Don't look now, but we're a quarter of the way through the 2013-14 NHL season.
At this time last year, the owners' lockout was in full swing. This season, we're enjoying the eighth week of a hockey schedule that seems breezily spaced out, despite the fact that it's an Olympic year.
Voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, the Hart Trophy is awarded each summer to the player judged to be most valuable to his team during the regular season.
It's early to say who will be at the top of the heap come season's end, and last week's injury to Steven Stamkos reminded us just how quickly a potential MVP's prospects can change, but some patterns are starting to emerge.
An interesting mix of new faces and old favourites, here's an early look at the top candidates for the 2014 Hart Trophy.
Corey Perry has a Stanley Cup ring from 2007, an Olympic gold medal from 2010 and a Hart Trophy from 2011. The 28-year-old has established himself as one of the best players in the NHL and is proving it once again this season.
The Anaheim Ducks took the hockey world by surprise with their strong performance in the lockout year, but they're now proving those results were no fluke. Despite injury and illness issues, the Ducks are tied for top spot in the NHL after Monday's games with 32 points.
Once again, Perry and Ryan Getzlaf have been the team's leaders. Each has 24 points as the team sits in a tie for second place in goals scored.
The Ducks have won just one playoff series since capturing the Cup in 2007, so they're often left out of conversations about the league's elite teams. Perry's on track to lead the team to another strong season and help it earn the respect that it deserves.
At just 25 years old, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews already has a career's worth of achievements on his hockey resume.
He's a two-time Stanley Cup champ, an Olympic gold medalist, a two-time World Junior champ and a 2007 World Championship gold medalist. To say he's been a winner everywhere he's played seems like an understatement.
After the Blackhawks' impressive wire-to-wire success during the lockout season, there has been no Stanley Cup hangover in Chicago. Instead, the team has lost just three games in regulation as it's staked out a spot once again atop the NHL standings. Much of the credit for the Blackhawks' ongoing success is due to the young captain.
As usual this year, Toews is demonstrating his patented leadership while playing a solid two-way game. He has 19 points in 21 games, is plus-six and is averaging 57 percent in the faceoff circle while playing more than 20 minutes a night.
A true all-round player, Toews has already won a 2010 Conn Smythe Trophy and a 2013 Frank J. Selke Trophy. This season, he's making a serious case for consideration for the Hart.
Many times in his NHL career, Ryan Suter has played second fiddle.
He was the "other" top defenseman in Nashville behind Shea Weber and was the "other" player besides Zach Parise to sign a $98 million free-agent contract with the Minnesota Wild in the summer of 2012.
This year, Suter is stepping into a spotlight all his own. He's leading the entire NHL with an average of 29:36 of ice time per game and has helped Minnesota place second in the league in goals against. The Wild have 30 points in 21 games so far, good for second place in the ultracompetitive Central Division.
In addition to his strong defensive play, Suter has chipped in with 13 assists along the way.
In the 41 years since Bobby Orr won three straight Hart Trophies, Chris Pronger has been the only other defenseman to capture the title, in 1999-00 with the St. Louis Blues. It'll be a tall order for Suter to gain Hart consideration, but right now, he could easily be judged the player most valuable to his team.
Early in an NHL season, it's common to see some surprises near the top of the point parade.
Once the quarter mark arrives, the hot starters tend to regress to their usual level, leaving the usual suspects to fight it out for supremacy.
Apparently no one told this to Alexander Steen. With a career high of 24 goals in 2009-10, Steen now has 17 goals in 19 games this year. That's a 73-goal pace—a level that hasn't been touched since Teemu Selanne scored 76 back in his rookie season in 1992-93.
Steen's father, Thomas, was a teammate of Selanne's with the Winnipeg Jets that year: Alexander would have been an eight-year-old watching the proceedings.
Maybe some of the magic rubbed off, but it's unusual to see a 29-year-old break out in his 10th NHL season. This year, Steen's shooting percentage has suddenly vaulted to 25.2 percent, more than double his previous career best.
Steen may come back to earth as the grind of the NHL season wears on, but for now, he's the surprise player of the season and has helped lead his St. Louis Blues to their best start in franchise history. He'd be a definite Hart contender if the trophy were awarded today, but there's lots of hockey still to be played.
During last year's lockout-shortened season, Sidney Crosby was tracking to win his second career Hart Trophy when a puck in the face knocked him out of action for the last 12 games of the regular season.
Crosby had a 10-point lead over Steven Stamkos in the scoring race at the time of his injury. Missing the critical last quarter of the season turned the popular opinion in favor of Alex Ovechkin, who surged to a strong finish with 12 goals and 19 points in his last dozen games.
The Pittsburgh Penguins captain had a strong playoff once he rejoined his team and has been at the top of his game through the first quarter of the new season. Crosby started the year with an eight-game point streak, is second among all NHL forwards with an average of 22:39 of ice time per game and has been near the top of the scoring race all season as Pittsburgh has started well in the weak Metropolitan Division.
If Crosby can keep up his current pace and stay healthy for a full 82 games, he's on track to exceed 100 points for the first time since 2009-10. Last year's runner-up could be this year's Hart winner when the votes are counted in June.
As the new NHL season reaches the quarter pole, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals seems to be kicking into gear.
Ovi has four goals in his last three games, including two game-winners, as he has moved up to share the league's goal-scoring lead with Alexander Steen. Ovechkin also sits fourth in the overall scoring race, tied with linemate Nicklas Backstrom and Anaheim's Perry and Getzlaf with 24 points.
In Washington, when the captain gets rolling, so does his team. So far in November, the Caps have posted an impressive 7-1-1 record and are now fighting for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.
Ovechkin is the only player in the new millennium to have back-to-back Hart wins to his credit, in 2007-08 and 2008-09. The incumbent is on track for a good chance at repeating the feat in 2014.
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