By Allan Muir
Even with all this spare time on his hands, Sidney Crosby might want to hold off on clearing space in his trophy case for a second Hart Trophy. Sure, the way he ramped up his play this season sets him up as the favorite. But every game he misses while recovering from a broken jaw -- his convalescence is at 13 days and counting -- opens the door a little bit wider for someone else to sneak in and claim the hardware for himself.
So who's on his tail?
Patrick Kane, for one. Chicago's dazzling forward has been the best player on the league's best team since opening night, and the voters are sure to appreciate the changes he's made to his game coming off a disappointing 2011-12 season. He leads the league in road scoring, and also boasts a fancy stat that highlights his importance: he averages a league-best 6.6 points per 60 minutes when his team is trailing or at even strength (Crosby is second at 5.3). Not bad, eh? But Kane's candidacy could suffer from having votes siphoned off by teammate Jonathan Toews, whose intangibles could make him the more viable choice in the eyes of some voters.
And then there's Alex Ovechkin who, under the guidance of coach Adam Oates, has carved a fresh trail to the top of the goal-scoring charts. He also leads the circuit in power play goals and points, and is putting together a finishing kick similar to the one Corey Perry used to capture the Rocket Richard and the Hart in 2011. Still, Ovi had that brutal start, and he ranks just third on the Caps in terms of involvement in goals scored, so it could be argued that he's not even the most valuable player on his own team.
The point being, every candidate appears to be vulnerable. So unless Sid hurries back, this thing is wide open.
That said, here are two races to keep an eye on down the stretch that could tilt the voting.
Every year since 2002, the Hart has been won by a player who also captured the Art Ross and/or the Richard Trophy. And that bit of history opens the field to a few dark horse candidates for your consideration.
John Tavares: The best argument for Tavares? The Islanders -- yes, the New York Islanders -- are on the verge of making the playoffs. And they're doing it with what may be the shallowest pool of talent of any team to make the cut since the 2008-09 Blue Jackets. Tavares has taken a team that most had destined for the lottery and guided it out of the Eastern Conference depths. Force of will? Sure, there's that. He's amped up his 200-foot compete level, setting the tone for the rest of the team. But he's become a devastating weapon in the offensive zone, scoring at a 48-goal pace that has him just two behind Ovechkin and Stamkos for the league lead. If the Isles make the cut and Tavares takes the Richard, he's sure to be a finalist.
Steven Stamkos: No one from a non-playoff team has captured the MVP since Mario Lemieux turned the trick in 1987-88 (hmmmm...a year when injuries limited Wayne Gretzky to just 64 games). The voters definitely tossed the "most valuable to his team" clause out the window and went with the guy who led the league in goals and points. It's conceivable that Stamkos could do the same for the lottery-bound Lightning. Stamkos is tied with Ovechkin with a chart-topping 26 goals and is just five behind Crosby's pace with 51 points.
Martin St. Louis: Odds are that his candidacy would be undercut by votes going the way of his linemate Stamkos, but no one's ever gotten rich betting against St. Louis. The ageless playmaker is tied for the league lead in assists and is one point behind Stamkos in pursuit of his first career scoring title. He's held in high regard around the league for playing the game the right way and is considered one of hockey's great leaders. But his greatest appeal might be as a "career candidate" whose considerable body of work would sway support in his direction if a voter otherwise finds the race too close to call. Sergei Bobrovsky: A goalie hasn't won the Hart since Jose Theodore in 2002, but if you hold true to that "most valuable to his team" definition, you'd have no trouble making the case that Bobrovsky should snap the dry spell. Among goalies with at least 20 starts, the Top Cop ranks first in save percentage (.931) and third in goals-against (2.01) while playing for a team that ranks 19th in shots allowed (29.9). Compare his numbers to those posted by last year's starter, Steve Mason (3.39, .894, 30.9 shots faced on average), and it's clear why Columbus is in the playoff mix for the first time since 2009. There might be better players in the game, but if the Jackets make the cut, there aren't any as valuable.