NHL Power Rankings: Way-Too-Early MVP Edition

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews reacts to a goal as teammates Morgan Rielly and Zach Hyman look on. (Frank Gunn/CP)

In effort to get a way-early jump on everyone’s mid-season NHL awards, we’re handing out imaginary trophies — 31 of them, no less — around the 25-game mark.

It’s the NHL Power Rankings: Way-Too-Early MVP Edition, in which we single out the one player each club has been depending on to carry the load.

As always, teams are ranked in order of their current strength. The write-ups zero in on each franchise’s top Hart candidate.

1. St. Louis Blues

I’m sorry, Jaden Schwartz, with your ridiculous 32 points in 24 games. I’m-a let you finish, but Alex Pietrangelo is the Blues’ most valuable player. Petro leads all NHL D-men in goals (seven) and even-strength points (14). He ranks second among blueliners in plus/minus (+11) and skates a silly 25:53 per night. The Norris is his to lose.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning

As much as it pains me to pass over Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy here, Steven Stamkos and his NHL-leading 36 points make him The Man. For so long known as a pure shooter, Stammer’s 26 assists in 24 games have opened eyes to his all-around play-making.

3. Winnipeg Jets

Connor Hellebuyck is running away with MIP honours, and Blake Wheeler is the Jets’ heartbeat, but centre Mark Scheifele is a force: 12 goals, 28 points, plus-7 rating while skating well over 21 minutes a game.

4. Nashville Predators

The sparkling, balanced D core of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm should really share this make-believe award. We’ll give it to Subban, partly because he has the most points (18) but mostly to troll Canadiens fans.

5. New York Islanders

John Tavares
, with honourable mentions to Nick Leddy and Josh Bailey. Tavares has 22 even-strength or shorthanded points through 24 games, and his ridiculous assist while getting mugged by Sean Couturier last week should spin on highlight reels for your whole Christmas holidays.

6. Columbus Blue Jackets

Sergei Bobrovsky will win his third Vezina in six years if he keeps up this type of play. The athletic Russian has an NHL-best .935 save percentage and 1.92 GAA to go with three shutouts and a 14-5-1 record.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto’s record may be perfect when he’s too sore to play, but Auston Matthews is a wonder. The 1.1 points per game are one thing, but Matthews has improved his defensive game and, with two OT winners already, wields the power to alter a game’s outcome every time the puck is on his stick.

8. Vegas Golden Knights

Marc-Andre Fleury (welcome back to the ice!) was supposed to be the franchise face. James “Another Game-Winner” Neal snatched all the early headlines. But it’s high time we give No. 1 centre William Karlsson his due. Buried in Columbus, Karlsson has emerged as a legit pivot. He leads all Knights forwards in goals (13), points (22), plus/minus (+6). Fun fact: He has just as many power-play goals as shorthanded goals: two.

9. New Jersey Devils

After some tough love from above, Taylor Hall dedicated himself to be a difference-maker this past off-season, and has been a big reason why the Devils look like a playoff team for the first time in six years.

10. Los Angeles Kings

Anze Kopitar is enjoying a much-needed bounce-back campaign, and a healthy Jonathan Quick came up huge in October, but we can’t ignore the way Drew Doughty controls a game. The guy plays more than 27 minutes a night.

11. New York Rangers

Henrik Lundqvist is back to acting kingly (if you ignore Tuesday’s hiccup), Mika Zibanejad has taken a step as the club’s new No. 1 centre, and Kevin Shattenkirk is living up to his free agent windfall by producing points from the back end. Yet the most reliable Blueshirt is captain Ryan McDonagh. So what if he hasn’t scored a goal himself? McDonagh is a defensive rock who logs 23-plus hard minutes, doesn’t pad his stats on the power play and is still a plus-6 for a team that’s overcame a brutal start to climb back in the mix.

12. Chicago Blackhawks

Less trusting of their No. 2 position since Scott Darling moved on to Carolina, starter Corey Crawford has assumed a monstrous workload this season — and has delivered the goods. Crawford has backstopped Chicago to 11 of its 12 victories and turned in a .933 save percentage, on pace for the best mark of his career.

13. Washington Capitals

While it appeared early on that Tampa’s Kucherov could run away with the Rocket Richard Trophy, Alex Ovechkin has re-assumed his rightful place atop the league’s goal-scoring ranks with 18 red lamps. The dude has three hat tricks this season alone.

14. San Jose Sharks

With big names like Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns struggling to produce at their expected rates, Logan Couture has delivered a team-leading 13 goals (including two shorties), 21 points and plus-8 rating. More important: Couture has stayed healthy (knock wood).

15. Dallas Stars

Tomorrow I might pick John Klingberg. Today I’m riding with Tyler Seguin and his team-leading 12 goals and 23 points. Seguin’s 20:14 average ice time makes him the most-played Stars forward.

16. Detroit Red Wings

Maybe Dylan Larkin needed to endure his 2016-17 sophomore slump to become the vastly improved two-way centre he’s been for a transitioning Detroit club that remains in the mix for a playoff spot in the sport’s softest division. Larkin works on both special teams, runs the top line, and creates offence with his speed and vision.

17. Calgary Flames

A month ago, we would’ve handed the Flames’ MVP trophy to Mike Smith, but Johnny Gaudreau has come on like gangbusters: 11 goals, 34 points, and a real threat for the Art Ross as long as his fingers remain intact.

18. Pittsburgh Penguins

Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin have been more consistent, but Sidney Crosby‘s dominance of late — nine points in the past four games, including back-to-back game-winning goals — reminds us never to doubt the Kid.

19. Carolina Hurricanes

Teuvo Teravainen is off to the type of breakout season we thought might have occurred two years ago. But we’ll give a nod to Carolina’s most relied-upon forward, Jordan Staal — no flash, but a heck of a lot of substance from a two-way centre who’s produced seven even-strength goals and a team-best plus-7 rating while getting the tough defensive assignments.

20. Minnesota Wild

With Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon splitting my vote on the back end, I’m handing the prize to Jason Zucker, who scored goals when no one else wanted to in Minnesota. Zucker has 13 goals, but considering he’s shooting at 22.4 per cent, the chances of him keeping Wild MVP honours all season are slim.

21. Colorado Avalanche

Centre Nathan MacKinnon has rather quietly had a fantastic season. With 26 points through 22 games, the 22-year-old is on pace for a career year and is nearly doubling his production of a year ago.

22. Boston Bruins

You can’t go wrong with a lot of traditional Bruins names — Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara — but we’re going off the board here. As Tuukka Rask has struggled with consistency this fall, backup Anton Khudobin has come up huge. With a record of 7-0-2, Khudobin has delivered at least one standing point for every decision. (Believe me: I’m more surprised to see Khudobin’s name on this list than you are.)

23. Vancouver Canucks

Brock Boeser is the young, sharp goal-scorer Vancouver has spent years looking for. The kid leads the rebuilding Canucks with 11 goals and 22 points. He gives locals a reason to buy tickets and will give Arizona’s Clayton Keller a real run for the Calder.

24. Montreal Canadiens

If everything was going according to plan, Brendan Gallagher wouldn’t be this team’s MVP, but he’s provided some much-needed fire and timely goals for a club desperate for both.

25. Anaheim Ducks

A bright spot in a disappointing quarter season for the Ducks has been the continued excellence of Rickard Rakell, whose eight goals and 18 points pace all Anaheim players. As the organization stumbles through injuries to key players and nude Ryan Kelser videos, Rakell has seen his ice time climb above 20 minutes per night.

26. Florida Panthers

For all the flak Florida has taken, you wouldn’t know they have three forwards — Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov — hovering around a point-per-game pace. Barkov is the most well-rounded of the bunch. The dynamic two-way centre is leaned on for abut 23 minutes nightly, and his stats are even more impressive once you realize three of his goals have arrived shorthanded and none have come on the power play.

27. Ottawa Senators

Erik Karlsson is still a point-per-game workhorse from the blue line and Ottawa’s most important player, but Mark Stone’s terrific performance turns the team MVP question into a debate that didn’t used to exist.

28. Edmonton Oilers

Ever let yourself think where the Oilers would be in the standings without Connor McDavid‘s 30 points and 21:33 of influence on every game?

29. Arizona Coyotes

If you judged by plus/minus alone, Oliver Ekman-Larsson (-18) is far from an obvious choice. Still, the top D-man plays more than two minutes more every game than any of his teammates, gets tasked with the tough assignments and still has positive possession metrics and 17 points for the NHL’s 31st-ranked franchise.

30. Philadelphia Flyers

Losers of eight straight, the tumbling Flyers can take little solace in individual accolades. That said, rejuvenated captain Claude Giroux — a common source of frustration in recent seasons — has enjoyed a wonderful renaissance: 10 goals, 17 assists, plus-8 while putting in more than 20 minutes a night.

31. Buffalo Sabres

The frustration and disillusionment in Buffalo has had very little effect on Evander Kane, who’s playing for a new contract and possibly a mid-season trade to a contender. Kane’s work ethic has matched his results. The winger leads the Sabres in goals, points, shots and both power-play and shorthanded scoring.

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