10 Dark Horse Candidates for the NHL's 2013-14 Hart Trophy

Al DanielCorrespondent IIAugust 6, 2013

10 Dark Horse Candidates for the NHL's 2013-14 Hart Trophy

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    Only nine past recipients of the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s regular-season MVP are still active.

    At least four of them―Jaromir Jagr, Jose Theodore, Martin St. Louis and Joe Thornton―are somewhere between arguably and indisputably past the point of hope for another honor. Another one, Chris Pronger, is still on the Philadelphia Flyers payroll but has not played in nearly two years and is likely finished at this point.

    The rest of the recent winners, though, have surefire competition amongst themselves along with a vast host of recent finalists and other conspicuous specimens of top-notch talent. But the deep pool of candidates for the next Hart Trophy recipient does not reach the floor there.

    In alphabetical order, here are 10 NHL players who might not draw knee-jerk thoughts of potential “regular-season MVP” but wouldn’t necessarily surprise anyone if they claim that very title in 2014. Any of these players could by all means compose a season that will have the 29 fanbases other than his own wondering what might have been if he was on their team.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com

Ryan Getzlaf

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    The Anaheim Ducks captain himself said at the end of last season that alleged “East Coast bias” cost Chicago forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews a spot among the MVP finalists. However, as Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! Sports was apt to note in response, one of Getzlaf’s own teammates, Corey Perry, has hauled home a Hart in recent years, as has Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin.

    Throw in Joe Thornton, who earned the award in a 2005-06 season spent predominantly in San Jose, and three of the last eight winners have actually been employed on the Pacific coast.

    There are others who have a reasonable shot to join that crowd and Ryan Getzlaf is one of them. After a disappointing 2011-12 campaign (11-46-57 in 82 games), he led by example as part of a team-wide turnaround en route to a 15-34-49 scoring log in 44 appearances.

    It was the fifth time in his career, and all within the past six years, that Getzlaf averaged more than a point per night. Beyond that, his size and physicality make him one of the more desirable high-end forwards in the game.

    If voters catch him bringing enough of that at the right time, they could not justifiably shut him out of the Hart Trophy talk.

Erik Karlsson

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    As early as it may have been at last season's quarter mark, Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson looked to be in a solid position to defend his Norris Trophy as the top all-around defenseman in the NHL.

    Then came a hideous Achilles injury and a prognosis that he was done for the season and there went his bid for a Norris repeat in 2013.

    As it happened, Karlsson did return for the last three games of the regular season and all of the playoffs, though it was far too late to salvage any hardware candidacy. That comeback did, however, unveil another level in Karlsson’s game, which is still evolving given that he only turned 23 at the end of May.

    The Senators have traded away veteran Sergei Gonchar and thus rendered Karlsson the undisputed No. 1 blueliner on their depth chart. With maybe a little more polish on the home front and more of the same in the transition game and attacking zone, he will have formally earned and cemented that position.

    He also just might take a run at being the first defenseman to win the Hart since Pronger in 2000.

Henrik Lundqvist

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    Only a small smattering of goaltenders have won the Hart, the last being Jose Theodore in 2002. In fact, Theodore is the only non-forward to have received the award in this young century.

    Given his consistency from start to finish in 2012-13, limiting the opponent to two goals or less in 26 of 43 appearances and just three in 10 others, Antti Niemi should have drawn more consideration. (He was certainly snubbed when he lost the Vezina Trophy to Sergei Bobrovsky.)

    Come what may, there is always hope for a netminder to reclaim the regular-season MVP laurel and Rangers stallion Henrik Lundqvist is an outstanding dark horse in that regard.

    A consistent 30-game winner since entering the NHL in 2005-06, Lundqvist claimed credit for 24 victories in 43 games played on the Blueshirts’ 48-game slate in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. Had it been a season of normal length, he would have been on pace for 73 appearances and a win total hovering around 40.

    In addition, in terms of save percentage and goals-against average, the last two seasons have been Lundqvist’s best.

    The more these trends continue, the more apparent it should be that any team could bank on improving its stature in the standings if it put Lundqvist in its crease.

Zach Parise

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    Only two seasons after Zach Parise turned in a career campaign of 45 goals and 94 points, he sat out the majority of 2010-11 with a knee injury.

    He has since steadily replenished his game shape and his elite persona while also changing crests as he transferred from the New Jersey Devils to the Minnesota Wild. The Minneapolis native’s homecoming met another rocky road in the form of a four-month lockout and subsequent scramble for the team to gel its new star-studded core group.

    This time around, preparation for the season should be much smoother as Parise is secure in the knowledge that everyone is starting on schedule and that he will be playing for his local team for six months as well as any playoff action.

    After a somewhat false start, the thrill of representing one’s home state that Parise has confirmed he feels ought to translate more indicatively this time. Depending on where his performance rates with other top-notch players, his MVP odds could be as sound as anyone’s.

Jonathan Quick

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    Unlike other active goaltenders most likely to snap the position’s Hart Trophy drought, Jonathan Quick is still a few years away from reaching the age of 30. But he is arguably playing beyond those years, already with three straight seasons deep into the 30-win range prior to the unusual 48-game slate of 2012-13.

    Considering the career year he had in 2011-12 (1.95 goals-against average and .929) and his sheer stinginess in both the 2012 and 2013 playoffs, it is a somewhat frightful proposition to think Quick can still be better.

    But he can. Performance-wise, he has steadily ascended with each of five successive NHL seasons. His less-than-brilliant output of an 18-13-4 record and a drop-off in other key categories last winter is safe to dismiss as a product of coming off back surgery and being idled longer than usual.

    Conversely, his 2013 playoff run proved that 2012 was no fluke. By that logic, as he continues to mature in his late 20s, why couldn’t Quick extend one of those two-month performances to a six-month stretch of dominance?

Pekka Rinne

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    The aforementioned Niemi, Pekka Rinne’s Finnish countryman, needs to prove in the coming year that his brilliant sprint through last winter was not a fluke. Another Finnish fortress, Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins, still needs to prove that he can handle a workload in the upper 50 or lower 60-game range over a span of six grueling months.

    But Rinne’s track record along with that of his Nashville Predators in general, is sufficient to believe that his own 2012-13 season was an unfortunate departure from the norm. He went from a .930 save percentage in 2010-11 and .923 success rate in 2011-12 (coupled with two Vezina nominations) to a toe-curling .910 in 2012-13.

    Assuming the Predators rapidly rebound from their second-to-last-place finish in the Western Conference, Rinne will have no small role in that.

Eric Staal

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    The Carolina Hurricanes’ endeavor to end a five-year absence from the playoffs looks tougher than ever with realignment and a new divisional playoff format coming into effect. They will have to finish among the top half of an eight-team Metropolitan Division comprised of themselves as well as Columbus, New Jersey, the Islanders, the Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington.

    With that said, if they do make it, captain Eric Staal will doubtlessly be spearheading a substantial deal of the charge.

    Staal has led the Hurricanes in scoring each season since their last postseason appearance in 2009. Considering the state of the team he was on, his output in the 70-point range those first three seasons was irreproachable, as was his 53 points in 48 games last year.

    On a better, playoff-caliber team, that production would doubtlessly swell and Staal’s all-around leadership would jut out favorably.

P.K. Subban

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    Karlsson’s successor as the Norris Trophy recipient, P.K. Subban did more than just saturate the scoresheet for the Montreal Canadiens during his breakout season. As self-explanatory as his 27 assists and 38 points in 42 games might have been, his in-your-face approach to his day job brought solid results to the home front as well.

    Playing a cumulative 976:15 minutes and being on the ice for 34 opposing goals, Subban would boast a 60-minute goals-against average of 2.09 if such a stat were kept for skaters. The year prior, as the ice-time leader on a team that finished last in the Eastern Conference, he saw 74 setbacks on his watch in 1968:28 for a solid 2.25 GAA.

    As long as he continues to electrify with hits, points and the occasional outright save en route to similar or better results, Subban ought to be in contention for multiple trophies.

Jonathan Toews

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    His fellow dynamic Blackhawk, the aforementioned Kane, might come more readily to mind as a candidate for first-time MVP accolades given his more natural scoring ability and high-octane skating.

    However, Toews is both the reigning recipient of the Selke Trophy and is hardly a scoring slouch in his own right. This past season, while copiloting Chicago’s dominant sprint, he mustered 48 points in 47 games played, the first time he has tallied at least a point per night in his six-year career.

    Can he do that again over a full-length, 82-game season as a way of building on his Selke and Stanley Cup victory? If so, that could amount to admission to the Hart ballot.

    The fact that he only just turned 25 this past spring means that better years are most likely ahead, which is a frightful proposition for anybody outside of the Blackhawks faithful.

    It will not be easy this particular season after a short, celebratory summer and with an Olympic voyage likely in the cards for February, which means extra work, extra miles and hardly any time for the man to catch his breath. But Toews is one of those competitors that anybody would prefer to employ in the face of a lofty challenge.

Shea Weber

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    Turning 28 later this month makes Shea Weber a little older than the other defensemen in this slideshow, but not that much.

    Like his Predators co-star Rinne, Weber is understandably a two-time finalist for the prize specific to his position, although that string was disrupted by the team’s collective nosedive in 2013. But like Rinne, the towering, physical and prolific blueliner can restore his Norris candidacy and possibly more than that by helping the team restore its label as contenders.

    Odds are the Preds would prefer not to have Weber as their leading scorer, as he was this past year with 28 points. But an 82-game campaign in the 50-point range that epitomizes a well-rounded, playoff-caliber team would be welcome and, provided there is justice, bring the Nashville captain into the Hart discussion.

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