NHL Stars Emerging as Dark-Horse Hart Trophy Candidates in 2013-14

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistNovember 6, 2013

NHL Stars Emerging as Dark-Horse Hart Trophy Candidates in 2013-14

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    The game's greatest names usually come away with the hardware.

    Particularly the Hart Trophy, which goes to the NHL's Most Valuable Player. It would not be surprising if Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin or Henrik Sedin were to win the award at the end of the season.

    However, it may not be one of the perennial favorites. A dark horse could emerge as a legitimate contender for the award.

    Here's a look at seven players who have gotten off to solid starts and may have a shot at becoming a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate.

Alex Steen, St. Louis Blues

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    2013-14 Stats: 13 games, 13 goals, six assists; plus-eight

    Analysis: Steen has gotten off to a tremendous start, and the Blues look like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. They should have an excellent chance at winning the Central Division, and that should help Steen become a legitimate candidate for the award.

    Steen has scored on 30.2 percent of his shots. That's significantly better than sharpshooters like Steven Stamkos (22.4) and Alex Ovechkin (15.2).

    It does not seem likely that Steen will continue to score at this level much longer. His career high is 24 goals, so the idea of Steen scoring 50 goals or more is not realistic.

    But this is getting to be more than a hot streak. He's got a vicious shot and he's putting himself in a position to score goals. He is playing with confidence, his teammates are feeding him the puck and he is putting it in the net.

    Odds on winning Hart Trophy: 25-1

Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

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    2013-14 Stats: 15 games, five goals, 14 assists; even plus/minus

    Analysis: When you play with a sniper like Alex Ovechkin, you are going to get a chance to register a high point total.

    But that doesn't tell the story with Backstrom, who is skating brilliantly and passing accurately. Backstrom has been on his game since the start of the year, but when Ovechkin was out recently with an upper-body injury, Backstrom's game picked up to a higher level.

    "He's been good the last two games," Capitals coach Adam Oates said to SB Nation's Ted Starkey on Backstrom's performance when Ovechkin was out. "He's been good all year."

    Backstrom is an excellent player with game-breaking skills. However, it will be difficult for him to pick up the support needed to become a possible Hart Trophy winner because he plays with the attention-grabbing Ovechkin. 

    Odds on winning Hart Trophy: 19-1

Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    2013-14 Stats: 15 games, nine goals, nine assists; plus-six

    Analysis: Phil Kessel has been amazingly consistent, and that's one of the primary reasons the Maple Leafs signed him to an eight-year, $64 million contract extension before the start of this season. Kessel has scored 30 or more goals in the last four non-lockout seasons, and his hot start this year has indicated he should be able to get to 40 goals or more.

    If the Leafs are going to win the Atlantic Division, Kessel will deserve Hart Trophy consideration. While his defensive play and ability to play the physical game are limited (or even non-existent), he is a first-rate skater who can score at will when he gets on a hot streak.

    He also has the ability to score when it matters most. He's already got three game-winning goals for the Leafs.

    Odds on winning Hart Trophy: 13-1

John Tavares, New York Islanders

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    2013-14 Stats: 15 games, seven goals, 10 assists; plus-one

    Analysis: Tavares may not truly belong on this list because he is one of the best players in the league. However, last year was the first time his Islanders made the playoffs, and Tavares rarely gets the kind of recognition that goes with being a superstar.

    Tavares is a gifted player who skates like the wind and has remarkable hand-eye coordination. That regularly allows him to make plays that few others could. Tavares scored 28 goals and had 19 assists during last year's lockout-shortened season, and it seems likely he will roar past his career highs in goals (31) and points (81).

    Tavares is committed to improving in all aspects of the game, and not just his offensive totals. “You just want to keep getting better and keep improving,” Tavares told John Feinstein of CBS Radio. “I learned a lot about myself again last year and (I’m) just trying to work on becoming a complete player—(to) be relied on offensively and defensively. Obviously, you want to keep producing.”

    Odds on winning Hart Trophy: 9-1

Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks

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    2013-14 Stats: 15 games, six goals, 11 assists; plus-six

    Analysis: Joe Pavelski is simply not going to be denied. He knows that his San Jose Sharks have a powerful team and doesn't care if they have been held short of their goals in the past.

    He is going to do anything to help the Sharks have a winning season and then get through the Western Conference playoffs so they can compete for the Stanley Cup.

    That's never happened in Pavelski's career, and he is sharing the leadership role on this year's team with Logan Couture (next slide) to make sure the 2013-14 season does not end in heartbreak.

    Pavelski is an overachiever who gets the most out of his ability. He was a seventh-round draft choice, so nobody realistically expected him to become a mainstay and a potential MVP candidate. But he never lets up, so he at least has an outside shot of becoming a Hart Trophy contender.

    Pavelski received a five-year, $30 million contract extension from the Sharks at the end of last season, and it's clear that San Jose general manager Doug Wilson has full confidence in him.

    "He's one of our core players, the way he plays," Wilson told the San Jose Mercury News. "To me it was just an important contract to get done, certainly on the heels of Logan's contract. He fits certainly for now and for the future."

    Odds on winning Hart Trophy: 15-1

Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks

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    Andre Ringuette/Getty Images

    2013-14 Stats: 15 games, seven goals, nine assists; plus-seven

    Analysis: Logan Couture is opening eyes around the NHL with his play on both ends of the ice.

    He demonstrated his skills as an offensive player in 2010-11 when he scored 32 goals, but he has picked up his play quite a bit on the defensive side of the ice without losing anything offensively.

    Couture is a legitimate candidate to make the Canadian Olympic team even though that nation is loaded with brilliant players at the center position. Mike Babcock will serve as the head coach of the Canadian Olympic team, and he has taken notice of Couture's excellent all-around play and his importance to the Sharks.

    “Their team’s changed,” Babcock told the Vancouver Province. “Couture, in my opinion, has basically taken over as their No. 1 center.”

    Couture plays with maximum effort every night, and that's going to make it difficult for Babcock and Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman to go to Sochi without him.

    It just may make Couture a legitimate MVP candidate.

    Odds on winning Hart Trophy: 12-1

Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

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    2013-14 Stats: 15 games, six goals, 11 assists; plus-one

    Analysis: There is no stopping Erik Karlsson.

    Check that. There is no stopping Karlsson as long as he remains healthy. 

    Karlsson is simply the best offensive defenseman in the league and one of its most explosive players, regardless of his position. 

    Karlsson was unable to remain healthy last year after Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins (now with the Minnesota Wild) was errant with his skate blade and partially tore the defenseman's Achilles tendon. Karlsson recovered in time to help the Sens toward the end of the regular season and in the playoffs.

    Karlsson is fully healthy and should be able to complete a banner season. He scored 78 points and won the Norris Trophy in 2011-12, and there's no reason to think he can't meet or exceed that figure this year.

    Odds on winning Hart Trophy: 11-1