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No surprises through the first third of the NHL season, as three of the best players on earth – and three of the league’s top scorers – headline our list of Hart Trophy candidates. © Provided by Hockey News on Sports Illustrated Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
With the NHL still on pause until at least Dec. 28, we may as well stoke the fires by starting up the MVP debate. That’s sure to keep everyone in the holiday spirit, right?
To this point, four candidates in the Hart Trophy race stand out above their peers. We’ll cover three in-depth here and go over why the fourth probably won’t be the eventual winner.
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While points aren’t everything, they are a massive factor in Hart Trophy voting; seven of the past 10 Hart winners have also taken the Art Ross in their MVP campaign. The exceptions? One goalie (Carey Price, in 2014-15), a sixth-leading scorer (Taylor Hall, 2017-18) and a third-leading scorer (Alex Ovechkin, 2012-13). All three came in seasons where the Art Ross winner’s team missed the playoffs. Unless a player’s performance is so earth-shatteringly impressive it’s impossible to ignore, you can get a pretty darn good idea of who the Hart finalists will be based on the individual points column.
So while some goalies are having incredible starts and lots of skaters not on this list are extraordinary talents, it’s going to be tough for guys outside the usual suspects to really make waves.
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Here are the top three Hart Trophy candidates through the 2021 portion of the NHL schedule – plus two honorable mentions.
Connor McDavid – Edmonton Oilers
I mean, obviously.
The best player on the planet doesn’t turn 25 until Jan. 13, but he’s already got two Harts sitting in his (probably monochrome tastefully modern) trophy case. McDavid won his first MVP trophy in his sophomore campaign – when he led a resurgent Oilers team to their first playoff berth in a decade – then took his second last year, when he blitzed the North Division for 105 points in 56 games.
Truthfully, McDavid should probably win every year – he’s that much better than everyone else. But Nick Saban doesn’t win the AP Coach of the Year Award every year, nor does LeBron James win each NBA MVP. Voter fatigue is a thing, and it’ll catch up to McDavid at least a handful of times in his career. It’s unfortunate for the player, but we all know individual accolades aren’t what McDavid craves anyhow; a long playoff run would go a long way to consoling him. That and the $12.5 million a year.
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McDavid and teammate Leon Draisaitl lead all NHLers in scoring, with 49 points in 29 games through the holiday break. The Newmarket, Ont., native’s 17 goals and 32 assists have Edmonton in the Western Conference’s second wildcard position for the time being.
At his current pace, McDavid would hit 139 points in a full 82-game season. No NHLer has put up that many points since 1995-96, when Jaromir Jagr had 149 points in 82 games while Penguins teammate Mario Lemieux had a ridiculous 161 in just 70 contests.
The Oilers will need a similar effort from their dynamic duo if they want to remain in the hunt in a surprisingly competitive Pacific Division. While the underlying stats suggest the bottom-six forward group’s luck may turn around sometime soon, the Oilers have been outscored terribly when neither McDavid nor Draisaitl is on the ice, as has been the case throughout their careers.
The pair leads all NHL forwards in time on ice per game, both averaging over 22 minutes a night. Should the Oilers make a run at a Pacific Division crown, it’ll be down to those two players. They may take some votes off each other, but McDavid still should have the inside track at the moment.
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Alex Ovechkin – Washington Capitals
Ovechkin – more than a decade McDavid’s senior – isn’t even close to slowing down in what is now his 17th NHL season. In his first 31 games, ‘Ovi’ has 22 goals and 47 points, pacing him out for 58 goals and 124 points over a full schedule. That’d be a new career-high in points for Ovechkin, and the 58 goals would be his most since 2007-08, when he led all NHLers with 65 to take home the first of nine career Rocket Richard Trophies.
The Moscow-born sniper has also done more damage than anyone else in the league at even strength this season, putting up 16 goals and 36 points in just under 550 minutes so far. While Winnipeg’s Kyle Connor equals Ovechkin’s even-strength goal-scoring production, the next closest point-scorer at evens is Ovechkin’s countryman Kirill Kaprizov, who has 29.
With Caps’ dynamic playmaker Nicklas Backstrom – with whom Ovechkin played around one-third of his 5-on-5 minutes in 2020-21 – having missed all but one game this season, Ovechkin has taken up more responsibility as a set-up man in the offensive zone. The Great Eight’s efforts have the Caps tied for first in the Metro Division despite being without top forwards such as T.J. Oshie, Anthony Mantha and Backstrom for much of the year.
If Ovechkin continues his torrid pace in the new year, the fourth Hart Trophy of his career could well be in the cards. The six-foot-three, 238-pound Ovechkin last took the Hart during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Ovi just pipped Canada’s other contemporary generational forward (Sidney Crosby) to the line that year. Maybe he’ll do it again this year to No. 97.
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Auston Matthews – Toronto Maple Leafs
It was a little bit of a slow start this season for Matthews, with just one goal and two points in his first six games after returning from off-season wrist surgery, but the Leafs’ game-breaker has more than settled back into his old ways since then.
The 24-year-old from San Ramon, Calif., has 20 goals and 33 points in his first 27 games for a Leafs team that’s been arguably the best in the NHL since late October. Having scored 13 goals in his past 10 games heading into the holiday break, Matthews was white-hot before COVID hit the pause button on the Leafs season. That’s pulled him to within two of Ovechkin and three of Draisaitl atop the Rocket Richard race.
Matthews is also tied for fourth in the NHL with 12 goals at even strength, four behind league-leaders Ovechkin and Connor. Matthews has led that category in three of his five complete NHL seasons to date, including each of the last two. The hulking pivot also plays a well-rounded game. He ranks 21st in the NHL in faceoffs – having won 56.4 percent of draws this year – and is a sublime possession driver when he’s on the ice. Of the 416 NHLers to skate at least 300 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, only four have a better expected goals percentage than Matthews’ 62.45, per naturalstattrick.com.
Matthews will have some fierce competition if he wants to retain his title as the NHL’s premier goal-scorer this season. But should he do so, he’ll have as good a shot as any to take home MVP honors, especially if the Leafs continue to keep pace with Tampa Bay atop the Atlantic Division. Playing in the world’s biggest hockey market – like it or not – is going to be a factor. Being the best player on a Leafs team that could win the Presidents’ Trophy is absolutely the kind of thing that offsets the ‘McDavid factor.’
HM: Nathan MacKinnon – Colorado Avalanche
MacKinnon finished third behind McDavid and Matthews in last year’s voting. His analytical numbers have taken a dip this year, but the much bigger limiting factor is that, between COVID and a lower-body injury, he’s already missed 10 games this season. The bar will be set so high, it’s going to be tough for MacKinnon to claw his way back into the race.
HM: Leon Draisaitl – Edmonton Oilers
Oilers fans, it’s not that I forgot about Drai. He deserves more love, and he’d rightfully be near the top of this list if he played elsewhere. But unless McDavid gets hurt, Captain Canadian Super Promise is just going to take too many votes off the big German. For reference, Draisaitl finished eighth in Hart voting last year.
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