Hart Trophy Top 10: Who's Leading the Race as the NHL's MVP?

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2021

Hart Trophy Top 10: Who's Leading the Race as the NHL's MVP?

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    The Hart Memorial Trophy is awarded annually by the Professional Hockey Writers Association to the player adjudged to be the league's MVP. Over a month into this shortened NHL season, several players are already emerging as candidates for this illustrious award.

    Some, such as Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, are former winners of the award whose performances thus far make a convincing early case to win it again. Others, such as Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, are longtime stars whose efforts demonstrate how valuable they remain to their respective teams.

    Here's a look at 10 early-season leaders for the Hart Trophy. On-ice performance, team position in the standings and each player's value to his team factored into this ranking.

10. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The Boston Bruins began this season with first-line right winger David Pastrnak recuperating from offseason hip surgery. Linemate Brad Marchand stepped up to fill the void during the seven games of Pastrnak's absence. Thanks to the 32-year-old winger's efforts, the Bruins quickly became the top team in the MassMutual East Division standings.

    Since 2016-17, Marchand has become one of the NHL's top scorers, reaching or exceeding 85 points in each of the past four seasons. He leads the Bruins in points (20), plus/minus (plus-nine) and short-handed points (two) and is tied with Pastrnak for the team lead with nine goals. The feisty winger collected points in all but three of his 16 games.

    The Bruins top line has returned to full strength since Pastrnak's return on Jan. 30. While that takes some pressure off Marchand to carry the scoring, it doesn't negate his importance to his club. With Boston still seeking consistent production from its secondary scorers, Marchand's efforts during Pastrnak's absence played a key role in ensuring the Bruins became the best team in their division.

9. Mark Stone, Vegas Golden Knights

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    The Vegas Golden Knights are among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this year after reaching last season's Western Conference Final. They're jockeying with the St. Louis Blues for first place in the Honda West Division thanks in part to Mark Stone.

    Named the Golden Knights' first captain in franchise history in January, Stone is one of the most complete players among this ranking of potential Hart Trophy candidates. The 28-year-old winger leads the Golden Knights in assists (13), points (17), power-play points (four, tied with William Karlsson and Alex Tuch) and game-winning goals (three). He's also among the league leaders in takeaways (19) and regularly plays in all game situations.

    Stone has thrived in his new role as the Golden Knights captain. He's leading by example and playing a big role in his club's success through the opening quarter despite the interruption to their schedule by COVID-19 in late January.

8. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Washington Capitals suffered an early blow in January when forwards Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman Dmitry Orlov and goaltender Ilya Samsonov were sidelined by the league's COVID-19 protocols. In their absence, Nicklas Backstrom emerged to lead his depleted lineup until those key players returned.

    Backstrom is the second-longest-serving active Capital behind team captain Ovechkin, and the 33-year-old center stepped up in a leadership role for the Capitals during his absence. He's their leading scorer with eight goals, 14 assists and 22 points.

    On Feb. 18, NBC Sports Washington's J.J. Bean called Backstrom "easily Washington's best player" this season, and it's difficult to argue with that assessment. The veteran center's production and leadership played a significant role in keeping the Capitals among the top teams in the MassMutual East Division.

7. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Following an offseason that saw new management make several roster changes, the Florida Panthers played very well during the first quarter of this season. The efforts of left wing Jonathan Huberdeau have been a crucial factor in his team's performance to date.

    Huberdeau is often overshadowed by team captain Aleksander Barkov. The 27-year-old left winger also spent the past nine seasons toiling for a team that's reached the playoffs only twice during that time. However, this long-underrated star is among the league leaders in total points (262) since 2017-18.

    With 16 assists and 23 points, Huberdeau is the Panthers' leading scorer through 17 games and is seventh leaguewide. He's among the NHL's top forwards and a legitimate early contender for the Hart Trophy.

6. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Kings are off to a better-than-expected start to this season. Thanks in part to the experience and leadership of captain Anze Kopitar, the rebuilding Kings find themselves battling for a playoff berth in the Honda West Division.

    Now in his 15th NHL season, Kopitar is showing he still has plenty left in the tank. The 33-year-old center leads the Kings with 17 assists and 21 points and sits among the league's top 15 scorers. The two-time Frank J. Selke Trophy winner leads all Kings forwards in blocked shots (14) and ice time, averaging 21:49 per game.

    Kopitar's efforts earned him the Honda West Division Player of the Month for January. He's been invaluable to the Kings and deserves serious consideration among the early favorites for the Hart Trophy.

5. Mitchell Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Peter Power/Associated Press

    Mitchell Marner broke in with the Toronto Maple Leafs at the same time as Auston Matthews, and the duo went on to become the club's foundation players. Marner is sometimes overshadowed by Matthews' goal-scoring exploits, but the 23-year-old right wing is enjoying a season worthy of the Hart Trophy.

    It's Marner, not Matthews, who leads his club in scoring (30 points) and is tied with Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane for third among the league's leading scorers. He's also tied for second in the league in plus/minus (plus-16) with St. Louis Blues defenseman Justin Faulk and tied with Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid for the league lead with 21 even-strength points.

    Marner and Matthews have formed one of this season's most potent one-two scoring punches. Their efforts are a significant reason why the Leafs are perched atop the NHL standings. Matthews may be garnering more attention as a potential Hart candidate, but Marner deserves his fair share of recognition.

4. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

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    Larry MacDougal/Associated Press

    After several seasons in the shadow of teammate Connor McDavid early in his career, Leon Draisaitl emerged as a scoring star for the Oilers in his own right with a 50-goal, 105-point performance in 2018-19. He followed that up last season with a league-leading 110 points, taking home his first Hart Trophy along with the Art Ross Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award.

    A superb playmaker and a skillful goal scorer, Draisaitl is second among NHL scorers with 33 points in 21 games. A clutch performer, he's also second overall with four game-winners and has put up points in all but five games. His 10 goals on the season put him among the league's top 10 goal scorers.

    Draisaitl's ability to play center or wing gives the Oilers the option of playing him on McDavid's left wing or as their second line's center. He and McDavid also provide the Oilers with a lethal power-play punch. The 25-year-old is a solid contender to win his second straight Hart Trophy.

3. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    Missing an experienced starting goaltender and with centermen Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach sidelined by illness and injury, respectively, few expected the Chicago Blackhawks to be a postseason contender this season. Thanks to the efforts of winger Patrick Kane, however, the underdog Hawks are jockeying for a playoff berth in the Discover Central Division.

    A longtime NHL star and one of the most decorated players in Blackhawks history, the 32-year-old is displaying the form that earned him the Hart Trophy (as well as the Art Ross Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award) in 2015-16. With eight goals and 18 assists for 26 points in 19 games, he's among the league's top 10 scorers.

    Credit for the Blackhawks' strong start also belongs to rookie goalie Kevin Lankinen and young forwards such as Alex DeBrincat, Dominik Kubalik and rookie Pius Suter. However, Kane is the engine driving their attack. They wouldn't be where they are in the standings without his skills, experience and leadership.

2. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Peter Power/Associated Press

    Auston Matthews wasted no time establishing himself as the Toronto Maple Leafs' franchise player in his short NHL career. Winner of the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2016-17 and a two-time 40-goal scorer, the 23-year-old center is a strong early contender this season for the Hart Trophy.

    Blessed with a big frame and considerable offensive skills, the 6'3", 220-pound Matthews leads all NHL scorers with 18 goals in 19 games. He also leads the league with 11 even-strength goals and six game-winners, is tied for first with Dallas Stars center Joe Pavelski with seven power-play goals and is third with 78 shots. The Leafs star was riding a 16-game points streak before last night's loss to Calgary.

    Matthews is almost on pace to become the first player to tally 50 goals in 50 games since Hall of Famer Brett Hull did it in 1991-92. His scoring prowess and improved overall play are significant factors behind the Leafs topping the NHL standings in the early going.

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

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    Larry MacDougal/Associated Press

    Connor McDavid won the Hart Trophy in 2016-17 by helping the Edmonton Oilers make their first playoff appearance in 11 years while finishing as the NHL's top scorer. Four years later, the 24-year-old Oilers captain is the early-season leader for MVP honors.

    An elite scoring center capable of dazzling plays at high speed, McDavid leads all NHL skaters with 25 assists and 38 points in just 21 games. He's also the league leader in points per game played (1.81), having been held scoreless in only four games this season. On Feb. 17, he tied Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby as the eighth-fastest player to reach 500 points, doing so in just 369 games.

    At his current rate of production, McDavid could tally over 100 points in 56 games. He's the only player on pace to reach that milestone this season. The Oilers captain has helped produce more than half of his club's 72 goals, and it's in the thick of the Scotia North Division playoff chase thanks to his scoring prowess and leadership.

                                     

    Stats via NHL.com.