Laying Out 2017 Hart Trophy Cases for NHL's Top Candidates

Carol SchramFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2017

Laying Out 2017 Hart Trophy Cases for NHL's Top Candidates

0 of 6

    Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

    With the end of the 2016-17 NHL regular season in sight, awards talk is heating up.

    Voting for regular-season awards will be completed before the playoffs begin in April, so time is running out for the top candidates to make their cases.

    The Hart Memorial Trophy "is an annual award given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team," according to NHL.com. "The winner is selected in a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers Association in all NHL cities at the end of the regular season."

    Each voter will be required to rank their top five picks in order—and there's an interesting group of new and familiar faces in the mix for the hardware this season.

    On the second tier, arguments could be made for Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues, Jeff Carter of the the Los Angeles Kings and Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators.

    Devan Dubnyk of the Minnesota Wild and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins were also viable candidates for a good part of the season before falling out of contention—because of injury in Malkin's case and the Wild's late-season free fall for Dubnyk.

    Read on for a look at this year's top Hart Trophy candidates.

Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

1 of 6

    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    2016-17 Stats: 57 GP, 39-13-5, 2.02 goals-against average, .932 save percentage

    Hart Trophy Pedigree: Sergei Bobrovsky finished fifth in Hart Trophy voting when he won the Vezina Trophy in 2012-13.

    Why He's Deserving: The closer we get to the end of the regular season, the more remarkable it becomes that the Columbus Blue Jackets have stayed in the mix with the NHL's top teams in 2016-17.

    That 16-game winning streak through the end of 2016 gave Columbus a huge boost in the standings. Over the past three months, the Blue Jackets have continued to keep pace in the elite Metropolitan Division. They remain tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for third place overall in the NHL.

    Bobrovsky was in net for 13 of Columbus' 16 wins during the streak, putting up a 1.69 goals-against average and .941 save percentage. Since the streak ended on January 5, he has recorded a still-excellent .930 save percentage and a decent 2.15 goals-against average, even as his record has slipped back to a not-bad 14-8-3.

    The Blue Jackets' turnaround this season has been built on the back of Bobrovsky's amazing goaltending. His .932 save percentage and 2.02 goals-against average are almost identical to the numbers that won him the Vezina in 2013 (.932 and 2.00) and aren't far off Carey Price's Hart Trophy performance from 2014-15, when he posted a .933 save percentage and 1.96 goals-against average.

      

    What's Working Against Him: Price's Hart Trophy was a rare exception—awarded to a goalie who carried his team during a year when the NHL lacked a breakout offensive star.

    Overall point totals may still be quite low this season, but the upper ranks of the scoring race are populated by an intriguing collection of veterans and newcomers, offering plenty of tempting options for voters.

    As the NHL continues to look for ways to increase scoring, there's likely not much desire to see a goalie named MVP for the second time in three years.

    Regardless of the mood of the day, Bobrovsky has again put together a remarkable body of work that should put him in the thick of the conversation for his second Vezina award, as well as earning him some Hart consideration.

Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins

2 of 6

    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    2016-17 Stats: 74 GP, 37-43-80

    Hart Trophy Pedigree: None.

    Why He's Deserving: Say what you will about his chippy play, Brad Marchand's ascent to become one of the top scorers and two-way players in the NHL has been nothing short of amazing.

    Drafted 71st overall out of the QMJHL in 2006, Marchand surprised with 21 goals in his rookie season with the Boston Bruins in 2010-11. He added another 19 points and dished up plenty of on-ice mayhem as the Bruins went on to win the 2011 Stanley Cup.

    In subsequent years, Marchand drew checking-line assignments but continued to score consistently. He broke out with 37 goals in 2015-16 and has matched that number this year.

    Away from the Bruins, Marchand showed his MVP credentials while playing in a top-line role with Team Canada at the 2016 World Championship in Russia and at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto—winning gold in both tournaments.

    It's rare to see a player with Marchand's humble pedigree competing for a scoring title, but here he is—in fourth place in the Art Ross race, seven points behind leader Connor McDavid and tied with sniper Nikita Kucherov for second place in goal-scoring behind only Sidney Crosby

    Marchand's strong play since Bruce Cassidy took over the Bruins on February 7 is a big part of the reason why Boston is back in the Atlantic Division playoff picture.

    The team is 12-7-0 under Cassidy. Marchand has 14 goals and 25 points in those 19 games—five points more than joint-second-place teammates Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak.

    What's Working Against Him: Marchand has a longstanding reputation for playing on the wrong side of the law. According to The Hockey News, he has been suspended four times in his eight-year NHL career, most recently in December 2015. He has also been fined four times, most recently in January.

    Marchand is a repeat offender who has been in trouble with the Department of Player Safety as recently as this season. That's not a characteristic that will endear him to Hart Trophy voters.

    It's also rare to see a player who wasn't drafted in the first round make serious inroads into the MVP conversation. The last Hart winner who wasn't a first-round pick was undrafted Martin St. Louis with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2003-04. St. Louis also won the scoring title and the Stanley Cup that year.

Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks

3 of 6

    Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images

    2016-17 Stats: 73 GP, 27-43-70

      

    Hart Trophy Pedigree: Brent Burns received one fourth-place vote to finish 20th in Hart voting in 2015-16.

      

    Why He's Deserving: Always strong on the offensive side of the puck, Burns' two-way play was regarded with some skepticism earlier in his career.

    As Kevin Allen of USA Today pointed out, Burns' previous coach with the San Jose Sharks, Todd McLellan, chose to use him as a forward in an effort to minimize the impact of those perceived defensive deficiencies.

    In his two seasons with the Sharks, current coach Peter DeBoer has used Burns exclusively on the blue line, with great results. "It's clear that Burns' willingness and ability to lead a cavalry-like charge into the offense zone makes the Sharks more dangerous," Allen wrote. "When Burns is on the ice, the Sharks always seem to have the puck. That's another form of defense."

    His defensive work has improved by leaps and bounds, but it's Burns' scoring that's turning heads. He has logged his second straight season with 27 goals in 2016-17 and has also hit the 70-point mark for the second straight year—extraordinary numbers when even the league's top forwards have trouble hitting 100 points.

    Burns' evolution has also helped propel the Sharks to their most successful period in franchise history. He finished second in playoff scoring in 2016, with 24 points in 24 games as the Sharks reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time.

    Burns' persona also works to his advantage when it comes to currying favor for awards voting. His big beard, toothless grin and tattoos make him recognizable, while his love of animals, devotion to his family and support for veterans makes him endearing.

    In an NHL culture that often rewards conformity, the hockey media loves to cover someone unique like Burns, who clearly marches to the beat of his own drum.

      

    What's Working Against Him: It's rare for defensemen to get serious consideration for the Hart. Chris Pronger was the last blueliner to win, and that was during the Dead Puck Era in 1999-2000, when scoring around the league was at an all-time low.

    The last defenseman to win before Pronger? The dynamic Bobby Orr, who earned three straight Harts starting in 1970, when he led the entire NHL in scoring with 120 points.

    Burns' candidacy has also taken a bit of a hit through the stretch run.

    At the end of February, Burns was tied for third place in the league, with 66 points in 62 games—on pace for 87 and just six behind leader McDavid. He was in the top 10, with 27 goals, and he was 11 points ahead of the second highest-scoring defenseman, Karlsson.

    But Burns has just four points in March—all assists—and is riding a seven-game pointless streak. The Sharks are on a four-game losing run that has narrowed their lead at the top of the Pacific Division to just two points, and Burns has dropped to ninth in the overall standings—17 points behind McDavid and just three ahead of Karlsson.

    Assuming Burns gets going again, he's on pace for 78 points—below the 82 points Karlsson posted last year, which only earned him ninth place in the Hart Trophy race.

    Burns and the Sharks will need to turn things around and finish strong if he wants to remain in the Hart discussion when the votes are cast as the regular season winds down.

Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

4 of 6

    Claus Andersen/Getty Images

    2016-17 Stats: 74 GP, 33-48-81

    Hart Trophy Pedigree: Patrick Kane is the reigning Hart Trophy holder. He won in 2016 while also winning the Art Ross as the NHL's leading scorer. Kane beat out second-place Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars by 17 points in the 2015-16 scoring race.

    Why He's Deserving: Kane has picked up his offense as the NHL season has moved into the stretch drive, scoring 18 goals and 14 assists for 32 points in 22 games since February 1 to move into a tie with Sidney Crosby for second in the NHL scoring race.

    At the rate Kane is scoring, a second straight Art Ross isn't out of the question for the Chicago Blackhawks sniper.

    Kane's increased production has come as his team has also made its move up the standings. Since February 1, Chicago has gone 18-3-1 to overtake the Minnesota Wild and claim first place in the Central Division.

    After their shocking first-round playoff elimination at the hands of the St. Louis Blues last season, the Blackhawks are hungry to make a good run at their fourth championship in the last eight years. Kane is one of the anchors of that core group that has been so successful since 2010.

    What's Working Against Him: With all the success the Blackhawks have had, it's expected that Kane will be among the league's top scorers every year, the same way it's expected that Chicago will be a playoff favorite. 

    After leading the scoring derby from wire-to-wire last season, Kane's late climb up the ranks has been stealthy this year.

    Several other Hart Trophy storylines are already firmly planted in the public psyche. Even as the titleholder, it might be too late for Kane to be able to take a real shot at upsetting the MVP perceptions that have been coming into focus over the last few months.

    If Kane can surge past McDavid to claim his second straight scoring title, he might get consideration to become the first repeat Hart winner since Alex Ovechkin won back-to-back awards in 2008 and 2009. Anything less, and the award will almost certainly land elsewhere.

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

5 of 6

    Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

    2016-17 Stats: 74 GP, 26-61-87

      

    Hart Trophy Pedigree: None. Connor McDavid finished third in Calder Trophy voting with 48 points in 45 games in his rookie season in 2015-16.

      

    Why He's Deserving: McDavid has quickly proved he was deserving of all the hype that led to his selection as the first overall draft pick in 2015. 

    Injuries limited him to just 45 games in his rookie season, but he extended his year by joining Team Canada for the 2016 IIHF World Championship in Russia—and scoring the winning goal in the gold-medal game.

    Returning to the Edmonton Oilers, McDavid was named team captain as a 19-year-old and has not disappointed. He leads the NHL scoring race, with 87 points, is first in the league, with 61 assists, and has brought hope back to a hockey-mad market that long called itself the City of Champions.

    The Oilers are all but assured of reaching the playoffs this season for the first time since 2006—and have a legitimate shot of securing home-ice advantage. Edmonton is just two points out of first place in the Pacific Division with eight games left to play.

    Though he only turned 20 in January, McDavid has already clearly shown he's a game-changing player who's capable of strong leadership, even when his teammates are older and more experienced than him.

    The question is, how high is his ceiling? How good will he turn out to be?

      

    What's Working Against Him: As well as McDavid has played this season, voters could be inclined to reward a more experienced player. There's something to be said for a players like Marchand or Burns, who have shown steady improvement on their way to MVP status. Kane's consistency is also laudable.

    With McDavid, we don't know whether this year's performance is a one-off or, even more likely, if he's got something even better to show us in the years to come.

    He may need to be patient—and most likely be satisfied with a scoring title this year. It'll take a bigger body of work before voters deem him to be Hart-worthy.

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

6 of 6

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    2016-17 Stats: 67 GP, 41-40-81

      

    Hart Trophy Pedigree: Two previous wins, in 2006-07 and in 2013-14. Sidney Crosby also finished second in voting twice, in 2012-13 and 2015-16, and third in 2009-10.

    Why He's Deserving: No player has built a more impressive body of work over the past two years than Crosby.

    The last real setback for the Pittsburgh Penguins captain was his team's five-game loss to the New York Rangers in the first round of the 2015 playoffs.

    With plenty of hockey left in him after the sudden end to his season, Crosby quickly offered his services to Team Canada at the 2015 World Championship. He captained them to a perfect 10-0 record and their first World Championship gold medal since 2007.

    Returning to his day job, Crosby then earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable postseason performer as the Pittsburgh Penguins captured the 2016 Stanley Cup before he was named most valuable player as Team Canada won gold in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

    Despite a short offseason because of his playoff run and his World Cup appearance, Crosby has had another outstanding year in Pittsburgh. He's the front-runner for the Rocket Richard Trophy, with 41 goals, and his average of 1.21 points per game leads the league.

    Crosby's late-season success has come while he's playing alongside young, unheralded linemates. Undrafted 24-year-old Conor Sheary is up to 21 goals and 49 points in his second NHL season, while 22-year-old third-rounder Jake Guentzel was up to 11 goals and 25 points in his first 35 NHL games before suffering a concussion on March 21, per Joe Yerdon of NHL.com.

    The Hart Trophy is only intended to reward performance during the 2016-17 regular season. Crosby's most award-worthy trait this year has been his ability to play at the top of his game while elevating his linemates and teammates, but it's hard not to ignore how consistently successful he has been across such a wide range of hockey situations.

      

    What's Working Against Him: Crosby has been so good for so long that the standard might be higher for him than for some of the other players on this list.

    After being singled out for his strong play in last year's playoffs and at the World Cup, some voters might be suffering from a bit of Crosby fatigue and could be tempted to throw their votes in a different direction for that reason alone.

    It's exciting to see new players elevating their games to hockey's highest level, but Crosby is the straw that stirs the drink in Pittsburgh.

    Despite another rash of injuries this year, the Penguins have been able to stick around at the top of the standings and look poised for another strong playoff run this year. Crosby is not alone in making that happen, but he is the most important puzzle piece on a successful squad.

           

    Stats from NHL.com, current through games completed Thursday, March 23. Awards history from Hockey Reference.