PICKING THE Flyers' 2015 winner of the Barry Ashbee Trophy for best defenseman is like shooting darts: just hit the board. It's impossible to be wrong.
The award will be handed out 2 weeks from tomorrow for the 39th time, yet following extended runs by Kimmo Timonen (five) and Eric Desjardins (seven), it has rarely been tougher to decide on a clear winner.
The last time the Flyers were this putrid, in 2006-07, it was also a tossup. Derian Hatcher won out over Joni Pitkanen in a season in which the Flyers dressed a total of 17 defensemen for games.
Even during the barren years of 1989-1994, Garry Galley and Steve Duchesne pieced together strong seasons, mixing in with current assistant coach Gord Murphy and Kjell Samuelsson.
This year, a legitimate case could be made for three blue liners. It's bound to be one of the most controversial years of the award since 1983-84, when a Czech by the name of Miroslav Dvorak topped Mark Howe in voting, despite the fact that Howe (a Hall of Famer) finished 10th in leaguewide voting for the Norris Trophy.
Award ballots were handed out to a panel of Philadelphia sports writers and sportscasters on Wednesday. Here is how I voted:
1. MICHAEL DEL ZOTTO
Stats: 57 GP, 9G, 19A, 28P, minus-5, 30 PIM, 109 shots, averaged 21:29 TOI.
Status: Restricted free agent (arbitration-eligible)
Reasoning: The first knock against Del Zotto most people will have is, how do you vote for a player who sat out nearly 20 percent of the season as a healthy scratch? I'm not going to hold Craig Berube's ineptitude against Del Zotto. You could make a sound argument that Del Zotto was the Flyers' best defenseman even before Berube unbelievably scratched him for a stretch of 11 out of 14 games in December.
It's borderline amazing that Del Zotto, given the mental minefield he waded through on the scrap heap in late July, was able to rebound and play his best hockey of the season after sitting in the press box for long stretches. He was far and away the Flyers' most dynamic defenseman this season.
Del Zotto succeeds when he has the confidence of a coaching staff to do what he does best: take chances, lead the rush and create opportunities. He came through. Sure, he was on the ice for damaging goals-against late in the year, but he also generated 21 even-strength points on a team that was poor in 5-on-5 play. He was just about dead even (937-942) in shot attempts for and against while he was on the ice, meaning he wasn't nearly a liability, either. The Flyers would be wise to work out a longer-term deal with him sooner, rather than later, as he can be a big part of this team's future as a puck-mover.
2. NICK SCHULTZ
Stats: 73 GP, 2G, 13A, 15P, plus-4, 39 PIM, 63 shots, averaged 18:57 TOI.
Status: Signed a 2-year extension for $4.5 million on Feb. 18.
Reasoning: Schultz resurrected his career after a few brutal years in Edmonton with a brief stop in Columbus, steadying a defense corps that could best be described as "convulsive'' at times. He made just about every partner he played with this season better, which isn't easy to do.
Schultz will hit the 1,000-game plateau next season, but he appears to have plenty of tread left on his tires after it looked as if he was nearing the end last season. Other than Nick Grossmann, he is the only full-time Flyers defenseman to finish as a "plus." Along the way, Schultz broke a 125-game goal-less drought and finished nearing career-high offensive output. His consistency is what made him so valuable this season.
3. MARK STREIT
Stats: 75 GP, 9G, 36A, 45P, minus-10, 32 PIM, 132 shots, averaged 22:19 TOI.
Status: Two years remaining at $5.25 million salary cap hit.
Reasoning: It'd be easy to look at Streit's point total and pencil him in at the top. In my eyes, he was the benefactor of skating on a top unit with the No. 1 tandem (Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek) of power-play points (62) in the league. Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom have 60. Some 73 percent of Streit's 45 points came on the man advantage. He is certainly smooth at that end of the ice. He was outscored at even-strength by Michael Del Zotto by a 21-10 margin. He deserves credit for slogging through most of a season with partner Nick Grossmann, maintaining relatively solid shot-attempt numbers, but his turnover-prone defensive play was more a problem for the schizophrenic Flyers than a solution.
Honorable mention: Luke Schenn.
Bobby Clarke Trophy (MVP): Steve Mason
Barry Ashbee Trophy (top defenseman): Michael Del Zotto
Pelle Lindbergh Trophy (most improved): Chris VandeVelde
Yanick Dupre Memorial (class guy): Mark Streit
Gene Hart Award (most heart): Wayne Simmonds
Ron Hextall said yesterday Wayne Simmonds (left leg) would need approximately 4 weeks to heal completely, while Andrew MacDonald (right hand) would need about 6 weeks. Both players, injured Wednesday against Chicago, are finished for the year . . . Expect Brandon Manning and perhaps a Phantoms forward to be recalled today . . . Chicago signed Colgate free-agent forward Kyle Baun to a 2-year deal yesterday. He is a player the Flyers were targeting. The Blackhawks also agreed to terms with talented Vermont defenseman Michael Paliotta, a draft pick. . . . The Flyers have earned a point in 20 out of 27 games with Ryan White in the lineup.