NHL Hart Trophy Decision: Look East, Young Man
It's a shame for Russia that we're a full two years removed from another Winter Olympics.
Because the way things look right now, they would be unstoppable.
Consider this coincidence: nobody would have predicted that the three clear contenders for the Hart Trophy for league MVP would be from that venerable hockey-obsessed Eastern land.
One would have also thought it strange that two of the three men in question have the same name, Evgeni.
But such is the case.
As the season ends, there are three clear standouts for the Hart Trophy, and one amongst them who is a no-brainer pick.
The three standouts are Evgeni Malkin, Evgeni Nabokov, and the shoo-in winner, Alexander Ovechkin.
Do I hear any arguments? No? Going once, going twice...
While there are surely those who will push for Calgary Flame Jerome Iginla or Detroit Red Wings’ D-man Nick Lidstrom, the fact remains that their cases are tenuous at best, compared to the three Russian standouts.
To be honest, the NHL enjoyed a banner year, especially in the realm of individual performances.
But the three Russians epitomized the notion of "carrying a team."
It's easy enough to look at the top of the scoring charts and declare Ovechkin and Malkin as the two best players in the game. Yes, they did put up 100+ points. In a normal year, that alone would get them each a nomination.
Yet, they did so much more.
Both of these guys stepped up like few others in the league. Consider what must have been going through Evgeni Malkin's head on the night when Sid the Kid got injured. If the rest of the men on the roster weren't all staring at him in the locker room, it sure must have felt like it.
In one glorious season, Malkin has gone from "that other really great young player on the Penguins" to the man most responsible for their conference-topping campaign.
And what about Mr. Nabokov?
Besides being the Comeback Player of the Year, he established himself as the league's most trustworthy goalie. Not only has he played virtually every game for the Sharks, racking up an almost unthinkable 45 wins (though it seems somewhat human in the wake of New Jersey Devil’s Martin Brodeur), but Nabby has been the major driving force behind the league's second best team in the San Jose Sharks.
Without Nabby, the Sharks would not be the Pacific Division Champions. Not even close. And if you doubt it, ask former Hart winner Joe Thornton who he thinks has bailed out the squad night after night.
While his stats are not dominant across the board, it's hard to imagine how low his GAA and save percentage might have been if Nabokov had been entitled to the occasional rest day or a team that boasted even one top-tier defenseman.
It is typical in the modern day to put the league's best goaltender into the Hart final three. Nabakov will probably have to settle for the Vezina, but he has earned the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with his two countrymen.
But the winner will be Alexander Ovechkin.
If there is a single team in a single sport who can claim to have a "face of the franchise" more obvious and compelling than Ovechkin, I'd like to hear it. The young man IS the Washington Capitals. It's a franchise that nobody would ever talk about were it not for the spectacular scorer.
And this was his banner year.
It's been a long time since anybody scored 60+ goals, and a long time since a team recovered its dignity in a time span as quick as the Caps. It's almost hard to believe that this was the team who went on fire sale just a few years back.
The Capitals are a team who could very well contend next season, if they make the right moves over the summer. But one thing is for certain: this team lives and dies based on the performance of Alexander Ovechkin.
The player who most helps their team should get the MVP. Ovechkin goes one further — he IS the team.
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