Ranking the Top Early Candidates for the 2017-18 Hart Memorial Trophy

Lyle RichardsonFeatured ColumnistNovember 2, 2017

Ranking the Top Early Candidates for the 2017-18 Hart Memorial Trophy

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    The Hart Memorial Trophy is awarded annually to the NHL player considered the most valuable to his team.  One month into 2017-18, Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos is among several players having performances worthy of early consideration for the prize.

    As the league's leading scorer as of Nov. 1, Stamkos could be considered the Lightning's MVP thus far. Others, such as Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick and Toronto Maple Leafs sophomore center Auston Matthews, could also be contenders for this prestigious honor.

    The following ranks the top early candidates for the Hart Memorial Trophy this season. Feel free to express your views on this topic in the comments section below.

10. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

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    Goaltender Pekka Rinne was a key factor in the Nashville Predators' march to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Throughout the opening month of this season, the 34-year-old showed no signs of a Cup Final hangover.

    In nine starts this season, Rinne has a record of five wins, two losses and two overtime losses. As of Nov. 1, he was seventh in both goals-against average (2.10) and save percentage (.931).

    Rinne is a three-time finalist (2011, 2012 and 2015) for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender. Over the previous two seasons, his struggles with consistency gave the impression his best years were behind him. However, his stellar play since the 2017 playoffs shows he's not over the hill yet.

    With the Predators sitting 29th in goals for per game (2.33), Rinne's strong goaltending played a significant role in his club's five victories in October. He's been their backbone, with the type of goaltending worthy of early MVP consideration.

9. Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars

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    After missing the playoffs last season, the Dallas Stars entered 2017-18 looking toward core players such as left wing Jamie Benn to lead the way toward playoff contention. So far, the 28-year-old Stars captain hasn't disappointed.

    Following a slow start, Benn's performance is improving. With 14 points in 12 games, he's the Stars' scoring leader and among the top scorers in the Western Conference. He remains a physical force, sitting third on his club in hits (26). He's also among their leaders in takeaways with nine.

    At this rate of production, he could exceed 90 points this season. That would exceed the 86 points he collected when he won the Art Ross Trophy in 2014-15 and his career-best 87-point campaign the following season. He was also a finalist for the Hart Trophy in 2016.

    It took Benn and his teammates a little time to adjust to new head coach Ken Hitchcock's system, but it appears to be working for them. The Stars entered November tied for second with the Winnipeg Jets in the Central Division, having won seven of their past 10 games. Benn's solid play contributed to that improvement.

8. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

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    Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson is considered among the best defenseman in today's NHL. Factor in his worth to the Senators, and the 27-year-old is definitely their most valuable player.

    Despite missing the first five games of the season while recovering from offseason foot surgery, Karlsson wasted little time making his presence felt. In just seven games he amassed 10 points to lead the Senators in assists and rank among their top five scorers. He's also their leader in ice time per game, averaging 25 minutes and 12 seconds.

    Karlsson is invaluable to the Senators' playoff hopes. A two-time winner of the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the league's top defenseman, Karlsson was also runner-up for the honor last season. He's made the First All-Star Team four times and led the Senators in scoring every season since 2013-14.

    The Ottawa captain has shown no lasting ill effects from foot surgery. Considering how quickly he's found his form since returning to action, he could be in line for another Norris Trophy nomination. His impressive play this season places him among the early Hart Trophy candidates.

7. Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky played a significant role in the Columbus Blue Jackets reaching a franchise-best 108 points last season. With expectations much higher for the Jackets in 2017-18, the 29-year-old remains their linchpin. 

    Winner of the Vezina Trophy last season, Bobrovsky remains among the league's top goaltenders early in 2017-18. He ranks sixth among the league leaders in both goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.934). His seven wins tie him for third with Los Angeles' Quick, St. Louis Blues' Jake Allen and Toronto's Frederik Andersen.

    After winning his first Vezina Trophy in 2012-13, Bobrovsky went through two difficult seasons in 2014-15 and 2015-16 and seemed on the verge of losing his starter's role with the Blue Jackets. He's since regained his confidence and his stellar form, becoming a vital part of the club's notable improvement.

    Bobrovsky remains a steady and reliable presence in goal, accounting for seven of the Jackets' eight victories in October. He's off to a strong start in his quest for a third Vezina Trophy, making him an early Hart candidate.

6. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues

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    Anchoring the St. Louis Blues defense corps, Alex Pietrangelo is off to an impressive start to 2017-18. While always a solid two-way defenseman, the 27-year-old is a notable force at both ends of the rink this season.

    With 13 points in as many games, he's tied for first among defensemen with Philadelphia Flyers' Shayne Gostisbehere and sits third among Blues scorers. His defensive game hasn't suffered, leading his club in takeaways (10) and being tied for second in blocked shots (26) with Carl Gunnarsson. He also leads them in ice time, averaging 25 minutes and 46 seconds per game.

    The departure via trade last season of puck-moving blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk forced Pietrangelo to step up his offensive game. He's also in his second season as Blues captain and seems more comfortable in that role.

    Pietrangelo's outstanding play in October contributed to the Blues coping with early injuries to sit atop the Western Conference standings. He's an early contender for the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman and a potential candidate for the Hart Trophy.

5. John Tavares, New York Islanders

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    Center John Tavares became the New York Islanders' franchise player from the day they selected him first overall in the 2009 NHL draft. Now 27 and in his contract year, he's once again demonstrating just how valuable he is to this franchise.

    With 11 goals and 15 points in his first 12 games, Tavares leads the Islanders in both categories. He's also second among the league's top goal scorers and ranks among the top 10 in points. Thanks to the efforts of their captain, the Isles won seven of 12 games through October to sit just three points out of first in the Metropolitan Division as of Nov. 1.

    After reaching a career-best 86 points in 2014-15, Tavares' production declined over the next two seasons. It appeared he was past his playing prime. His start to this season, however, serves notice that he remains among the league's elite.

    Eligible for unrestricted free agency next July, Tavares' hot start will put added pressure on Islanders management to re-sign their captain. He's not only proving his value to the Isles but is also on track for what could be a Hart Trophy season.

4. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Winner of the Calder Memorial Trophy as the 2016-17 rookie of the year, Matthews is off to a superb start to his sophomore season. The 20-year-old center is unquestionably the Toronto Maple Leafs' most valuable player.

    Coming off an impressive 40-goal, 69-point performance last term, Matthews is on pace to exceed those numbers in 2017-18. With nine goals and 16 points, he's the Leafs' leading scorer by a wide margin. He's also among the league leaders in both categories.

    Despite his youth, Matthews has established himself among the upper echelon of NHL stars. The 6'3", 216-pounder has met the challenge of becoming a franchise player in hockey's biggest professional market.

    Thanks to his contributions, Toronto won eight of its first 13 games. His value to the rebuilding Leafs and his stellar play ranks him among the leading early contenders for the Hart Trophy.

3. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Over the past three seasons, Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov proved himself as a rising NHL star. Through the early weeks of 2017-18, the 24-year-old is on an offensive tear worthy of MVP honors.

    In his first 13 games of this season, Kucherov scored 13 goals and collected eight assists for 21 points. He's the league leader in goals and on track for an 82-goal campaign. He also sits second behind linemate Steven Stamkos as the NHL's leading scorer. Like Stamkos, he had an impressive 11-game point streak from Oct. 6 to Oct. 26.

    After two 60-plus-point campaigns in 2014-15 and 2015-16, Kucherov served notice he was an elite scorer with a 40-goal, 85-point performance last season. Skating full time alongside Stamkos, the duo are lighting up the scoreboard.

    It's unlikely Kucherov can maintain his goal-per-game pace throughout this season. However, reaching the vaunted 50-goal plateau is possible. As the league's most lethal goal scorer, Kucherov merits consideration as an early Hart Trophy favorite.

2. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings

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    A groin injury limited Quick to just 17 games with the Los Angeles Kings in 2016-17. If there were any concerns over how that might affect his play this season, the 31-year-old's MVP-worthy performance in October should allay those fears. Thanks in part to his play, the Kings sit atop the Pacific Division.

    It's apparent Quick is suffering no lingering effects from that debilitating injury, posting a record of seven wins, two losses and one overtime loss in 10 starts. He leads all goalies with five or more starts this season in goals-against average (1.89), save percentage (.942) and shutouts (two).

    Prior to being sidelined last season, Quick was considered among the NHL's top netminders. He backstopped the Kings to two Stanley Cups (2012 and 2014), earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP during their first championship run. He was also a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the top goalie in 2012 and 2016.

    After the Kings missed the playoffs in two of the past three seasons, it was easy to assume their best years were behind them. Quick's performance, however, is a big reason why that assessment could be premature. His Vezina-worthy start also makes him an early Hart Trophy candidate.

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    After missing all but 17 games last season because of knee surgery, Stamkos is showing no lingering effects from that injury in 2017-18. The Tampa Bay Lightning captain's sizzling start makes him the top early candidate for the Hart Trophy.

    Just 13 games into this season, Stamkos has netted six goals and 18 assists for 24 points. That includes an impressive 11-game point streak. The 27-year-old center leads the Lightning and the league in assists and points. At this rate of production, he would reach 100 points.

    Stamkos is renowned as a sniper, winning two Maurice Richard Trophies (2010 and 2012) as the league's top goal scorer. This season, however, he's more of a playmaker. Centering linemate Nikita Kucherov, he's settled nicely into the role of setup man, giving the Lightning a lethal one-two offensive punch.

    For years, Stamkos was considered among the league's elite players. A broken leg in 2013-14, treatment for blood clots in 2016 and last season's knee injury hampered his performance and effectiveness. He's demonstrated he's still a superstar, though, playing a vital role in the Lightning's red-hot start to this season.

                

    Stats (as of Nov. 1, 2017) via NHL.com. Additional info via Hockey Reference.