It’s hard to envision an NHL 2009-10 in which someone other than Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin wins the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. Ovechkin (24 years old) and Malkin (23) have finished 1-2 in MVP voting the past two seasons and Crosby (22) won it the year before that. With respect to Pavel Datsyuk, Vincent Lecavalier and others, these three young guns are the class of the league and they look like the sole Hart owners for the next decade or so.
But seeing how Columbus rookie goalie Steve Mason forced himself into Hart contention last season, there’s always a chance a usurper will rise up and swipe MVP honors.
Here are the top 10 candidates for the Hart Trophy this season:
1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington
The two-time league MVP is the NHL’s most explosive and dynamic player, a goal-scoring machine whose passion is unmatched. What else needs to be said?
2. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh
A leader and a winner, he’s Mark Messier with more talent. How’s Crosby feeling after consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup final? Probably more motivated than ever.
3. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh
Mario Lemieux isn’t going to come out of retirement again, but Malkin is a pretty good knock-off version of No. 66. The big, rangy center has a laser for a shot and he’s an offensive force. Malkin, the 2009 playoff MVP, led the NHL in assists and points in both the regular season and playoffs last year.
4. Roberto Luongo, Vancouver
The best goalie in the league, Luongo is rested (he missed one-third of the season last year) and hungry (he surrendered seven goals in Game 6 vs. Chicago, his last outing of 2008-09). The Canucks are legitimate contenders in the West; Luongo could put them over the top.
5. Joe Thornton, San Jose
The word in San Jose is that Thornton – on the heels of yet another playoff disappointment – is focused on accomplishing big things this season. With Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi as his linemates, accumulating 100 assists isn’t out of the question. He’s the best (regular season) player on the NHL’s best (regular season) team.
6. Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit
The most skilled player on the NHL’s most perpetually talented team, Datsyuk also happens to be a defensive demon. There isn’t a better two-way player in the game, although Philadelphia’s Mike Richards might argue the point. Datsyuk has won consecutive Selke Trophies and four Lady Byngs in a row.
7. Jarome Iginla, Calgary
The Flames haven’t been the sum of their parts in recent seasons, but it hasn’t been Iginla’s fault. With apologies to Rick Nash, Iginla is still the NHL’s premier power forward. The Calgary captain is a tireless worker, leads by example and stands up for teammates. Look for a return to the 50-goal plateau and plenty of plaudits if the Flames play up to expectations.
8. Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay
Forget last season; it was a write-off. Lecavalier played through a shoulder injury and trade rumors and the Lightning was a league laughingstock due to off-ice ownership issues (that manifested on the ice in the form of rampant instability and an AHL-caliber defense corps). Lecavalier’s lackluster ’08-09 output (29 goals, 67 points) was 23 goals and 41 points fewer than his career-best effort of 2006-07. Look for a return to 40 goals and 90-plus points – and a pertinent place in the NHL MVP conversation.
9. Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers
After being nominated for the Vezina Trophy in each of his first three NHL seasons, Lundqvist didn’t garner top-three support last year. But he still collected one first-place vote and he’s recognized around the league as the reason the Rangers remain relevant. Aside from Niklas Backstrom in Minnesota, there might not be a more important player to his team’s fortunes.
10. Zdeno Chara, Boston
A long shot, seeing as he’d have to rise above last year’s elevated performance. But if Chara and the Bruins come through big again, look for the specimen defenseman to get some Hart support.
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