NHL Predictions 2011-12: 10 NHL Darkhorse MVP Candidates

Tab BamfordSenior Writer ISeptember 20, 2011

NHL Predictions 2011-12: 10 NHL Darkhorse MVP Candidates

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    Before the 2010-11 season began, very few people outside Anaheim would have picked Corey Perry to be the most valuable player on his own roster, much less in the entire National Hockey League. Yet, in late June in Las Vegas, he walked off stage with the Hart Trophy in hand.

    As we get ready for the dawn of a new season, there are certainly some obvious picks for the Hart this year. Names like Sedin, Ovechkin, Stamkos, Toews and Perry will continue to float around hockey circles all year—and rightfully so.

    But there is always a player or two who doesn't come into a season with a lot of hype, surprising everyone except his fans.

    Here are 10 players who might quietly follow in Perry's footsteps.

Evgeni Malkin

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    Somehow, the fact that Malkin was limited to 43 games last year is lost on a lot of hockey fans.

    Oh...Sidney Crosby didn't play after early January? Right.

    But there's a simple reality that hockey fans around the league should remember: Crosby doesn't have his name on the Conn Smythe. As long as Crosby is out, the Pens will rely on Geno to lead their scoring and push towards the postseason.

    He's as good as anyone in the league but just happens to be on the same roster as perhaps the biggest name in the game today. A full, healthy season from Malkin might be enough to push him into Hart consideration.

Anze Kopitar

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    Kopitar might spend a big part of this year hiding behind the Drew Doughty drama, but Kopitar is legitimately one of the best finishers in the game.

    He was on the verge of a potentially deep playoff run when injury ended his 2010-11 campaign prematurely. He finished with 73 points in 75 games and an astounding plus-25 rating.

    With Mike Richards in the fold, the Kings scoring will be deep enough that Kopitar could see more open ice and votes for the Hart than he has in his career to date.

Brad Richards

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    Richards posted 77 points in 72 games for a legitimately bad Dallas team last year.

    Now that he has the big money and bright lights of New York cast upon him, expectations are that he'll not only see the postseason, but he'll have a Hart at some point. This might be the year.

Rick Nash

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    In his career, all of which has been stuck in hockey exile (Columbus), Nash has scored almost as many goals (259) as Danny Briere (264) in 151 fewer games. With Jeff Carter added to the mix with the Jackets, Nash will finally have something Jarome Iginla hasn't—a legitimate center.

    If he's been able to score more than 30 goals in six of the last seven seasons without a legitimate center next to him, what will he be able to accomplish with Carter?

    It might not be a championship season for the Jackets, but Nash might be ready for some hardware.

Pavel Datsyuk

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    Last year, only 15 players in the NHL averaged a full point per game (not including two guys that played in only one game).

    Datsyuk has averaged better than a full point per game in five of the last six years.

    It's amazing how many fans take him for granted. He's been arguably the best defensive forward of the last 10 years and still puts up huge offensive numbers.

    If he skates 80 games this year (the emphasis being that he stays healthy), 100-plus points and a Hart nomination could be in the cards.

Eric Staal

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    While baby-faced Jeff Skinner stole the headlines in Carolina last year, Staal posted 33 goals (including eight game-winners). The talented cast surrounding him in Carolina may be enough to push him back to the statistical level he reached in 2005-06, when he exploded for 100 points.

    As we saw with Corey Perry last year, a superstar player that takes advantage of his surroundings to put up enormous numbers is impossible to ignore when the invitations to Las Vegas go out in the mail.

Claude Giroux

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    With Mike Richards and Jeff Carter gone, the keys to the castle have officially been handed to the young forwards. At the top of that list is Giroux.

    Last year, he posted 76 points (25 goals, 51 assists) while skating just under 20 minutes per game. In the playoffs, he had 12 points in only 11 games. With added responsibility on the ice this year, he'll be expected to carry the load.

John Tavares

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    John Tavares turns 21 on Tuesday, Sept. 20.

    Consider that for a minute. He's already posted 121 points in 161 NHL games and scored more goals in his first two NHL seasons (53) than Patrick Kane (46).

    The Islanders might not win the Stanley Cup this year and are a stretch to make the playoffs. But if his numbers continue to climb (mirroring his salary), it will be impossible to ignore Tavares.

Chris Stewart

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    Stewart scored 26 goals in 62 games last year, split between Colorado and St. Louis.

    But what we saw while he was in St. Louis at the end of the year is why he makes this list.

    He scored 15 goals, two of which were game winners, in only 26 games with the Blues. If Stewart and TJ Oshie skate 80 games together this year, not only will the Blues be a playoff team, but Stewart could put up enormous numbers.

Drew Stafford

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    Stafford poured in 31 goals in only 62 games last year. If Buffalo's investments in winning this summer pay off and they jump to somewhere at/near the top of the Eastern Conference, Stafford could be the Cinderella that puts up monster numbers. He'll have to stay healthy, but his ability is ridiculous.