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Trophy Thursday: Hart of the Matter

The NHL's trophy for most valuable player sparks lively debate every season, plus a wealth of yearly candidates

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

Every major sports league in North America hands out a most valuable player award each season. The MVP designation never fails to prompt a time-tested debate: Most valuable to a team no matter its place in the standings or the best player and/or most valuable player on a successful team, especially a championship club?

Hockey is no different in eliciting fan and media opinions about whether, say, last year's winner of the league's Hart Trophy, Nikita Kucherov, was truly the NHL's most valuable player since he played on a Tampa Bay team that racked up a league-leading 128 points in the standings last regular season-and pretty much inarguably would still have finished as a playoff team without Kucherov. 

By contrast, St. Louis rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington tied for 10th in the Hart voting by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. The 25-year-old phenom won 24 of 30 games for the Blues in the second half of the season when his team ascended from the worst record in the league in early January to postseason qualifier in April to Stanley cup winner in June.

The Hart Trophy voting is based on regular season only, so maybe some writers gauged Binnington didn't play enough games in an 82-game regular season schedule to merit even top-five votes. But there are few in the hockey world who think St. Louis makes the playoffs without Binnington's historic run. This is no disrespect to Kucherov, who scored a head-spinning 128 points with 41 goals and 87 assists (the latter was the NHL's tops and likely a big reason why the young forward earned 164 of 171 first-place votes, three second-place, two third-place, two fourth-place and no ballots with lower ranks). 

The Hart contenders for 2019-20 features past winners (Alex Ovechkin three times, Sidney Crosby twice, Patrick Kane once and Connor McDavid once) and more than a few future Hall of Famers (the aforementioned four, along with more-than-likely Nathan MacKinnon and Carey Price). In fact, only three players who won the Hart have not been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame once retired since the Hart was first awarded in 1924. 

That first Hart went to Frank Nighbor of the first version of the Ottawa Senators. The original trophy was donated to the NHL in 1923 by David Hart, the father of Cecil Hart, a long-time head coach of the Montreal Canadiens. In a departure from traditions of other NHL trophies, the first Hart trophy was shelved and handed over to the Hall of Fame in 1940. A new Hart Memorial Trophy created its own authentic run beginning in 1941 and continuing when presented to Kucherov last spring.  

The legendary Wayne Gretzky won the Hart nine times, eight straight seasons in the 1980s with the Edmonton Oilers and one more time two seasons later when he moved to Los Angeles to establish California as a hockey-market state. Fellow NHL legend Gordie Howe won six Harts during the 1950s and early 1960s. 

Hart votes tend to skew heavily to high-scoring forwards. Goalies have won it only eight times, the most recent Montreal's Carey Price in 2014-15. The last defenseman to snag a Hart was Chris Pronger during the 1999-2000 season when he was playing for St. Louis.

This season's list of favorites will skew similarly come voting time in April. Look for Kucherov to get votes but not repeat. Nathan MacKinnon, off to a fast start with Colorado, was selected as the league's best player by an impressive number of fellow stars at the NHL Player Media Tour preseason event in September. McDavid is a perennial candidate and is thriving in Edmonton with new coach Dave Tippett. 

Ovechkin can't be ignored as he continues to defy the sports analytics age-curve mathematical correction with elite scoring results, especially in powerplay or man-advantage situations. There's no reason to count out Crosby either, as a finalist or a third-time winner to round out the career of an all-time great any way you want to cut the deck. Crosby will be needed to score more with Phil Kissel traded and Evgeni Malkin missing games in October due to injury. Sid is no longer the Kid, but he is formidable and could be credited for lifting Pittsburgh to a higher finish (first or second in the Metropolitan Division than expected).

There are others who might crowd the finalist group or even walk up to the podium at the NHL Awards in June: Johnny Gaudreau is a scoring whiz for Calgary, which is looking to get back in form after a so-so first month. Florida's Aleksander Barkov is possibly the sport's best two-way forward (great both offensively and defensively); he is racking up assists (which the hockey-writer voters appreciate) and will get his share of goals soon enough. If the Panthers get back to the playoffs, he and Joel Quenneville will likely share some accolades and possible finalist births. 

Three more names to watch, though they might sort of cancel each other out: David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins. All three are powerhouses in their own way, especially Marchand and a playmaker and teammate that is loved by his guys and let's just say not well-liked by opponents. 

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