The 2010-11 regular season draws closer to it's finish and the favorites to many of the NHL's trophy races have been established.
None of these races is more debated than that for the NHL's Most Valuable Player award, the Hart Trophy.
Earlier in the season, it was a non-debate that Sidney Crosby would easily cruise to his second MVP title. Since Crosby's mid-season concussion, the award has become a race to the final game in determining it's ultimate winner.
Some of the favorites include:
Martin St. Louis
I would like to take a look at five other players who may not have numbers or popularity on their side but have nonetheless been extremely valuable to their franchise.
In no particular order, I present the following players who are worthy Hart candidates but who are unlikely to win the award.
Henrik Zetterberg once was among the favorites to win the Hart, but over the last month has faded away from the limelight.
It has not been for lack of point production. Zetterberg leads the Detroit Red Wings with 75 points, including a team high 53 assists. He also leads the Wings with 292 shots.
While his numbers are very good, Zetterberg's biggest contribution to the Red Wings has been his consistency. With 75 points in 75 games, Zetterberg has been the Wings most reliable offensive threat this year.
It is even more impressive when you take into account the number of injuries to key players the Wings have had to deal with over the course of the season.
When Pavel Datsyuk went down midway through the season and missed 19 games, many expected the Wings, and Zetterberg, to suffer in his absence.
Instead, Zetterberg stepped up his game recording 20 points in those 19 games and helped the Red Wings keep a float with a 10-7-2 record in that span.
Datsyuk has not been the only important Detroit player to spend time in the press box this year. Danny Cleary, Mike Modano and Brian Rafalski all missed significant stretches due to injury.
While Big Z's numbers may have cooled off a bit recently, there is no doubt he has been a major factor in helping the Wings persevere through the myriad of injuries to it's roster.
Nashville is arguably the dark horse in the Western Conference this year. Currently seeded sixth in the West, the surprising Predators owe much of their success to goaltender Pekka Rinne.
I am not a guy to often put goalies in the MVP race unless they play over 70 games and have ridiculously good numbers. However, if Tim Thomas has a shot this year, Rinne is just as deserving.
Currently ranked second in the league in both save percentage and goals against average, Rinne has helped the under-rated Predators keep up in a very competitive Western Conference playoff race.
Making Rinne's case even stronger is that Nashville has the lowest goal output of any team currently holding a playoff spot, averaging 2.58 goals per game of offense. That ranks the Predators 25th in the entire league!
With all due respect to Tim Thomas, even he doesn't play under those kind of conditions, with Boston ranked fifth in the league averaging 2.99 goals per game.
The pressure on Rinne to be the saving grace for the Predators is a nightly affair. So far, he has been on the money for a Nashville club that would surely be nowhere near a playoff spot without Pekka's outstanding performance.
Had Rinne played closer to 70 games this year, I think it would be impossible to not have him ranked at or very close to the top of the MVP race.
Even at age 33, Jarome Iginla may still be the best all around player in the game.
A man who is not afraid to get down and dirty and fight, Iginla has personified in many ways all the ideal qualities of a captain in the NHL.
This season, he is a big reason the Calgary Flames are still contenders in the Western Conference.
Despite a slow start, Iginla is currently among the league leaders in goals with 36 (tied for fourth) and points with 75 (tied for seventh).
It is no coincidence Calgary's mid-season surge up the Western Conference standings parallels Iginla's climb up the league's stat sheets.
Iginla has silenced those critics that claimed his career had peaked and that the Flames should just trade him while they could still get any value out of him. He has also helped silence some of Calgary's critics who had written the team off around Christmas time.
While Calgary has struggled recently and their playoff aspirations are in jeopardy, it is amazing that a team that was once as low as 14th in the West climbed up to fifth place as recently as a few weeks ago.
While Iginla's chances of serious MVP consideration have dropped since Calgary's fall from the western playoff picture, he nonetheless deserves a great deal of credit for helping the Flames reclaim a measure of respect in the NHL.
In any season when a team loses their best players to injury, their chances of success dwindle.
With their two biggest superstars missing for the second half of the season, not many gave the Penguins hope to hang onto a playoff spot. Marc-Andre Fleury had other plans.
While I still hesitate in adding goalies to an MVP list, any team that can survive the loss of both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and remain competitive deserves a closer look.
With an offense that now has more in common with the Nashville Predators, the anchor for the Penguins has been passed to Fleury.
Fleury's numbers are pretty solid. He is currently tied for second in wins (34), eighth in goals against average (2.28) and posts an excellent .920 save percentage.
Much like Pekka Rinne for Nashville, Marc-Andre Fleury has had to be the deciding factor for the Penguins in many of their games since Crosby and Malkin went down to injury.
With the added pressure on his shoulders, Fleury hasn't blinked yet and looks poised to deliver his best season yet in the NHL.
It certainly couldn't come at a better time for the beleaguered Penguins and their fans.
Eric Staal in my opinion is the ideal proto-typical player of the "new" NHL. He is big, fast, possesses soft-hands and is multi-dimensional.
While not many gave the Carolina Hurricanes much of a chance this season, Staal helped lead his team to contention in the Eastern Conference.
While currently on the outside looking in and their chances diminishing daily, the Hurricanes owe much of their success to their captain.
Staal leads all Carolina players in goals, assists and points (31-37-68) along with shots (276).
The most telling stat however may be his ice-time. Currently Staal is tied for second in the NHL among forwards with a whopping 22:03 average time-on-ice per game.
In a year of inconsistency for the Hurricanes, Staal has been the man Carolina has leaned on for inspiration and timely goals. Alluding to his performance in clutch situations, Staal has scored eight game-winning goals which is most amongst the Hurricanes.
No doubt Staal is also responsible for helping to mentor 18 year-old rookie sensation Jeff Skinner.
Though the Hurricanes chances of making the post-season are doubtful, what isn't in question is Staal's value to the team.
Although not among the NHL's elite in many statistical categories, the loss of Staal for the Hurricanes would likely set the team well back of hoping to attain a playoff berth.