NHL Awards Tracker: Ranking the Leading Candidates for the Hart Trophy

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistApril 15, 2013

NHL Awards Tracker: Ranking the Leading Candidates for the Hart Trophy

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    The race for the Hart Trophy was a runaway in late March.

    At that time, Sidney Crosby, the best player in the NHL, was having the best year of any player.

    However, when he was hit in the jaw with a deflected puck, Crosby was back on the injured list. While he apparently did not suffer a concussion, he has not played a game since March 30.

    The Penguins are not saying when he will return to the lineup.

    Whether Crosby plays before the end of the regular season or not, he will remain a Hart Trophy candidate. However, his absence means that other serious candidates have emerged.

    Here's our look at the top six candidates for the NHL's version of the MVP award.

John Tavares, New York Islanders

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    The New York Islanders have been one of the top stories in the NHL over the second half of the season.

    They have risen to the ranks of playoff-eligible. While they have not clinched anything yet, the Islanders are playing hard-hitting and consistent hockey and are a seventh-place team. Head coach Jack Capuano is getting a full effort from his players on a nearly every-night basis.

    That's because the Islanders are following the lead of John Tavares. The former No. 1 draft pick has been a solid contributor since his rookie year in 2009-10, but he has become a full-fledged superstar this year.

    Tavares certainly has some positive numbers on his side. He has scored an impressive 24 goals, and he has added 18 assists. He is averaging 20:39 of ice time per game and Capuano puts Taveras on the ice in all critical situations.

    Taveras is also a maximum-effort player who is working to improve defensively as well. While Taveras has a minus-five rating, he has improved defensively as the season has moved along.

    Few players are more valuable to their team than Taveras and he deserves consideration for league-wide honors.

Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

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    It's always hard to project how players from different eras compare, but Jonathan Toews has the nastiness and grit to compete with the tough guys from the old six-team NHL.

    You could see Toews asserting himself in the old Montreal Forum or dominating in the Boston Garden. He could have played alongside Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita and it's likely they would have looked to him for leadership.

    We can dream, can't we?

    Toews is one of the hardest working and most complete players in the league. If you need to win a faceoff, you send out Toews. You want to put the clamps down on an opposing center, you send out Toews.

    If you need a crisp pass or a big goal, you send out Toews for offense. So far this season, Toews has scored 20 goals and has 22 assists. He is also a remarkable plus-25 on the season.

    There's no such thing as a perfect hockey player, but Toews appears pretty close.

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

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    Alex Ovechkin was not a Hart Trophy candidate in January and early February.

    He was a major disappointment at that point in the season. However, once he started to get comfortable in rookie head coach Adam Oates' system, Ovechkin started to get warmed up and his production increased dramatically.

    Ovechkin has become a goal-scoring machine in the last month and his teammates on the Washington Capitals have followed his lead. They have moved into first place in the Southeast Division, and if they can keep that position, they will be the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.

    Not bad for a team that appeared to have its ticket punched for the Eastern Conference cellar.

    Ovechkin has led the way with 27 goals and 19 assists. His 46 points leave him tied for fifth in the league.

    In addition to the numbers, Ovechkin is playing with energy and intensity and his teammates have climbed on his back.

Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    It's difficult to give a player on a losing team serious consideration for the Hart Trophy.

    The argument is an old but effective one. If he was so valuable, how come his team can't finish in the top eight in the conference.

    A critic might say that the Lightning could finish outside the playoffs without him.

    They would be right. However, any time an Eastern Conference team plays the Lightning, a gameplan must be constructed to stop (or at least slow down) Steven Stamkos.

    He may not have been able to turn the Lightning into winners, but he gives them a chance to compete. Stamkos has scored 26 goals through his first 42 games and, he has also added 26 assists. His passing and his ability to find an open teammate when he is receiving extra attention from the defense has improved quite a bit.

    Stamkos is connecting on 18.8 percent of his shots on goal. He has all the shots needed. His slapshot is hard and he gets it away in an instant. His wrist shot is vicious and he gets rid of his snap shot quickly. He can use his backhand, jump on rebounds and deflect shots with expertise.

    Stamkos makes the Lightning competitive most nights. They would not reach that level without him.

Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Patrick Kane is one of the most dangerous offensive players in the league. He has flashed his talent every year and he has scored a lot of key goals for the Chicago Blackhawks, but consistency has never been his strong suit.

    Until this year. Kane came out of the gate with a focus that head coach Joel Quenneville had not seen from him before. He scored in the opening game—a road game against the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings—and he has not slowed down.

    Call it maturity or call it focus. In the case of Kane, it means increased productivity and more explosive play. Kane has scored 20 goals and 26 assists and he also has a plus-14 rating.

    Kane is at his best when he has the puck near the half-wall in the offensive zone with the puck on his stick. He is quick, creative and determined to make a game-changing offensive play. He will either shoot the puck or pass it to a teammates.

    He has been a dynamic performer for the high-flying Blackhawks and he deserves Hart Trophy consideration.

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Sidney Crosby was on a major roll until he got his jaw broken March 30 after a deflected slap shot hit him in the face, broke his jaw and caused additional facial damage.

    But even though Crosby has not played since the first period of that game against the New York Islanders, he still leads the NHL in scoring.

    If he doesn't play before the start of the playoffs, he will likely surrender his scoring lead in the final week of the season.

    However, that should not take away from the fact that Crosby is the best player in the game and he was having a sensational run prior to the injury. Crosby has 15 goals and 41 assists in 36 games and he also has a plus-26 rating.

    Every time Crosby is on the ice, it seems like something spectacular is going to happen. Crosby is an accurate passer and shooter. He also plays with a hunger that has driven his team to the top of the Eastern Conference.

    Crosby was averaging 21:06 of ice time per game, and he was winning 54.6 percent of his faceoffs.

    Even though he may end up missing 25 percent of the season, he is still a worthy most valuable player candidate. He deserves strong consideration for the Hart Trophy.