Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. (Getty Images)
Who will be the NHL's most valuable player in 2014-15? Can anyone challenge Sidney Crosby, or will the Penguins captain repeat?
The Hart Trophy debate is my favorite of the Great Hockey Debates, largely because nobody knows what the award truly means.
By definition, the Professional Hockey Writers' Association votes for "the player judged to be most valuable to his team." It's debatable whether that happens. Last year, it's safe to say the Penguins would've gone nowhere without Sidney Crosby. But was any player more valuable to his team the year before than John Tavares, who almost singlehandedly took the Islanders to the playoffs? He finished third in the vote, with the Hart going to the defensively deficient but offensively potent Alex Ovechkin.
More often that not, the Hart skews toward prolific point totals, so keep in mind that my top 10 Hart candidates for 2014-15 factor in that common bias. Sorry, Patrice Bergeron and Anze Kopitar.
10. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins
Malkin hasn't been himself for multiple seasons now, perpetually nicked up. 'Geno' has missed 39 games over his past two campaigns, scoring just 32 goals in 91 games, which is low for him. That said, Malkin "only" has 105 points over that span. Even when he's performing at about 85 percent of his ability, he's a top-10 producer in the NHL. And you never know when he'll bust out one of his dominant seasons, which seems to happen when Sidney Crosby's health is compromised. He's still just 28.
9. Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars
Keep telling us how much you love Reilly Smith and Loui Eriksson, Bruins fans, but is that how you feel deep down? In his first season with the Dallas Stars after the trade, Seguin finished fourth in league scoring as a 22-year-old. He's still years away from his ceiling, meaning it's fair to expect improvement on last season's 37 goals and 84 points. A leap into the 90-point stratosphere on a rising team would put Seguin in the Hart discussion. Two factors hold him back: (a) splitting the vote with teammate Jamie Benn, another sleeper Hart candidate and (b) inconsistency. Seguin has alternated good and disappointing seasons thus far in his career.
8. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
King Henrik is the lone goalie on this list because he offers the greatest combination of ability and team dependence. He's the most consistent goalie of his generation, and the Rangers, minus Brad Richards, Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot and Derek Stepan, need him more than ever since they'll struggle to score in 2014-15. Any Broadway success will happen because of the Rangers' blueline – and especially because of his Royal Handsomeness in net.
7. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
Toews is on the shortlist of hockey's best all-around players. He's a wizard with the puck when he needs to be, he's a great leader and he's a shutdown player. But here's where the aforementioned voter bias comes into play. As beloved as Toews is, he's never finished higher than fourth on the MVP ballot. The reason is simple: offense. Toews has never topped 34 goals or 76 points in a season. He's talented enough to score more than that, but he does too many things well to focus exclusively on racking up points. Ironically, the very qualities that make Toews so valuable make him less likely to be named the league's most valuable player. Sigh.
6. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
Behold, the anti-Toews. Ovechkin has three Hart Trophies to his name already, largely on the strength of scintillating offense. During the analytics boom, however, voters have caught on to his one-way tendencies. Ovie received one vote last season – and it was a fifth-place vote! – despite scoring 51 goals. He'll need to shore up his defensive play to contend for the award in 2014-15. Since new Caps coach Barry Trotz vows to help him do that, we can't count Ovechkin out yet.
5. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers
It appears Giroux's groin injury won't cost him any regular season games, so he's very much in the Hart race. The best players in the game are those who make others around them better, and few do that as well as Giroux, one of the league's most gifted playmakers. After a quiet first two months, Giroux had 68 points in his final 56 games. Is that a sign of elite production to come, or a reminder slumps like that will keep him from winning a Hart?
4. Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks
Why not higher for Getzlaf, after he finished second in scoring and Hart Trophy voting last season? For one, the next two names on this list missed significant time because of injury. Secondly, Getzlaf seemingly always has to deal with teammate Corey Perry, the 2010 Hart winner, stealing votes. That said, Getzlaf seems to have taken his play to new heights, and if Perry overcame Getzlaf to win the award before, Getzlaf can do it, too.
3. John Tavares, New York Islanders
Tavares is on the shortlist of NHLers capable of busting out 100-point seasons. He chugged along at 1.12 points per game last season before blowing out his knee playing for Canada at the Sochi Olympics. That pace pro-rates to 92 points, which would've slotted Tavares ahead of Getzlaf for second in league scoring. Tavares has time to gain more ground on the likes of Crosby, as he's 24 and the talent around him keeps improving, but the Islanders must make the playoffs for him to warrant Hart consideration.
2. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
It wouldn't surprise me one bit if 2014-15 becomes Stammer's year. He's hockey's pre-eminent goal scorer, he has something to prove after a freak injury ruined his 2013-14, and he captains a team we've picked to reach the Stanley Cup final. We know the 55-60 goals will be there. If Stamkos cracks 100 points, he becomes the Hart favorite.
1. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Groan at me for picking Crosby first, and I'll groan right back at you for being a contrarian. Stop it. Crosby won the scoring race by 17 friggin' points. He's a dominant player in all facets of the game. Unlike some elite scorers, he grades out favorably in advanced statistics. He was a cut above the rest of the NHL last season and, better yet, he played 80 games. There's no better player than a healthy Crosby, so it would be irresponsible to rank him lower than first.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin