The Hart Race is the closest it’s been in years

RYAN MORISSETTE

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The NHL’s MVP award has six legitimate candidates, most of them hailing from the Eastern Conference

 

After the 2004/2005 NHL lockout, the league introduced an influx of new stars that have taken over as the legends of the sport over the past decade. Names such as Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin have taken their teams to new heights, proving to be an invaluable part of their success.

Because of this success, each player has won or has been nominated for the Hart Trophy, which is awarded (after each season) to the player who proves to be the most valuable to his team. While these players continue to perform at such high levels, other players from other teams have matched the level of play of each of those three superstars.

Up to six players — including two goalies — are vying for the league’s best player award this season, which makes this race one of the tightest in recent memory. Crosby, Ovechkin and Malkin all sit in the top-five in NHL scoring while their teams are in comfortable playoff positions, but it is a handful of other players who have taken their game to the next level. Joining the trio of superstars in the Hart Trophy race this year include John Tavares, Carey Price and Pekka Rinne.

An important criterion for the MVP award is the success of a player’s team. In recent years, players who have succeeded at an individual level have never stood much of a chance at winning the award. In the lockout-shortened 2012/2013 season, for example, Martin St. Louis led the Tampa Bay Lightning and the NHL in scoring with 60 points. Since the Lightning had the third worst record in the league that season, St. Louis finished ninth in the voting process. Every player ahead of him, except for teammate Steven Stamkos (eighth place finish), was on a team that made the playoffs. Each player vying for this year’s award is on a team that is currently in the playoffs, and each team, except for Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals, sit in the league’s top 10 for number of points. If these players were not on their respective teams, they would not be anywhere near as successful as they currently are.

It is often considered that quality defensemen and forwards have more of an impact on a team’s success than a goaltender. But this year, two goaltenders have proven that they have provided the greatest impact on their team. Pekka Rinne and Carey Price are the anchors of their respective teams, providing elite level goaltending that have catapulted the Nashville Predators and Montreal Canadiens respectively, to the top of the standings. Not since the 2006/2007 season, when Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur finished second and third in the Hart Trophy race, have two goaltenders had a real chance of winning the award. Jose Theodore was the last goaltender to win the award, and that happened after the 2001/2002 season.

This year’s Hart Trophy race is no slam dunk and an argument can be made for any one of these seven players. Sportsnet’s Elliott Friedman even mentioned in his “30 Thoughts” segment that he “doesn’t know if its (Hart Trophy race) ever been this wide-open.” With that being said, here is why each of those six players are in contention for the award.

Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh) – Currently sits third in the league scoring with 70 points (23 goals, 47 assists) in 63 games played. According to Shelly Anderson of The Globe and Mail, many in the media have questioned if he is having a down year, considering his point totals are lower than his normal average. Down year or not, Crosby is still producing at an elite level compared to his peers, and his team is sitting comfortably in the third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division.

Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh) – Second in team scoring behind Crosby with 68 points (28 goals, 40 assists) in 63 games. His point totals are also lower than his historic average, but without him, the Penguins might not be battling for a playoff position. When he plays, he makes an impact.

Alexander Ovechkin (Washington) – Has a league-leading 45 goals, and sits only one point behind in the league’s scoring race. Ovechkin continues to be the backbone of a Capitals’ team that sits in the final wild card playoff position. He’s also improved defensively, going from a -35 rating last year to a +11 rating this year.

John Tavares (NY Islanders) – The captain and face of the New York Islanders leads the NHL in scoring with 72 points (33 goals, 39 assists) in 70 games played. After he suffered a season-ending injury during the Olympics last year, the Islanders crumbled down the stretch and finished out of the playoffs. This year, they sit in the second playoff position in the Metropolitan Division, and only one point out of first.

Carey Price (Montreal) – Price leads the league in wins, save percentage and goals against average, and sits second with seven shutouts. He is the backbone of a Canadiens team that has given up the fewest goals in the league (152). None of his teammates sit in the top 20 in NHL scoring, even though the team sits in the first playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.

Pekka Rinne (Nashville) – If not for Price, Rinne would lead the league in wins, save percentage and goals against average. Rinne missed most of last season due to injury, and the team suffered and failed to make the playoffs. He is now back to 100% health and his performance has pushed the Predators into a tie for the first playoff spot in the Central Division.

The voting for this year’s award has the potential to be the closest vote in years. If injuries did not disrupt the seasons of Tyler Seguin and Patrick Kane, they would also be in consideration for the Hart Trophy.

My vote would have to go to Carey Price.

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