The Hart Trophy conversation is deeper this season than it has been in any campaign in recent memory, but the unfortunate reality of a race with this many legitimate contenders is that the so-called fringe candidates are playing so well they would or could have been finalists in almost any other campaign.
So, while the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Evgeni Malkin and Nathan MacKinnon continue to build strong cases for the award, here are five players who should be joining them in the running for the Hart but will likely be overshadowed by the play of others:
Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins
Malkin’s massive statistical second half has been second to none and the Penguins center has inserted himself into the Hart Trophy race by sheer force, but one side effect of his outstanding play is that Kessel’s consistency and impact on Pittsburgh’s success has been largely overshadowed. Kessel has it tough playing with the Penguins. Not in that success has been hard to come by, mind you, but that he’s often the third or fourth player to come to mind when one thinks about Pittsburgh’s success behind Malkin, Sidney Crosby and, to a lesser extent, Kris Letang.
Kessel’s play this season has been noteworthy, however. When the rest of the offense was struggling, Kessel was finding the scoresheet on a game-by-game basis. He worked his way into the top 10 in scoring by the time the front half of the schedule concluded and was leading the Penguins in scoring when the all-star break rolled around, only six points off the Art Ross Trophy lead with 58 points in 51 games. Kessel is only three shy of setting a new career mark for points — he’s on pace for his first 90-point season — and is headed towards his sixth 30-goal campaign. He was the Penguins’ offensive driver when Malkin and Crosby struggled, yet the reality is Kessel might end up finishing behind both in Hart voting.
Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers
Voracek’s Hart candidacy will be hindered in much the same way as Kessel’s, even if Flyers fans might think it heresy to compare one of their beloved players with anyone from the rival Penguins. In Philadelphia, Voracek often plays second fiddle to Claude Giroux, and the Flyers captain is going to draw some significant Hart interest should Philadelphia maintain their playoff position, especially as he’s having a resurgent season in which he’s tied for fifth in league scoring heading into Tuesday night’s action.
Voracek is no slouch, though. While his 18 goals won’t blow anyone away, his 60 assists put him one off the league lead and it’s not as if he’s far outside the top 10 in scoring. Matter of fact, he’s only point shy of moving into a tie for 10th place. Where Voracek does rank inside the top 10, however, is in his ability to chip in on his team’s total offense. He has registered a point on 35.2 percent of all Flyers goals, which is the eighth-best team-based percentage in the NHL. He also ranks 15th with a primary point — goal or first assist — on 25.5 percent of his team’s goals. Unfortunately, Giroux has been just that much better in both categories.
Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Those waiting for the seemingly inevitable Barkov breakout have been rewarded this season as the Panthers pivot has been spectacular. That’s especially true of late and with Florida making a hard charge up the Eastern Conference standings in order to flirt with a wild-card spot. Earlier in the campaign, it would have been fair to give the Panthers’ MVP nod to Vincent Trocheck, but Barkov has become increasingly difficult to ignore. Not that recent play should have all that much impact on who earns Hart votes and who doesn’t, but it's worth considering that since Jan. 1, Barkov is 10th in league scoring with 38 points in 32 games, all the while averaging the third-highest ice time of any forward. Add to it that he has factored in on 32.5 percent of all Panthers goals and has a primary point on 23 percent of those tallies and you have a readymade case for Barkov.
The issue, however, is the post-season. The late charge is impressive and Barkov has been the most impactful player during the recent stretch for Florida, but voters aren’t going to give their vote for a player on a close-but-not-quite team to Barkov. That’s especially true if one or both of Taylor Hall or Nathan MacKinnon can’t propel their teams to the playoffs.
John Tavares, New York Islanders
Yes, the Islanders have experienced an epic collapse. Yes, Tavares hasn’t been the runaway scoring leader on the Islanders. And yes, you could argue that Mathew Barzal has been the more impactful offensive player in that he’s made the attack deeper and more dynamic. Truth is, though, that while Tavares and Barzal are deadlocked in terms of points, the nod for individual impact goes to New York’s captain. Tavares’ 32 goals are significantly more than Barzal’s 19 and Tavares has had a primary point on more than a quarter of the Islanders’ offense. Barzal, on the other hand, comes in at slightly more than 20 percent.
That said, it doesn’t take a genius to understand why Tavares, a two-time Hart finalist, likely won’t even land a single vote for the award. On other non-playoff clubs, such as the Devils and Avalanche, the expectation was they’d be in the spot the Islanders are now, not the other way around. And New York’s almost stunning dive down the standings is going to remove any chance of someone like Tavares winning the award. He’s been good, but it would have required a near league-leading performance for Tavares to get MVP consideration in a season where his team has disappointed to such a degree.
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
No one has gotten as much love for driving the bus on a team currently outside the post-season as Connor McDavid. And, fair as that may be, it has resulted in Gaudreau getting barely a fraction of the credit he’s deserved. With eight games remaining, Gaudreau has set career highs with 59 assists and 82 points, and he’s on pace to hit both the 25-goal and 90-point plateaus this campaign. Will he win the Art Ross Trophy? Nope. The Rocket Richard Trophy? Definitely not. But if we measure Gaudreau’s individual performance against the rest of the league, it paints a clear picture of why he should be considered in the Hart Trophy race.
When measuring players by their impact on their team’s offense, the players who’ve been better than Gaudreau are MacKinnon, Giroux and McDavid. That’s the entire list, as Gaudreau has registered a point on 38.6 percent of the Flames’ total offense. Beyond that, Gaudreau has managed a primary point on 27.2 percent of Calgary’s goals for this season. Only six players have a higher percentage of primary points on their team’s offense. And the gap between Gaudreau and the next-best Flames scorer is also worth nothing. Sean Monahan’s 64 points are 18 fewer than Gaudreau’s team-leading total. That gap paired with the percentage of total offense Gaudreau has accounted for should make him a candidate, but it might be all for naught as Calgary’s playoff hopes are in peril.
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