The Hart Trophy is annually awarded to the NHL player judged most valuable to his team as selected by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association.
In most cases, the award goes to the league's top superstars, and this season should prove no exception. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks could be among this season's finalists.
There are, however, other players whose performances so far this season are no less worthy of recognition. Here are 10 dark-horse candidates for the Hart Trophy and the reasons why they merit consideration.
By The Numbers: 29 points in 34 games. Leads the Stars in assists and shots on goal (116), is second in points and fourth in hits (59). Leads all Stars forwards in blocked shots (30).
Why He's Here: Benn's overall performance and versatility are notable factors behind the Stars' improvement this season. He's also brought out the best in linemate Tyler Seguin, who arrived in a trade from Boston last summer.
What He Must Do To Win: His offensive stats have to significantly improve, and he must lead the Stars to their first playoff appearance since 2008.
By The Numbers: 13-9-4 in 27 games with a 2.40 goals-against average. His .922 save percentage ranks among the league leaders for goalies with 20 or more games played this season.
Why He's Here: Mason's stellar play helped the Flyers overcome their horrific start to this season. He gave them a chance to win in games where they were outplayed and stole some they otherwise would've lost. Thanks to Mason, the Flyers approach midseason as a playoff contender.
What He Must Do To Win: Carry the Flyers into a playoff berth while improving his stats over the remainder of the season.
By the Numbers: 32 points (including 29 assists) in 38 games. Leads all NHL defensemen in assists, is second in scoring among blueliners and among the league leaders in plus/minus (plus-15). He's also fourth on the Blackhawks in points.
Why He's Here: Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville told CSN Chicago's Tracey Myers he believes Keith may be better now than when he won the Norris Trophy in 2009-10. He's a consummate team player and the anchor of Chicago's defense corps.
What He Must Do To Win: Defensemen rarely win the Hart, so Keith faces tough odds. He must move into the top 10 scorers to attract the voters' attention while maintaining strong defensive numbers.
By The Numbers: 18-5-2 in 31 games, 1.96 goals-against average, .934 save percentage, three shutouts. He ranks among the league leaders in every goaltending category.
Why He's Here: Bishop's provided the Lightning with the stellar goaltending they've been lacking for years. He's perhaps the main reason the Lightning sit among the Eastern Conference's top teams. His performance also helped them overcome losing superstar forward Steven Stamkos to injury.
What He Must Do To Win: Carry the Lightning to their first playoff berth in three years while remaining among this season's top netminders.
By The Numbers: 22 assists, 26 points in 37 games. Leads the Canadiens in assists and points and is among the team leaders in hits (54) and blocked shots (61). Ranks third in assists and points among NHL defensemen.
Why He's Here: The 2013 Norris Winner has supplanted Carey Price as the Canadiens' best player. Though a high-risk, high-reward blueliner, Subban is their best and most consistent performer. Without him, the Habs wouldn't be among the top clubs in the Eastern Conference.
What He Must Do To Win: Maintain his crowd-pleasing offensive style while improving his defensive game.
By The Numbers: 24 goals and 38 points in 34 games. Steen leads the Blues in goals and points, plus he's among the league's top 10 players in those categories.
Why He's Here: After several injury-shortened seasons, the 29-year-old winger is a late-blooming scoring machine and a key factor in the Blues' success this season.
What He Must Do To Win: Steen's critics predict his offensive numbers will decline as the season progresses. He must remain in the chase for the Richard Trophy as the league's top goal scorer.
By The Numbers: 31 assists, 36 points in 35 games. Leads the Sharks in both categories and is fourth in the league in assists. Among the least penalized players (four penalty minutes) and possesses the best faceoff percentage (.548) among centers in the top 20 scorers.
Why He's Here: The 34-year-old Sharks captain remains among the NHL's elite players. He's a former Hart winner (2005-06) and on pace to exceed 80 points for the seventh time in his career.
What He Must Do To Win: Move up into the top five scorers while helping to keep the Sharks among the league's best teams. Given Thornton's age, it would catch the attention of Hart voters.
By The Numbers: 16 goals, 23 assists, 39 points in 34 games. Leads the Ducks in assists and points. Ranks among the team leaders in plus/minus rating (plus-15). He's also among this season's top 10 scorers. His six game-winning goals rank second overall.
Why He's Here: The Ducks captain is leading by example this season and could be considered the main reason for their return to Stanley Cup contention.
What He Must Do To Win: Getzlaf must outperform teammate Corey Perry (a former Hart winner) and gain ground on the current NHL points leader Sidney Crosby. A daunting task but one that would garner Hart recognition.
By the Numbers: 38 points (13 goals, 25 assists) in 36 games played. Leads the Islanders in every offensive category and is on pace for a career-best 89 points.
Why He's Here: Despite the Islanders' lousy record, Tavares is among the NHL's top 10 scorers. He's a blossoming superstar and a beacon of hope for this long-suffering franchise.
What He Must Do To Win: Tavares was a Hart finalist last season in part because he helped carry the Islanders to their first postseason appearance since 2007. They face longer odds this time, but if Tavares can do it again, it'll be worthy of Hart consideration.
By The Numbers: 18-5-3 in 27 games. Possesses a league-leading 1.51 goals-against average and second-best save percentage of .939 with three shutouts.
Why He's Here: Harding's performance ranks him among the league's leading goaltenders. That he's accomplished these feats while coping with multiple sclerosis is inspirational for his teammates and hockey fans.
What He Must Do To Win: Remain among this season's leading goalies. Carry the Wild to their second straight playoff appearance in the very tough Western Conference.