The Race for the 2018 Hart Trophy

8 Great Choices – But Only 1 Can Be MVP

With the NHL regular season now at an end, I think we can all agree it has been one of the best in recent memory. If the brilliant debut of the Las Vegas Golden Knights wasn’t enough, maybe it was the play of breakout stars, Andrei Vasilevskiy or Brayden Point. But, the NHL is a stars league, and it is always at its best when its stars are shining bright. And this season is a prime example. When superstar Sidney Crosby is playing up to his expectations and is 10th in the league in scoring, you know the league is firing on all cylinders.

It felt as though this year, all of the big stars were playing their best. So that leaves one question: who is most deserving of the Hart Trophy as the league’s regular-season MVP? The award is always contentious because of the letter“V,” for valuable, in MVP. But I’m not here to try and define value and who should win; I’m here to show that this is one of the most exciting Hart Trophy races in my lifetime. There are arguably eight players,  forwards in particular, that have a legitimate chance to win the award this year. Eight forwards who have arguably been more valuable to their team than anyone else. That is the important caveat: a player’s team success is almost always included in their chances at winning the award, so I will take that under consideration. Here are the reasons why, and why not, these eight are in contention for the NHL’s top individual honor.

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

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Stats: 34 G, 68 A, 102 P

Team Success: 3rd Place in Metropolitan; in playoffs

Pros: It’s no secret Giroux is one of the most talented players in the NHL. But it seemed he had faded over the last two seasons, putting up point totals of 67 and 58 points respectively — his lowest since his third year in the league. But this year he was dominant from start to finish, setting career highs in goals, assists, and points. It’s impossible not to include him on this list when he is one of the league’s best players and had his best season. It helps that Philadelphia made the playoffs, primarily because of his consistent play, highlighted by his hat trick in his last game of the regular season.

Cons:  Although Philadelphia wasn’t a world beater this year, there is no shortage of talent surrounding Giroux. Jakub Voracek was great as always, not to mention Sean Couturier having a breakout offensive season. The Flyers had five 20-goal-scorers this year: Giroux, Voracek, Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, and Travis Konecny. A stacked supporting cast usually hurts MVP votes. Giroux’s biggest drawback as a Hart candidate is that he flew primarily under the radar. Philadelphia was hanging on by a thread all season, and Giroux’s name didn’t start flying around the conversation until late. The letter V in MVP usually means that narratives play a large role in who wins the award, and Giroux’s seasons was great, but it wasn’t memorable.

Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils

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Stats: 39 G. 54 A, 93 P

Team Success: 2nd Wild Card, Eastern Conference; in playoffs

Pros: One of Giroux’s drawbacks was that there was no narrative supporting his season because it wasn’t memorable. That is far from the case with Hall. Not only did Hall post career highs in goals, assists, and points, but he put the Devils on his back and carried them to a wild card berth. Considering the importance of the letter V, the two biggest aspects that can help a candidate’s case are a below average supporting cast and exceeding team expectations. These two things make Hall the front-runner. The Devils came into the season looking like they were primed to pick in the lottery again with a team devoid of talent. Some thought they would finish with the worst record in the NHL, yet they made the playoffs, largely because of Hall. If you take a look at their roster’s output, it solidifies Hall’s importance. The 26-year-old scored 41 more points than his closest teammate, first-overall pick, Nico Hischier. Only two other Devils tallied more than 40 points. If you take Hall off the Devils, they are a lock to finish at the bottom of the conference, but with him, they make the playoffs.

Cons: The only con is believing that another player on this list is MORE worthy than Hall. But he checks every box in deserving the Hart Trophy.

Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

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Stats: 35 G, 57 A, 92 P

Team Success:  1st Wild Card, Western Conference; in playoffs

Pros: Once again, another example of a bona fide star having his best season away from the spotlight. Kopitar has had one hell of a career to this point (i.e. 2 Cups) and is a top two-way player, but this year stands out. Coming off the worst season of his career, in which he scored a career-low 52 points (not included the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season), Kopitar rebounded nicely. He put up career highs in goals, assists, and points. Notice a trend? What will help his candidacy is the absence of Jeff Carter for much of the season, who the Kings rely heavily on when Kopitar is off the ice. 

Cons: Like Giroux, Kopitar flew somewhat under the radar. The Kings didn’t go from worst to first and their two Stanley Cup wins are still in the rearview. Kopitar just wasn’t as special as a few others on this list.

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

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Stats: 39 G, 61 A, 100 P

Team Success:  1st in Atlantic and Eastern Conference; in playoffs

Pros: If the season ended in February, Kucherov runs away with this award. The Lightning came out of the gate on fire and Kucherov was leading the way. He was leading the NHL in points for the majority of the season and plays for the best team in the East. This was a special year for Kucherov, who posted career highs in assists and points.

Cons: There are two main cons for Kucherov, and neither are fair to him. The first is the quality of his teammates. The Tampa Bay Lightning are a world-beater of a team. They are stacked at forward with Tyler Johnson, and breakout stars Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point, not to mentioned the guy who assisted on many of Kucherov’s goals, Steven Stamkos. Teammates Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy are also front-runners for the Norris and Vezina Trophies respectively, as they are each one of the best at their position. Those guys could all steal votes from Kucherov for the Hart. The second knock is that Kucherov’s game slowed down just a bit as everyone else’s game revved up. Connor McDavid, Taylor Hall, and Claude Giroux all went on big point-producing runs at the end of the season and caught up to Kucherov in points. He finished the year third in points, behind McDavid and Giroux. Seeing as the voters cast their ballots at the end of the season, regency bias can hurt just a bit.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

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Stats: 39 G, 58 A, 97 P

Team Success:  2nd Wild Card, Western Conference; in playoffs

Pros: MacKinnon finally put together the season we all knew he could. The former first-overall pick posted career highs in goals, assists, and points, despite missing eight games. He finished fifth in the league in points, and like Hall, seemingly willed his team to the playoffs. A large part of the Hart trophy is team success and exceeding expectations. Most pundits thought the Avs would be bottom dwellers once again after an abysmal 2016-17 season and the inevitable trade of Matt Duchene. Yet, MacKinnon put together a special year in Denver and helped the Avs to the last spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Cons: MacKinnon and Hall have almost the same case for the Hart, except for one aspect: Mikko Rantanen. Most successful NHL teams have more than one star player (see Pittsburgh). But if there is anything that can hold MacKinnon back, it was the breakout year by linemate Rantanen, who also posted career highs in goals (29), assists (55), and points (84). Another star on the Avs might hurt MacKinnon’s case for the Hart ever so slightly.

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

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Stats: 41 G, 67 A, 108 P

Team Success:  6th in Pacific; not in playoffs

Pros: The prodigy outdid himself again. He followed up his 2016-17 Hart Trophy-winning season with a gem, posting new career highs in goals and points. He now has two consecutive Art Ross trophies and he can barely legally drink in the US. Winning the Art Ross doesn’t guarantee a Hart Trophy, but it isn’t hard to argue that McDavid was the best player in the NHL this season.

Cons: The Oilers stunk this season. After making the playoffs last year, they regressed quickly — but, to no fault of McDavid. His case for the Hart would be very different if the Oilers were at least in the chase, but they were out of the playoff race by Christmas. If McDavid doesn’t win, that is the only reason.

Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

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Stats: 42 G, 56 A, 98 P

Team Success: 2nd in the Metropolitan; in playoffs

Pros: One of the most underrated players in the NHL — and he already has one Hart Trophy. Malkin lit the league on fire when the calendar turned to 2018. He was unstoppable, scoring multiple points in most of the games he played in. The fact that Pittsburgh was good the entire year strengthens his case.

Cons: The Penguins have three players in the top ten in scoring: Malkin, Crosby, and Phil Kessel. Those guys could get Hart votes too, which could steal a few votes away from Malkin.

Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets

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Stats: 23 G, 68 A, 91 P

Team Success: 2nd in Central; in playoffs

Pros: Similar to the Devils and Avalanche, the Jets didn’t have the highest expectations this year, but they solidified themselves as one of the best teams in the league. The Central division is deep, and they still posted the SECOND-most points in the NHL. Wheeler was the catalyst for the Jets this season. He went out each night and consistently put points on the board for Winnipeg.

Cons: Patrik Laine having a big year and finishing second in goals could result in a few stolen votes from Wheeler. He also plays for a small market team, and they unfortunately get looked over in awards voting sometimes. Like a lot of guys on this list, they had fantastic seasons, but they weren’t as noteworthy as guys like MacKinnon and Hall. Wheeler will definitely suffer from that. ■

Blake Isaacs is a die-hard Red Wings fan that doesn’t go to as many games as he should. He is also a big fan of 7-Eleven Slurpeees, Chipotle, and all things Michigan State.

2 thoughts on “The Race for the 2018 Hart Trophy”

  1. I don’t have much to add but just wanted to leave a comment that this was a fantastic read! You clearly put a ton of thought and research into this, and are a talented writer to boot Blake. Looking forward to more content from you!

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