Defining what makes a player valuable to his team isn't easy.
Is it wins and losses? Goals scored? How would the team do if this player suddenly disappeared from the roster?
That's the annual conundrum facing the members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association who vote on the Hart Trophy, awarded annually "to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team."
This year, the writers chose New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin and Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos as the finalists for the award. The winner will be announced at the 2012 NHL Awards Show, June 20 at the Encore Theater at Wynn Las Vegas.
Lundqvist had the best season of an already stellar career in 2011-12. He earned 39 of the Rangers' 51 wins, and set single-season personal-bests with a 1.97 goals-against average and .930 save percentage -- he was fourth in the League in both categories -- and had eight shutouts.
NHL Awards Finalists / Schedule
Calder Trophy (top rookie)
Henrique, Landeskog, Nugent-Hopkins
Monday, April 23
Selke Trophy (top defensive forward)
Backes, Bergeron, Datsyuk
Lady Byng Trophy (skill/sportsmanship)
Campbell, Eberle, Moulson
Tuesday, April 24
Masterton Trophy (perseverance, dedication)
Alfredsson, Lupul, Pacioretty
General Manager of the Year
Armstrong, Poile, Tallon
Wednesday, April 25
Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)
Lundqvist, Rinne, Quick
Thursday, April 26
Norris Trophy (top defenseman)
Chara, Karlsson, Weber
Friday, April 27
Hart Trophy (most valuable player to his team)
Lundqvist, Malkin, Stamkos
Monday, April 30
Jack Adams Award (top head coach)
NHL Foundation Award (community service)
He was a major reason the team finished first in the Eastern Conference for the first time since the 1993-94 season.
"He is the backbone of our team -- always has been," Rangers coach John Tortorella told Newsday. "He is one of the strongest competitors that I've seen as an athlete. Sometimes as a goalie, you don't see it. With him, you do."
It's the first time since the 2006-07 that a goaltender has finished in the top three in Hart Trophy voting. He has a chance to be the first goalie to win the Hart since Jose Theodore following the 2001-02 season.
"That was amazing," Lundqvist said of the nomination. "Fun news to get in the morning. It's been a fun year, where the team's been playing really well in front of me and helping me in so many different ways, blocking shots or being in the lane all the time to help my game. I also feel like I pushed myself this year to play better and improve as a goalie."
Makin spent the summer rehabbing a serious knee injury that ended his 2010-11 season in early February. He wasn't 100 percent when the 2011-12 season started, but he still was able to dominate the League offensively. He had his first 50-goal season and led the League with 109 points to win his second Art Ross Trophy. The Pittsburgh star had three points streaks of at least eight games, including one to end the regular season. He had two goal-scoring streaks of at least five games, had four five-point games and went consecutive games without a point just three times.
"I had a great summer and stayed positive," Malkin told the team's website. "I don't think about points. I came back this year and just start playing 100-percent every game. The points continued and kept coming and it's just a great year."
He did the majority of it without having fellow superstar Sidney Crosby to share the scoring load and absorb the minutes against the opposition's best checkers and defensemen.
Malkin also made the players around him better -- especially James Neal, who had his first 40-goal season playing on Malkin's line; Malkin assisted on 28 of those goals.
How important was Malkin to the Pens? In the 14 games he didn't have a point this season, the Pens went 5-9-0. In other words, when he contributed, the Penguins more often than not won the game.
"I think Geno [Malkin] this year has been at a different level right from training camp right into the regular season," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said during the season. "I think he's been that way for most of this year. He's been dominant on the ice. He's been good at both ends of the rink and he's been maybe the best player, the most dominant player, in the League. He's buoyed our team when we've gone through a bunch of injuries."
It's the third time Malkin has been a finalist for the Hart -- he finished second in 2008 and 2009.
Stamkos was the only player to score more goals than Malkin. He became the 20th player in League history to score 60, and finished second to Malkin in the scoring race with a career-best 97 points. He won his second Rocket Richard Trophy
He had 13 multi-goal games and a pair of hat tricks as part of his outstanding season. Stamkos also finished strong with 10 goals in his last nine games. He went three games or more between goals just three times all season.
Stamkos wasn't all about flashy goal numbers, though. He played all 82 games for the third straight season, while averaging a career-best 22:01 of ice time. His 37 assists were third on the team, and his plus-7 and 42 takeaways were second. He also was willing to get physical, finishing fifth on the team with 109 hits and third among forwards with 37 blocked shots.
"What I like is that he just pushes always for more," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "He just wants more all the time. It's never enough, and it's not the goals. He never has enough of getting better -- that's why he scores the goals. It's a byproduct of his attitude, his work ethic, and his willingness to pay the price.
"It's not just about skill. Skill, in his case, is not the biggest [factor] in why he scores those goals. It's just desire."
On his Twitter account, Stamkos wrote: "An absolute honor to be nominated for the Hart Trophy. Thanks to all my family, friends, teammates, and fans for all the help and support."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK