NHL Column: On the Hart Trophy candidates

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, front, fires a shot at Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne for a goal in the second period of Game 3 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series Monday, April 16, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, front, fires a shot at Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne for a goal in the second period of Game 3 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series Monday, April 16, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Superstars’ skill level is at its peak in the NHL these days, with talent gushing in each lineup. But within this group, some players with unimaginable abilities still manage to stand out from the rest. The likes of Connor McDavid, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov, Anze Kopitar, Nathan MacKinnon, Taylor Hall and Claude Giroux are just a few of the stars that shine brightest in hockey, and thus will receive consideration for the Hart trophy, which is awarded to the league’s most valuable player for the season. 

Connor McDavid, who won the award during his rookie season in 2016-2017, is the consensual best player in today’s game. He led the NHL in points once again in his second year, totaling 108. Although he led his Edmonton Oilers to the playoffs last year, the team returned to its perpetual putrid play, falling out of the playoff race before even reaching the midpoint of the season in 2017-2018. 

This essentially ruins his chances at another Hart, as his value is unrecognized without playoff implications. In order to win the award, like most sports leagues, a player needs to help his team make the playoffs. They must prove their worth. 

The interpretation of awards like the Hart are often obscure, as the difference between the most outstanding player and the most valuable player must be recognized. Some believe the award should go to the player that totals the best statistics, while others find that the eye test does not always align with these numbers. A players’ value may be most dependent on how his team would fare without them. Players that have a large supporting cast of other stars may find it easier to produce eye popping numbers. 

The Tampa Bay Lightnings’ Nikita Kucherov may have the most raw skill of anybody in the league, and propelled the team to the top of Eastern Conference. But he played alongside one of the elite players in the league, Steven Stamkos, the entire season. This likely boosted his stats beyond what they would be without such support. Although Kucherov’s success was key the Lightning’s dominance, the team has plenty of firepower to survive without him. 

Evgeni Malkin had a career season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, outshining future Hall of Famer Sidney Crosby. His run during the second half of the season lifted Pittsburgh from their typical slow start, allowing them to reign near the top of conference. But like Kucherov, Malkin plays in an all-star lineup, one that has won two consecutive Stanley Cups. When Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel get together, they are bound to find the back of net continuously. 

It is hard to make a case for a player to win the Hart when they may not even be the face of their own team. Malkin and Kucherov may have been the best players on their teams this season, but those clubs still belong to Crosby and Stamkos. 

Claude Giroux and Anze Kopitar have a better shot at the award, as their teams likely miss the playoffs without them. They are, by far, the best players on their teams. Giroux was also second in the league in points scored with 102. 

But the favorites to win the award this year are Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon, who each carried their teams from the basement of their respective conferences last season to a playoff spot this year. During the stretch run at the end of the season Hall and MacKinnon excelled, soaring above everyone else in the league in order to ensure they would get a taste of playoff hockey. Their teams, the New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche, both secured the eighth playoff seed in their conferences. 

MacKinnon completed his efforts to extend the Colorado Avalanche’s season with a massive performance on the final day of the regular season, where the club needed a victory in order to secure a berth. If they lost, they would have missed the playoffs by just a hair, with their opponent, the St. Louis Blues taking their place. But MacKinnon came through, scoring the game-winning goal and notching two points in the contest. 

The contributions capped off a 97-point season for the 22 year old, as he achieved the highest point total by an Avalanche player since legend Joe Sakic scored 100 for them. Hall had a nearly identical year for the Devils, accumulating 93 points over the season, the fourth highest total ever for the organization. 

Hall scored countless clutch goals, and rolled through the season with an unfathomable 26 game point steak. The streak was tied for the longest since Mario Lemieux scored in 28 straight games in 1995-1996. Hall’s importance to the Devils is also evident in the point gap between him and the second highest scorer on the team, rookie Nico Hischier. He scored 41 fewer points than Hall, signifying the largest gap between top scorers on a team in the entire league. 

With this differential Hall truly carried his team to the playoffs, instantly shifting them from rebuilding mode into a playoff mindset. The similarities between him and MacKinnon make it extremely difficult to decide who deserves the award. 

They are both former first overall selections in the NHL draft, Canadian born and are leading their teams back to relevance. Each player produced a breakout season that not only helped their teams win, but also reignited hockey amidst the Colorado and New Jersey fanbases. 

When the three nominees for the Hart are announced, Hall and MacKinnon should certainly be included, but the third choice is more uncertain. We will not discover the recipient of the award until the NHL Awards Show in June. 


Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at dylan.barrett@uconn.edu.