NHL

From McDavid to Matthews, breaking down the contenders to win NHL MVP: Pizzo

The holy grail of individual NHL awards is the Hart Trophy. Rob Pizzo dives into the list of candidates for hockey's most prestigious personal honour.

A strong finish to the season is vital to the candidacy of any Hart hopeful

"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek, left, presents the Hart Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team, to Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2019 NHL Awards. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The holy grail of individual NHL awards is clearly the Hart Trophy. Outside of the big silver mug, it's the one all players want.

This trophy puts you into an elite group of players, and regardless of what you do for the rest of your career, fans will always be able to say: "Well, he DID win a Hart!"

With about a quarter of the season still to go, it feels as though there are more players in the Hart conversation than in past years. Of course, there are the favourites, but the list of players raising their profile seems longer than usual.

And this is happening at a crucial time of the season. Don't let anyone tell you differently — the final 25 games (or so) are the most important for players chasing the Hart.

You were unstoppable in October? Big deal.

Had a November to remember? Congrats.

You finished the season on a tear, helping your team get to the dance? Start writing your acceptance speech.

Let's look at some of the players who find themselves in the conversation.

The front-runners

Connor McDavid

Ask 100 hockey fans who the best player in the world is and 99 of them will say Connor McDavid, and the other person is what we like to call "wrong."

If the Hart Trophy was purely a "most valuable player" award, he would have another one (maybe even two).

But the Hart is defined as the most valuable player to his TEAM, and how valuable can you be if your team doesn't make the playoffs?

If the Oilers get in, McDavid is the front-runner. If not, then he would need to do something really special, like the last non-playoff MVP Mario Lemieux did in 1988 when he scored 70 goals.

WATCH | Draisaitl must elevate further in McDavid's absence:

With the Oilers losing the best player on the planet, Rob Pizzo looks at what lies ahead for the team. 1:17

Nathan MacKinnon

Unless something insane happens, Nathan MacKinnon won't have to worry about a playoff absence ruining his chances at the hardware.

A couple years ago he was edged out by Taylor Hall (who received 72 first-place votes, MacKinnon got 60). Now, MacKinnon stands out too much on the ice for voters not to notice just how valuable he is.

He leads the Avalanche in scoring by a whopping 34 points!

He also has 13 more goals than second place Nazem Kadri.

And when Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog got hurt, he didn't miss a beat.

He remains on pace to hit career highs right across the board and shows no signs of slowing down.

Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon leads his team in scoring by a wide margin, making as strong a case for Hart Trophy consideration as any 2020 contenders. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

David Pastrnak

The problem with the Hart being defined as the most valuable player to his team is that when said team is really good, it turns into a reason not to vote for that player.

Not only are the Bruins that good, but Pastrnak plays on one of the best lines in the game. Hockey is a tough sport, but it's not as tough when you get to line up with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron every night.

Even if he wins the Rocket Richard Trophy, I don't see the voters giving it to a player on an elite team two years in a row, after Nikita Kucherov won last year.

Leon Draisaitl

You can't have a legit Hart Trophy discussion without bringing up the leading scorer in the league, and right now that is Draisaitl.

Obviously, the "no playoff spot, no MVP vote" applies here as it did with McDavid, but is he doing enough to leap-frog him in voting?

The numbers may say yes. Draisaitl has points in 45 of the Oilers' 55 games this season. When he is held off the scoresheet, they are an ugly 0-8-2. Sounds pretty valuable, doesn't it?

The question remains: if voters are going to choose an Oiler, will it be one who DOESN'T wear No. 97 on his back? I really don't think so.

John Carlson

Every morning I have a newsletter from the NHL in my inbox telling me about significant stats and milestones from the previous night and how they compare to players of the past.

John Carlson's numbers have been so good that multiple newsletters placed him in conversation with the following players: Scott Stevens, Larry Murphy, Paul Coffey, Al MacInnis, Brian Leetch, Denis Potvin, and some guy named Bobby Orr.

If your stats are being compared to seven Hall of Famers, you are in the Hart Trophy conversation in my book.

The outsiders

Auston Matthews

Hear me out. If the voting happened right now he would probably get a grand total of zero first-place votes.

However, Matthews may be the most "What if he…" player on this list.

What if he… scores 60 goals?

What if he… leads the Leafs to the playoffs?

What if he… wins the Rocket Richard?

Would you vote for him then? I probably wouldn't either, but I'd listen to the argument.

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews has 68 points (40 goals, 28 assists) in 56 games this season. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Artemi Panarin

When the Rangers signed the biggest UFA on the market to that seven-year deal with an $11.64 million US average annual value I remember thinking "good luck living up to that deal."

Only McDavid had a higher AAV!

Panarin is quietly having a career year and sits top five in NHL scoring.

Unfortunately, the Rangers have already booked their off-season tee times.

Alexander Ovechkin

Oh yeah — Ovi. How could we forget him, seeing as he's only won this thing more than any active player (three times).

This year, all the talk surrounding The Great 8 has been about chasing 700 goals and whether he can eventually become the league's all-time leader in that category. Hart No. 4 won't come this year.

Which player can separate himself from the pack down the stretch?

Did I miss anyone?

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