Yesterday, we looked at who the candidates are to win the Barry Ashbee Trophy for the Flyers' best defenseman this season, which will be given out on Sunday before the team's game against the Carolina Hurricanes. Today, we'll do the same for the Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Trophy, which goes to the "most improved player" on the team. This award is voted on by the Flyers' players themselves.
While yesterday's post for the Ashbee Trophy involved two clear-cut favorites (Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn) and a third who maybe had an outside shot (Mark Streit), this one was a bit tougher for us to reach a consensus on. You can see our votes at the bottom of this post, but four different players split our vote, with no one guy getting more than three of the eight votes.
As such, we'll have one person who voted for each of the four players mentioned make their case below. The question of how you define "most improved" is up for interpretation, and you'll see a bit of that in the variety in our answers below.
Arguing in favor: Albert Kleine
Simmonds has been relatively strong all year, but has certainly taken off in recent months. He'll end the season with career highs in points and assists (and possibly goals), and has been solid enough to remain anchored on the second line despite some line shifting. Sure, his points per game is only a bit higher than it was last season, but that's not why he might get the award for most improved player.
As we pointed out recently, Simmonds has been an absolute beast on the power play. So far, he's notched 14 goals with the extra man, good enough for third in the league. He provides a much needed presence in front of the net, and can handle the puck beautifully down low.
We all know the Flyers' power play has been a key to their success in recent weeks, and Wayne Simmonds has been a big reason why. Due to his increased success there, he might get the nod for most improved player.
Arguing in favor: Kevin Christmann
Couturier deserves the Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Trophy for his continued growth as a defensive stalwart. His even strength ice time increased from ninth among Flyer forwards (11:52) to second (14:20 - trailing only Claude Giroux). His total time on ice increased from fifth among forwards (15:53) to second (19:04 - trailing only Claude Giroux). His offensive production is probably not as consistent as many would like but he did increase his points per 60 minutes to 1.47 from 1.23. Fortunately, Couturier is asked to play defense first ... and second, and third.
He was in rare company this season with respect to playing difficult minutes. Among all NHL forwards (298 of them) playing at least 59 games there were only 10 that saw competition (TotTm% QoC) greater than or equal to 29%, while seeing zone starts (O/DSt%) less than or equal to 45%. In other words, only 10 forwards played similar (at least based on my semi-arbitrary lines in the sand) minutes to Couturier with respect to difficult competition and frequently starting in his own zone. Among those 10, he had the third best shot attempt differential (as measured by Corsi-For percentage). Simply put, Couturier has become one of the league's premier shutdown centers.
Arguing in favor: Charlie O'Connor
Coburn would be the first two-time winner of the Lindbergh Trophy, which will likely keep him from winning the award, but no player turned his game around more this season than the longest tenured Flyer. Given the duties of a #1 defenseman in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, Coburn fell flat on his face in every way. His offensive production declined, his possession statistics cratered, and he rarely looked comfortable as he tried to carry partners like Bruno Gervais around on the ice.
Luckily for the Flyers, Coburn rebounded with a season where he re-established himself as the same steady, reliable defenseman that he had been through the majority of his time in Philadelphia. He led the Flyers in overall ice time, has been one of the team's best penalty killers, and earned his way back onto the first pairing with Kimmo Timonen. Coburn's game will never be flashy (although he sure does fly during 4-on-4 play) but his rebound season is one of the main reasons that Philadelphia has found themselves back in the playoffs this year.
Arguing in favor: Kurt R.
Mason probably won't win the award, as it's voted on by his teammates -- none of whom (excluding Jakub Voracek) were with him for the underwhelming (read: bad) parts of his career as an NHL goalie. So maybe they didn't see the improvement between the play of his career to date and his play this season. And maybe some will disagree on how much Mason's play this season was genuine improvement -- I won't argue there, and we'll have to wait a while to find out. But compared to what he was at this time a year ago or so, it's easy to make a case that Mason's play has improved as much as that of anyone on the team.
For a guy who entered the season (justifiably) as the single biggest question mark for this team, Mason's easily exceeded the expectations set for him. His performance this season was the best he's had in the NHL since his rookie year five years ago, if not the best of his six-year career, as he currently sports a save percentage (.916) fitting of a decent-at-worst NHL starter. His play in the season's first two months was outstanding, and after it fell off a bit in the middle of the year, he's rebounded with a pretty solid run of games down the stretch. There are still plenty of reasonable long-term questions about him, but his play this year's been much better than it's been at almost any time in his recent years in Columbus.
So there are our thoughts. Clearly there are a few possible answers and maybe there's even someone else that comes to mind for you. See our whole panel's votes below and then vote for yourself in the poll at the bottom of this post.
Who we voted for to win the Lindbergh Memorial Trophy: