Nikita Kucherov Image by: Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images
Nikita Kucherov has long been the Hart Trophy favorite, but he hasn’t been able to separate himself from the pack in what has become a crowded race.
Though we’re in the midst of the final month of the campaign, each passing game has seemingly widened the respective awards races instead of further narrowing the focus as the playoffs approach. And there may be no award where the field has broadened as much as the Hart Trophy, which has seen a race that seemed to be won by mid-season expand to include more than a dozen forwards alone.
The truth is that it’s still anyone’s guess who takes the award, and it may take until the final day of the season to really determine which late push or full-season performance stands above the rest as the most worthy of winning the league’s MVP honors. But as we wind down the campaign, here’s a run down of the 10 best candidates — all forwards and one per team, though not by design — and the respective case for and against each player:
NIKITA KUCHEROV, Tampa Bay Lightning
The Case For: The leading scorer on the NHL’s top team and arguably the most dynamic playmaker in the league this season. He opened up an early lead in the scoring race and has remained the frontrunner for the Art Ross Trophy for much of the season. He is one of two players with at least 30 goals and 50 assists, leads the league in points per game, has the most primary points at 5-on-5 and ranks second in primary points at all strengths. Steven Stamkos may wear the ‘C’ in Tampa Bay, but there’s an argument to be made that Kucherov has become the team’s most important player.
The Case Against: Not easy to make one, but let’s start with this: there’s a chance Kucherov won’t finish the season leading any of the major statistical categories. He’s eight off the league lead in goals, two back of the assists lead and, while has a four-point edge in the scoring race, the gap between he and the rest of the league has been shrinking. There’s also the “definition” argument. Is Kucherov’s value to the Lightning more than that of other top stars to their respective teams? It’s a question worth asking, especially in a race that’s this tight.
EVGENI MALKIN, Pittsburgh Penguins
The Case For: No player has been better since the start of December and it’s not even close. Since Dec. 1, Malkin has scored 32 goals (!) and 66 points (!!) in just 44 games (!!!). That’s 1.5 points per game across a nearly four-month span. Those are 1980s numbers and the kind of season that players simply don’t maintain in the modern era, yet here we are. Malkin’s offensive dominance has led to Pittsburgh climbing up the Metropolitan Division and has put the Penguins in the conversation as a potential three-peat champion. It looked like a long shot before Malkin turned on the jets.
The Case Against: If there’s room to discuss Kucherov’s status as the player most important to his team, Malkin’s case can get picked apart. It’s no fault of his, of course, that he plays on a team with Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel, but that the Penguins have three players among the top 10 scorers doesn’t make Malkin appear to be quite the driving force he has been. Remove him from the equation and Pittsburgh still has a deadly attack.
TAYLOR HALL, New Jersey Devils
The Case For: How soon is too soon to retire No. 9 in New Jersey? We kid, of course, but Hall has been an absolute stud for the Devils and there’s really no question that, without him, New Jersey wouldn’t even be flirting with the idea of a playoff berth. Hall has scored 1.16 points per game, the eighth-best mark in the league, and has basically lapped the next-best scorer on his own team. He has scored more than 15 percent of New Jersey’s total goals this season despite missing five games and has registered a point on more than 37 percent of the Devils’ total offense.
The Case Against: A big part of the argument comes down to the post-season. If New Jersey makes it, Hall’s case is strong. If they don’t, he can almost certainly kiss the award goodbye. Right or wrong, we can almost accept that as fact given the history of the award. But what will also work against Hall is that his argument for the award isn’t a unique one. Voters may lean toward the other player to almost singlehandedly drive his team into the playoffs, which is…
NATHAN MACKINNON, Colorado Avalanche
The Case For: MacKinnon has driven the bus for the resurgent Avalanche. He has been nothing short of brilliant, scoring 33 goals and 82 points in 61 games, and his 1.34 points per game is tied for the league lead. That’s one feather in his cap, but another is that he outshines Hall in terms of individual impact on a bubble team. We did the math. The two have the same percentage of their team’s respective goals, but MacKinnon has contributed to 37.4 percent of Colorado’s offense. Hall’s contributions total up to 37.2 percent of the Devils’ attack. The kicker here is that MacKinnon leads the league in primary points despite playing in five fewer games than the next-best player, Malkin.
The Case Against: Like Hall and the Devils, MacKinnon is going to need the Avalanche to lock up a wild-card spot in order to solidify his Hart candidacy. The trouble is that the Western playoff race is much tighter than the East’s and Colorado will have to contend with the Ducks, Stars and Flames to earn a berth. It’s also worth wondering whether his missed time will weigh on voters. It’s only eight games, but it might be enough for some voters to look elsewhere, particularly with such a crowded field.
ANZE KOPITAR, Los Angeles Kings
The Case For: Statistically, Kopitar doesn’t stand up against the Art Ross frontrunners, but the Kings captain has been no slouch this season. His 28 goals and 76 points are tied for 10th in the NHL. But what should raise some eyebrows is how much of L.A.'s offense that Kopitar has factored in on. He has a point on 37.8 percent of the Kings’ total goals, which is the fifth-highest mark in the NHL. He also has a 28-point edge on the next-best scorer in Hollywood. Plus, he’s managed to put up those totals while continuing to be one of the most defensively sound centers in the league and skating 22 minutes per night, the second-most of all forwards.
The Case Against: He feels like a secondary candidate given he won’t finish atop any major category and that the Kings are right in that odd middle ground between a bubble team that needed him to get over the top and a top team who has been boosted in a great way by his presence. Also, people may not like it, but there’s a possibility some throw their support behind Kopitar for the Selke Trophy in lieu of giving him a vote for the Hart.
BRAD MARCHAND, Boston Bruins
The Case For: If we’re picking one Bruin, it has to be Marchand, right? He has missed a significant amount of time this season, but has still managed to reach the 30-goal plateau, score 72 points and keep his place on the fringe of the Art Ross race by scoring 1.33 points per game. Marchand is that all-situations type player, too: he skates big minutes at evens, is on the top power play unit and takes shifts on the penalty kill, even chipping in one goal and three points down a man. It should also be noted he’s tied for fourth in the NHL with seven game-winning goals.
The Case Against: Marchand is another player facing a teammate-driven argument, and the case for Patrice Bergeron as a potential Hart candidate might put Marchand at a bigger disadvantage than any other player in a similar situation. Also, one has to wonder how much the suspension — a five-gamer for elbowing — and diving fine weighs on voters. That’s one of the big questions with Marchand. Can a player still bring Hart-level value to his team when he also brings with him the risk of putting his team at a disadvantage with recklessness? Statistically, of course, there’s no argument there. He has. But his candidacy may be looked negatively upon given his disciplinary history.
ALEX OVECHKIN, Washington Capitals
The Case For: Three times in his career Ovechkin has paired the Hart with the Rocket, and the 2017-18 season could make a fourth. Ovechkin is on pace to hit 50 goals for the eighth time in his career and he has a mighty strong case for league MVP when you take into consideration that he has scored one-fifth of the Capitals' goals this season and has a point on 36 percent of their offense. But his standing in the Art Ross race might be enough to see Ovechkin come up short, as he has in four of his seven Rocket-winning seasons.
The Case Against: Food for thought: In the three seasons Ovechkin has paired the Hart and Rocket, he led the league in scoring once and finished no more than four points back of the lead in the other two campaigns. This season, he might be lucky to finish within 20 points of top spot. That might be an insurmountable chasm when it comes to convincing voters of overall impact. As always, too, Ovechkin has his lack of all-situations play and mediocre defensive ability going against him. The race might be too crowded for a more one-dimensional winner to be crowned, no matter how exceptional that one dimension has been.
BLAKE WHEELER, Winnipeg Jets
The Case For: Talk about doing everything to win. Wheeler started his season on the wing and was part of a dynamite combination with Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele. Then Scheifele fell injured and Wheeler slid to the middle of the ice and skated several contests as a top-line pivot. He’s also manned the wall on the power play, skated big minutes on the penalty kill and has played every single second at nothing less than full speed. He’s a blue collar candidate for the Hart in that sense, but he also has the numbers to back it up: he’s tied for first in assists, ninth in points and has the 12th-best points-per-game rate in the league.
The Case Against: Because of the deep dive the crowded Hart field is going to require, it’s going to take impressive all-around numbers to win the award. And that’s not the best news for those who want to see Wheeler win. A ton of his production — nearly 47 percent — has come on the power play and primary production hasn’t really been his strong suit this season. Wheeler is tied for 65th in the league at 5-on-5 with 23 primary points. That number increases to fifth if you include all strengths, but if voters take into account even-strength impact, Wheeler is likely to slide down the ballot.
CLAUDE GIROUX, Philadelphia Flyers
The Case For: There may not be another player who has been as overlooked for the Hart despite being deserving of at least a short conversation about his candidacy. Giroux is tied for fourth in scoring with the sixth-best points-per-game rate and he’s skating more than 20 minutes per game. His impact on a nightly basis is as much as any other player in the league, and it should be noted that only two players have factored in on a higher percentage of their respective team’s goals than Giroux. He has a point on 40.4 percent of all goals the Flyers have scored this season.
The Case Against: He’s not going to lead the league in goals — heck, he might not even crack 30 — and it’s fairly unlikely that he finishes atop the league in scoring. Giroux is also part of a team that, while they should make the playoffs, is one bad run away from missing out altogether. Likewise, it could be argued that Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier have been as important as Giroux in guiding Philadelphia to success, especially with the former creeping close to the league lead in assists and the latter’s move to center allowing Giroux to excel as a winger.
CONNOR MCDAVID, Edmonton Oilers
The Case For: The league’s scoring race always has to be taken into account and that McDavid is flirting with consecutive scoring titles makes him an intriguing choice. He has really turned it on in recent weeks, too, scoring 18 goals and 32 points in 23 games dating back to mid-January. A McDavid win might be the ultimate victory for those who wish awards be handed out based purely on definition because if you’re judging the Hart based on the player who is most important to his team, the Oilers’ phenom is a finalist, at the very least.
The Case Against: Few players can win the battle against historic biases, and despite being a truly generational talent, McDavid is up against a long and storied history of players from non-playoff teams being passed over for the Hart. Not since Mario Lemieux in 1987-88 has a player won the Hart when his team missed the post-season, and with Edmonton closer to the first-overall selection than they are another playoff berth, McDavid’s Hart candidacy might be shot.
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