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Looking At Hart Trophy Candidates

by Staff Writer / San Jose Sharks

While broadcasters are privileged to vote for the Jack Adams Award, presented to the NHL’s Coach of the Year, I thought that I’d take the time to send a ringing endorsement into cyberspace to those who vote for the Hart Trophy, presented to the League’s Most Valuable Player.

First of all, the MVP is not another award automatically presented to the NHL’s leading scorer. It is not another award for the top goalie. It is not another award for the top defenseman. It is an award that is specifically to be presented “to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.”

With that criteria in mind, I think that there are four excellent candidates who deserve the most consideration for this award. I’ll go through them briefly, and will then finish up with my choice for the winner.

Anaheim’s Scott Niedermayer is not only one of the NHL’s best defensemen, he deserves serious consideration for the Hart Trophy as well. Niedermayer played for much of the season with a knee injury that was scoped during the Olympic Break, and in all of the games that I saw him play, you’d never know that he was having a problem. A leader in minutes for his team, he is an amazing skater who can control a game with subtle plays that amaze his growing legion of fans in Southern California. Offensively, he is currently ranked 6th on the defenseman’s scoring list. He’ll probably get some consideration for a Norris Trophy, and while Teemu Selanne has had an excellent season in Duckland, Niedermayer is the bedrock of the club’s foundation. Consider him a dark horse candidate for the Hart.

Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff has continued his outstanding goaltending, and is the perfect fit for Darryl Sutter’s team in front of him. He makes big saves, has stolen a plethora of games for his club, and Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf notwithstanding, I can’t imagine anyone more valuable to Calgary than the guy we all call “Kipper.” He’ll deserve some solid consideration for the Hart, and will be a prime contender for the Vezina Trophy as well.

The New York Rangers have surged back into the playoffs after a seven-season absence, and Jaromir Jagr is a gigantic reason why. On any given night, Jagr can be the League’s most dynamic player. He’s a candidate for the Art Ross and Maurice Richard Trophies, and has been a dominating force in Gotham.

But while all of these players are valuable to their teams in large ways, I can’t imagine anyone fitting the criteria of the Hart Trophy more than Joe Thornton. Here are a few items for consideration:

• He smashed past the old Sharks scoring record for a full season in just 55 games.
• He is the first NHL player in 10 years to reach the 90 assist mark, which means that he makes his teammates better.
• He takes nearly every key faceoff for the Sharks, and wins the majority of them.
• He is on one of the team’s top penalty killing units.
• He is one of the Sharks’ best defensive forwards, which is pretty heady praise for a guy who is challenging Jagr for the Art Ross Trophy. In fact, he’s been good enough for some Selke Trophy consideration.
• Off the ice, he has helped change the demeanor of his team into a more life-loving, challenge-grasping club. The Sharks are playing with more confidence, and they’re dictating the pace of games in large part because of Thornton’s play.
• The record of the Sharks before he arrived was 8-12-4. The record of the Sharks after he arrived is currently 34-14-7.

These are but a few exclamation points on a remarkable season which should put Big Joe over the top in the Hart Trophy race, but I’d like to add another one just to put the icing on the cake.

Rewind to Thursday, April 13th, at HP Pavilion, the night that the Sharks eliminated Vancouver from the playoffs: Thornton takes a pass from Jonathan Cheechoo and looks up at the empty net. Almost with a non-verbal, “no thanks,” he feeds the puck back to Cheechoo for an empty-net goal.

He’d likely never confirm it, but I saw Joe as helping his teammate double team Jaromir Jagr in the race for the Art Ross and Rocket Richard Trophies. It was an incredible display of concern for a teammate, a great example of taking care of fulfilling one’s own goals through fulfilling the goals of a teammate, and a great play as well.

Fast-forward to Saturday’s game against Anaheim: Thornton scores a goal and two assists to take a three-point lead over Jagr in the Art Ross race. Cheechoo scores three goals and two assists to take a two goal lead over Jagr in the Rocket Richard race. It was another spectacular night.

Let’s conclude by saying the following:

• If Joe Thornton helps his linemate win the Rocket Richard Trophy while capturing the Art Ross Trophy, I can’t see how you couldn’t slam dunk him into winning the Hart Trophy after considering just how valuable he is to his team in so many different ways.
• Even if Jagr has a big night vs. Ottawa on Tuesday, I still think that the total picture, the total package of what a “most valuable player” is fits Joe Thornton.

What is my perfect scenario for these individual awards this season? Well, simply put, it is to have Joe Thornton win the Art Ross and Hart Trophies, Jonathan Cheechoo win the Richard Trophy, and Jagr win the Lester Pearson Trophy, voted on by the players as the “best player.”

I’m Dan Rusanowsky, in Seagate Technologies “In the Crease.”

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