.
Biggest Disappointment: Eric Staal will likely get a lot of people's votes for his slow start, but he has played well since December and leads the team in points, so I can't say that he's been that big of a letdown. I am going to go with another popular choice here and that is Tomas Kaberle, the guy who was supposed to help our powerplay but had only 9 points (all assists) in 29 games, 4 of them coming on the man advantage. My expectations for him were low because he was nothing more than a third pairing defenseman/PP quarterback on the Bruins last year and the Canes probably needed him to be more than that. Paul Maurice did everything he could to accommodate him by giving him the softest minutes among blue-liners and he did next to nothing with him. Yes, he fell victim to bad puck luck, but he certainly could have done more than what he brought to Carolina.
Best Rookie: This is a no-brainer; Justin Faulk is the only rookie who has been on the team for most of the season and he's been very impressive when he's been on the big club. So much that the Canes are likely going to keep him for the rest of the year.
Best Newcomer: This was a hard one to decide because Carolina didn't exactly sign any big name free agents this off-season. Anthony Stewart and Tim Brent have been stuck on the fourth line and haven't been terribly impressive, I like what Alexei Ponikarovsky brought to the table even if he couldn't score and Brian Boucher's played in only seven games. I think the trade acquisition Jaroslav Spacek might get this honor because he's been a solid third-pairing defenseman ever since his arrival and that's all he needs to be.
Most Improved: I have to go with Jay Harrison for this one because of his emergence as an offensive threat. He said over the summer that "he was working on his shot" and it's clearly paid off as he has a career high seven goals and 19 points. That's more than he had in his past two seasons combined. The extra time on the powerplay helped him out there a little, but he's definitely earned it. Harrison's also playing a much bigger role than he ever has before as he's logging 20+ minutes on some nights with Faulk and has gotten a look on the top pairing on some nights. Not bad for a guy that some people thought would be on the waiver wire before the season, eh?
Most Underrated: One guy who I don't think gets enough credit is Chad LaRose. He isn't someone that should be playing on our first line but as a third liner, he is excellent. He is on pace to set career highs in goals and points (assuming that he gets healthy) and has played on both the powerplay and penalty kill. He might be misused but he has played in a multitude of roles for the Canes this year and I think he deserves a ton of credit for that.
Those are my choices. I'd love to hear everyone elses picks.