Friday, March 21, 2008

The Masterton Selection Process

The Masterton Trophy is given annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey. The award was brought into the NHL to honor Bill Masterton who died from injuries sustained in a 1968 NHL hockey game. Typically, the award is given to a player who manages to comeback from serious injury or life threatening illness to be a significant NHL player. This season, I support Owen Nolan of the Calgary Flames for the award. He made a comeback from a knee injury that kept him out of hockey for two consecutive seasons to make a comeback last year with Phoenix and continue it this year with Calgary. He has been a valuable second or third line forward since his injury. Most players probably would have retired if they had been kept from play for two years when they are in their mid-30's, but not Nolan. He has comeback and continued his career.

I do not like the way the award is given out. With more than 10% of the hockey season remaining, the media in each city has selected a Masterton nominee. Here is a list of this season's nominees. There are problems with the way nominees are picked. First, picking nominees while the season is still underway prevents us from getting a final look at the season. It makes any event that occurs at the season irrelevant to the process, when sometimes these might be significant events. The second problem is that each team does not have a legitimate candidate for any award - let alone the Masterton. Can you imagine if other awards were selected this way? What difference does it make who would be named (for example) the New York Islanders nominee to the Norris Trophy? He won't win it. There is no reason for them to even name a nominee. As a result, many teams pick a nominee who was unable to play a significant role in the NHL for many years and looked like he would not have a career, but kept trying and eventually made the team and had some value to his team. This explains nominations of players like Glen Metropolit in Boston or Ty Conklin in Pittsburgh. Sure it shows dedication to have not given up, but this is not what the award is designed for. Other teams pick a player as nominee for having a long career and being dedicated enough to hockey to keep playing despite the fact his best years are gone. Glen Wesley of Carolina and Luke Richardson of Ottawa are examples of such nominees. None of these players should receive serious Masterton consideration, but the process forces teams to nominate somebody and they are the best available players on their given team. The New York Rangers media agree with this position and declined to name a nominee. No matter which Ranger they picked, he wouldn't have had a serious chance at the Masterton anyway.

The bigger problem is naming nominees too early. The season isn't over yet. Something might happen to change who should be nominated between the nomination and season's end. An example of this is in Buffalo. The Buffalo Sabres nominated Paul Gaustad. I'm not sure what makes him a serious Masterton candidate. Gaustad was a seventh round draft pick who worked hard through three years in the AHL and has been able to make an NHL career. It looks like a better nominee might be Teppo Numminen. Numminen had heart surgery in the off season and is now back practising with the Sabres. This is not his first heart problem. An irregular heartbeat kept him sidelined in the past and threatened his NHL career. Should he play an NHL game between now and the end of the season he is a far better nominee then Gaustad, but was missed due to an early deadline for nominations.

Numminen has had a hard time with the Sabres this season. He was suspended by the Sabres for not coming to training camp fit to play since he had had heart problems. This was an attempt for the Sabres to save paying him his contract. His contract was uninsured due to previous heart problems. Despite protestations from Tom Luongo of Sabre Rattling this is not a good move for the Sabres. I am surprised that there has not been more done to fight it. TSN reports that Numminen filed a grievance with the NHLPA in November (they are reporting this in March!) over his suspension. I would think this might be the kind of battle NHLPA head Paul Kelly would want to attach himself to as he fights to re-establish the NHLPA. Suspending a player because he is sick or injured to save money is the kind of thing the NHL should not be doing. It's a blatant reprehensible act that has no positive public relations spin surrounding it. It is something that should not be allowed as the NHL tries to chip away at player's rights.

I wouldn't expect Teppo Numminen should win the Masterton Trophy this season, even if he comes back and plays a token game or two at the end of the season. However, he is a far better nominee than Paul Gaustad, who was only chosen due to the odd practise of picking nominees before the season ends. If next year Numminen has a solid comeback season next year (and hopefully somewhere other than Buffalo since they wronged him) I would think he should be a leading candidate for the award. Buffalo has had problems keeping their free agents and the treatment of Teppo Numminen won't help change things in any way.

I think the Masterton Trophy should be voted for at season's end like and other NHL award. Like any other award, they should name the three nominees who get the most votes (as of right now, in my mind they should be Owen Nolan, Fernando Pisani of the Edmonton Oilers and Jason Blake of the Toronto Maple Leafs this year) and then name the winner at the awards ceremony. Running the award differently with nominees announced from each team while the season is still being played makes no sense. That practise should be ended.

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