With less than a month to go in the regular season, NHL teams are pushing for the playoffs and players are making their final cases for the awards ballots. Among all the awards, there is no bigger debate every year than the one around the Hart Trophy for league MVP.
The Hart goes “to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team,” according to the NHL, but the professional writers who vote on it interpret that in many different ways. For some, a player can’t win MVP if his team misses the playoffs. For others, a great player on a team with lots of great players is less deserving because of it.
While a lot can change in the final weeks of the season, here is where the MVP race currently stands.
All four players in this group have made strong cases and, at this point in the season, it would be a shock if one of them didn’t win.
Draisaitl has been leading the NHL in points for a large portion of the season and he’s on pace for the highest-scoring campaign since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in 1995-96. Like Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, Draisaitl plays in the shadow of a generational talent but this season he has proven he can succeed without being on Connor McDavid’s line, seemingly putting to rest his biggest criticism. McDavid has only assisted on nine of Draisaitl’s even-strength goals this season, down from 17 the year before.
MacKinnon and Pastrnak are both having great seasons on teams that were always expected to contend for the Stanley Cup. Pastrnak has been leading the NHL in goals for most of the season (he’s currently tied with Alex Ovechkin with 47) and is on pace to get close to 60 by year’s end. He is the trigger man on one of the best lines in hockey and has helped the Bruins lead the President’s Trophy race for most of the season. MacKinnon leads the NHL in shots and sits fifth in league scoring. With many of his Avalanche teammates being forced to miss time with injury, MacKinnon has played in every game and his 41-point lead over the second-highest scorer on his team is the largest in the NHL.
Panarin’s candidacy could take a hit if his team misses the playoffs but he has carried the Rangers to heights few expected before the season started. In his first year after signing as a free agent, Panarin set career highs in goals (32) and points (88) before the calendar flipped to March and is currently tied with Pastrnak for third in league scoring. Those impressive totals are a big reason why the Rangers are within striking distance of a wild-card spot one year after missing the post-season by 20 points.
Still Have A Chance
This group of players could vault into contention for the Hart with strong performances in the final weeks of the season.
Carlson is virtually a lock to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenceman and has been putting together an impressive season on both sides of the puck since October. But being a defenceman might hurt Carlson’s candidacy for the Hart in some voters’ minds. Only 14 of the 92 previous winners have been blue liners and the last one was Chris Pronger 20 years ago.
Matthews has been among the goal-scoring leaders all season long and is on pace to be the first Maple Leafs player to crack 50 goals since Dave Andreychuk in 1993-94 and potentially the first Leaf to ever score 55. If Matthews gets hot in March and wins the goal-scoring title, he’ll be in the running for the Hart as well.
Marchand, McDavid and Ovechkin have tougher cases for the Hart because none of them are the MVP of their own teams despite having strong seasons. Marchand and Ovechkin have played major supporting roles in Pastrnak’s and Carlson’s special seasons, which will cost them votes.
If any of these three have a chance in the final weeks to leap into contention, it’s McDavid, who is still within striking range of the scoring title. He’s currently second in the Art Ross race, 15 points behind Draisaitl despite missing two weeks with an injury. McDavid’s advanced stats profile also almost matches his teammate’s, giving neither an edge over the other in that area yet.
This final group features players who are valuable to their own teams but are less likely to be recognized as the overall league MVP.
Aho, Eichel and Kucherov have been the best forwards on their teams and all three are near the league leaders in a variety of categories. However, their production is still a tad below the lead candidates for the Hart and probably isn’t enough to garner league-wide recognition. Eichel’s case is also hurt by the fact that the Sabres are once again going to miss the playoffs while Kucherov’s Hart-worthy season last year puts a shadow over his relatively less-impressive campaign this time around.
Josi would be the runaway favourite to win the Norris in almost any other season but will likely be the runner-up to Carlson. Still, the Predators captain has excelled on a bubble team that struggles to find the back of the net by leading his club in scoring by 18 points. On top of that, Josi plays key roles on both special teams and is among the league leaders in average ice time.
In net, Hellebuyck and Vasilevskiy are both major reasons for why their teams are in their current positions. The Jets began the season with major turnover on the blue line and Hellebuyck has been a rock in net despite that, keeping them in the playoff hunt. Only Carey Price has played more minutes this season than Hellebuyck and the Jets goalie is also seventh in both save percentage and high-danger saves per 60. Vasilevskiy — the reigning Vezina winner — has a chance to repeat, especially after a stretch in January and February that saw him earn at least a point in 21 straight games.