With four heavyweights vying for Hart Trophy, who has the best case?

Kevin Michie takes a nostalgia-filled look at a thrilling Hart Trophy race, taking a look at some superstars with video game skills in the style of the classic video game NHL 94.

First and foremost, what Nathan MacKinnon has going for him in the MVP race is his brilliant play. But a little narrative topper never hurts and MacKinnon probably has a little bit of storyline working in his favour, too.

Among the four heavyweights in the chase for the Hart Trophy — MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov and Auston Matthews — the Colorado Avalanche stud is the only one never to claim the award.

He has, however, been runner-up twice. And the first time he was No. 2, in 2018, you could argue MacKinnon was a slight casualty of narrative.

That was the year Taylor Hall ever so narrowly nudged MacKinnon for the Hart. Hall was in his second year with the New Jersey Devils after the big 2016 one-for-one trade involving Adam Larsson and the Edmonton Oilers. The 2010 first-overall pick had his best season in the NHL that year (93 points) and saw post-season action for the first time in his career by dragging an otherwise pedestrian New Jersey squad — Nico Hischier, as an NHL rookie, finished second in team scoring that year with 52 points, 41 behind Hall — to the playoffs for the first time in six years.  

The fact a 22-year-old MacKinnon finished four points ahead of Hall with 97 and got Colorado to the post-season for the first time in four years wasn’t quite enough to claim the league’s most prestigious trophy. 

Will MacKinnon finally get his due this year? Perhaps, but the competition is outrageous and what happens over the final few weeks will surely be enough to swing some votes.

With that in mind, let’s examine the case for all four leading MVP candidates as we come down the stretch.

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Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

MacKinnon recorded at least a point through Colorado’s first 35 home games. He was five games away from matching Wayne Gretzky’s record of 40. MacKinnon’s 127 points tie him with Nikita Kucherov for the league lead and the 28-year-old paces the NHL with 43 even-strength points.

MacKinnon was fantastic in the first half — he had 66 points in his first 41 outings for a clip of 1.61 points-per-game — and he’s been even a tick better in the second, scoring at a rate of 1.8 points-per-game.

Heck, maybe the tie-breaker can be that he’s a good GM, too. MacKinnon played a role in Colorado inking his old pal, Jonathan Drouin, to a dirt-cheap one-year contract. Skating alongside his former major junior teammate, Drouin is playing the best hockey of his NHL career with 40 points in his past 46 outings. 

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

This is all about the second-half charge. 

In the middle of January, McDavid ranked seventh in NHL scoring, 15 points behind Kucherov in pole position. Since we emerged from the all-star break in early February, McDavid has 59 points in 28 contests — a clip that translates to 172 points over 82 contests — and has outscored his closest competitor (MacKinnon) by 16 points. 

This isn’t quite Mario Lemieux chasing down Pat LaFontaine after receiving cancer treatment in 1993, but it’s unbelievable nonetheless. No. 97 is now one point back of MacKinnon and Kucherov in the Art Ross chase and is the NHL’s points-per-game leader at 1.77.

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He’s also got 61 primary assists, 10 more than second-place Kucherov. If there’s a ding on McDavid’s resume, it’s that 32 players have scored more than his 29 goals.

If this was just boring old pole-to-pole brilliance from the three-time Hart winner, you could see some McDavid fatigue creeping in. But what he’s pulled getting all the way back into the scoring race — to say nothing of the Oilers’ now long-forgotten awful start to the year — might put McDavid in line to win a fourth league MVP.

If he does, he’ll join Wayne Gretzky (nine), Gordie Howe (six) and Eddie Shore (four) as the only players in NHL history with more than a hat trick of Harts.

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs

Look, the name of the game is scoring goals and nobody does it better than Matthews. His 62 are 10 more than anybody else in the NHL has managed. 

Right now, he’s scoring goals at a rate of 0.85 per game. If he finishes at that clip, it’ll mark the highest number since Mario Lemieux found the net 0.99 times per outing in 1995-96. Matthews, who won the 2022 Hart, is on track to give us our first 65-goal season since Alex Ovechkin in 2007-08 and could well become the first guy to hit 70 (he’s on pace for 68) since Teemu Selanne and Alex Mogilny both went for 76 in 1992-93.

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Not for nothing, but Matthews is surely the only guy on this list who is going to also get at least some Selke votes and he’s got eight goals in 11 contests since all-world linemate Mitch Marner went out of the lineup. 

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning 

If Kucherov winds up claiming the Hart, he’ll join Guy Lafleur (two) and Alex Ovechkin (three) as the only wingers to win league MVP more than once since expansion in 1967.

With 127 points, Kucherov is one point shy of the career-best 128 he posted when he claimed his first Hart in 2018-19.

The 30-year-old Russian has already set a career high with 42 goals. He and MacKinnon are the only guys in the league to have more than 40 goals and over 80 assists. 

Only McDavid is outpacing Kucherov’s 1.74 points-per-game.

Roman Josi, Nashville Predators

The first four guys on this list are not listed in order of likelihood to win the award, but Josi is definitely one tier down from them in terms of his candidacy.

Still, what he’s done since the calendar flipped to 2024 is remarkable.

Since Jan. 2, Josi has 47 points in 38 contests for a 101-point pace over 82 contests. Of course, that has dovetailed with Nashville being a serious playoff bubble team to one that has more or less locked down its post-season berth with just over a handful of games to go. 

Josi isn’t the only player driving the Preds’ success — far from it — but the Nashville captain has certainly been at the heart of his squad’s surprising surge.

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