To mark the three-quarters point of the season, NHL.com is running its fourth installment of the Trophy Tracker series this week. Today, we look at the race for the Hart Trophy, the annual award given to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team as voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
Can the Edmonton Oilers win if Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid are playing on separate lines? Can they win at all without McDavid?
These two questions were asked and debated at separate times this season, the latter only a few weeks ago.
The answer to both is yes, largely because of Draisaitl, who led the NHL with 102 points (39 goals, 63 assists) through 65 games and is the favorite to win the Hart Trophy, according to a panel of 18 NHL.com writers.
Draisaitl received nine of the available 18 first-place votes and 79 voting points to edge Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon by seven points. What may have put Draisaitl over the top is how he has played away from, and for six games without, McDavid.
Video: Nathan MacKinnon in the Hart Trophy hunt
They still play together on the power play and at times at even strength, but for the most part Draisaitl has been centering his own line since the halfway point of the season, and he and the Oilers have been better for it.
"Early on, I think they thought the best way to do that was the two of them together, [that] they can will us to win, and they did in a lot of games early," Edmonton coach Dave Tippett said. "But as we go on here, we find out that the more depth we have, the better chance we have to sustain winning long-term. It makes it much harder for matchups for other teams."
Tippett started to trend away from using McDavid and Draisaitl on the same line at even strength when forward Kailer Yamamoto was called up from Bakersfield of the American Hockey League on Dec. 31.
The added top-six depth meant Draisaitl could center a line featuring Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on his left and Yamamoto on his right, leaving McDavid to play, at the time, with James Neal on his left and Zack Kassian on his right.
This was the Oilers' version of the Pittsburgh Penguins model of playing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two elite centers, on separate lines at even strength. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017 doing that, and the model still works well today.
Video: EDM@ANA: Draisaitl buries one-timer for PPG
Draisaitl's overall game started to surge almost immediately, and the Oilers have played better as a team.
Draisaitl had 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists) in 24 games, a League-high 1.71 points per game, from Dec. 31-Feb. 29. He was also plus-8 in that span after he was minus-18 in the first 41 games, when his production was elite with 61 points (22 goals, 39 assists), two behind McDavid for the NHL lead, but Edmonton wasn't nearly as dangerous.
The Oilers went 14-6-4, a .667 points percentage, from Dec. 31-Feb. 29, including 3-2-1 in six games without McDavid, who was out with a quad injury from Feb. 11-21. Draisaitl had 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in those games.
The Oilers were 20-17-4 in their first 41 games, their .537 points percentage tied with the Minnesota Wild for 22nd in the NHL.
"I think some of it was just finding the depth that they felt comfortable that the two of them didn't need to be together to make stuff happen," Tippett said. "When [Yamamoto] came in and with [Nugent-Hopkins], that line took off right away. Draisaitl felt good that he could mesh with those guys."
Things have changed since, with Yamamoto sustaining an ankle injury Feb. 23 that kept him out of three games, but the Oilers have kept Draisaitl and McDavid apart enough.
"Ultimately, they play together in situations in the game," Tippett said. "But for us to be the team that I think we have to be to be top contenders, I think each of them can drag a lot of people with them."
Voting totals (points awarded on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis): Leon Draisaitl, Oilers, 79 (nine first-place votes); Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche, 72 (seven first-place votes); David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins, 46 (two first-place votes); Connor McDavid, Oilers, 32; Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers, 11; Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs, 6; Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning, 5; Nikita Kucherov, Lightning, 5; Roman Josi, Nashville Predators, 4; John Carlson, Washington Capitals, 3; Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres, 2; Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets, 1; Alex Ovechkin, Capitals, 1.
Video: David Pastrnak playing like a Hart Trophy candidate
NHL.com staff writer Tim Campbell contributed to this story