Ranking the Top Early Hart Trophy Candidates in the 2015-16 NHL Season

Steve Macfarlane@@MacfarlaneHKYFeatured ColumnistNovember 11, 2015

Ranking the Top Early Hart Trophy Candidates in the 2015-16 NHL Season

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Now into the second month of the NHL season, let's take a look at some of the early possibilities for the 2015-16 Hart Trophy. The player most valuable to his team has to be an offensive producer without being a defensive liability. He's someone his team would be unable to enjoy success without.

    It's not simply a look at the league's top scorers, although the elite are certainly on this list. But you won't see Calgary Flames sophomore Johnny Gaudreau on this list in spite of his strong early production—the team just isn't doing well enough for the playmaker to be in contention.

    Defensemen have to be stellar to stand out in the voting over their more noticeable forward teammates, and forget about anyone who proves not to be an asset in his own end. Goaltender Carey Price won last year, so the standards are set between the pipes—and those will be tough to duplicate following a year for the ages.

    Points matter but so do the roles each plays on his team. In the end, the real-world votes will be subject to personal tastes and regional bias, too.

    We tried to look at numbers, minutes, overall performance of the player and the effect he is having on his team, as well as some bonus points for those who are doing so unexpectedly well on teams that are surprisingly competitive.

    Click ahead to see some honorable mentions and the top candidates. Feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Honorable Mentions

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    Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

    John Tavares, New York Islanders: The Isles captain snapped out of a cold streak on Tuesday and is firing at a point-per-game pace once again. 

    Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings: In the absence of Pavel Datsyuk, the Wings captain has kept the team on track for the playoffs by driving the offense. 

    Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators: The super sophomore might be the first forward to lead the Sens in scoring in three seasons. He has 15 points through 13 games. 

    Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild: The one knock on Suter in the past has been the lack of elite offense to go with his massive minutes in all situations. He may get over the hump from a 35-40-point producer to 50 or even 60. His near point-per-game average won't last, but he looks set for career highs on a strong Wild team.

8. Jeff Carter, Los Angeles Kings

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

    By the numbers: 14 games, seven goals, eight assists, 15 points, plus-seven rating, 18:38 average ice time, two game-winners, 48 shots.

    What they mean: With Anze Kopitar struggling, it's Jeff Carter powering the Los Angeles Kings into early contention for the Pacific Division title. The 30-year-old veteran was the answer to sparking newcomer Milan Lucic's production with the Kings and has continued to show great chemistry with Tyler Toffoli.

    Carter is a do-it-all forward who earns minutes on the power play as well as the penalty-killing units. He's also scoring at a top-10 rate of 1.07 points per game while averaging less ice time in conducive offensive situations.

    Projection for 2015-16: Carter is on pace to post his first point-per-game season since 2009 with the Philadelphia Flyers, and although it seems unlikely he'll sustain his production over 82 games with a slightly inflated 15.2 shooting percentage, he should still find himself in the 70-point range if his line sticks together.

7. Martin Hanzal, Arizona Coyotes

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    By the numbers: 13 games, two goals, 13 assists, 15 points, plus-four rating, 18:01 average ice time, 29 shots.

    What they mean: Few imagined the Arizona Coyotes as a potential playoff team this season. And if you were to guess their leading scorer, it's doubtful anyone would have pegged Martin Hanzal over Mikkel Boedker or even rookie Max Domi. But it's Hanzal who has helped the Coyotes get off to a strong start as the veteran presence between Domi and fellow freshman Anthony Duclair. He's tied for eighth in the league with 1.15 points per game.

    Projection for 2015-16: Considering Hanzal has historically had trouble staying healthy and has reached 40 points in a season just once in his nine-year career, it's extremely doubtful the 28-year-old is suddenly going to take a 30-point leap forward. He should at least hit the 50-point plateau for the first time, but the Hart Trophy is not in his near future.

6. Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    By the numbers: 16 games, seven goals, 12 assists, 19 points, minus-two rating, 19:01 average ice time, one short-handed goal, two game-winners, 48 shots.

    What they mean: Blake Wheeler is on pace for 97 points. He ranks in the top 10 in the league in assists, points, short-handed goals and game-winners.

    Projection for 2015-16: Wheeler has long been an underrated commodity, eclipsing the 60-point mark in the last three non-lockout seasons and putting together an impressive 41 points in 48 games during the lockout-shortened year. It appears as if Wheeler could have a real breakout season and finish with a total in the 70s. The 29-year-old and linemates Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little should finish as one of the most consistent and productive units in the league.

5. David Krejci, Boston Bruins

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    By the numbers: 14 games, seven goals, 10 assists, 17 points, plus-two rating, 19:50 average ice time, one game-winner, 37 shots.

    What they mean: David Krejci is in uncharted frozen waters. His previous season high was 73 points in 2009—the only time he cracked 70 points in the NHL. He's on pace for more than 100 at the moment, rocketing the Boston Bruins into third place in offense after finishing 22nd last season in that department.

    Projection for 2015-16: Currently fifth in the NHL scoring race, Krejci is helping the Bruins challenge for a playoff spot. His scoring will more than likely slip as his shooting percentage of 18.9 levels off. He could still finish with personal bests in all offensive categories. If he does, the Bruins will have a real shot at getting back into the postseason.

4. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    By the numbers: 13 games, eight goals, eight assists, 16 points, plus-seven rating, 20:50 average ice time, one game-winner, 77 shots.

    What they mean: For those who wondered last year whether Nicklas Backstrom or Alex Ovechkin was the reason for the line's great success, enter this season as evidence for Camp Ovechkin. He's producing at his usual studly pace but has also elevated his new center Evgeny Kuznetsov to superstar status. Ovechkin is leading the league in shots as usual.

    Projection for 2015-16: On pace for 50 goals, Ovechkin has some serious competition this season based on the early returns from a surprising number of scorers on similar tracks. But history is on the Russian star's side. Ovechkin has claimed the Rocket Richard Trophy in four of the past seven seasons and is the odds-on favorite to do it again this year after finishing last season well ahead of the pack.

3. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

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    Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

    By the numbers: 8-2-2 record, .949 save percentage, 1.65 goals-against average, one shutout.

    What they mean: All the talk about having to do something to increase goal scoring again and the focus on trying to slim down goalie equipment or making nets bigger...you can blame Henrik Lundqvist's hot start for some of that chatter. The New York Rangers backstop has been next to impossible to beat this season, allowing the fewest goals (20) of any netminder who has started 10 or more games. And he's faced more shots against (384) than any NHL goalie so far.

    Projection for 2015-16: King Henrik is on a tear, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that the 33-year-old is staking himself to a nice little lead in the Vezina race with Carey Price out with an injury at the moment. Lundqvist has posted at least 30 wins in every non-lockout season he's participated in, and that will no doubt happen once again. His save percentage will eventually dip, but he's got a career average of .921, so he should be around that mark at worst.

2. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    By the numbers: Jamie Benn—16 games, 10 goals, 11 assists, 21 points, plus-seven rating, two game-winners, 19:49 average ice time, 40 shots. Tyler Seguin—16 games, nine goals, 14 assists, 23 points, plus-six rating, two game-winners, 19:31 average ice time, 66 shots.

    What they mean: Benn and Seguin are easily the league's best dynamic duo. It's hard to separate them in the voting, and ultimately, they will end up side-by-side on many ballots. Although Seguin has more shots and points, Benn plays a more rounded role with his added seconds of ice time coming on the penalty-kill unit. You can make an argument for either as the team's most valuable player, but Benn gets the slight edge in this slideshow for that last reason.

    The league's top scoring defenseman, John Klingberg, could make this an award trio if he keeps up his pace of 15 points through 16 contests.

    Projection for 2015-16: If Benn and Seguin can stay healthy, the Stars will score their way back to the playoffs, and both will each get plenty of votes for the Hart Trophy while challenging for the Art Ross, as well. Benn won last year's scoring title on the last night of the regular season and could successfully defend that label.

1. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    By the numbers: 15 games played, 10 goals, 13 assists, 23 points, plus-11 rating, 56 shots, three game-winners, 21:11 average ice time.

    What they mean: Patrick Kane is tied atop the NHL scoring race through Tuesday night's games and is showing no signs of angst over the drawn out off-ice drama that seems to have come to a recent end. The Chicago Blackhawks star leads the league in goals scored and game-winners, and his plus-minus is second-best.

    Projection for 2015-16: Kane has the best points-per-game mark (1.53) in the league through his first 15, and while that pace might be tough to sustain through an 82-game schedule, he'll likely finish among the top five in that category come season's end. He was fourth last year with 1.05 PPG and would have challenged for the scoring title if not for a late-season shoulder injury.

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