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.
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 just the eighth time since 1980 that a goaltender has finished in the top three in Hart Trophy voting, and the first time since Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur did it in 2006-07. Lundqvist has a chance to be the first goalie to win the Hart since Jose Theodore in 2001-02.
How does he stack up? Stamkos scored 10 more goals this season than the league's next best goal-scorer and fellow Hart finalist, Evgeni Malkin.
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.
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."
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."