During Monday’s episode of The Hockey News Podcast, Matt Larkin and Ryan Kennedy discussed the Hart Trophy race and whether Leon Draisaitl was the clear-cut frontrunner. They did all of this, of course, not knowing what Draisaitl was about to go out and accomplish Monday night against the Nashville Predators.
Through 40 minutes, it had been a relatively quiet night for Draisaitl, who had hit the 40-goal plateau with a tally late in the first frame. But mere minutes into the third period, Draisaitl began to take over. Little more than 30 seconds after Connor McDavid had given the Edmonton Oilers a 4-3 lead, Draisaitl doubled the gap with his second marker of the game. After Zack Kassian tripled the lead, Draisaitl collected the hat trick with eight and a half minutes gone in the period. And as if three wasn’t enough, Draisaitl managed to net the first four-goal game of his career when he fired home a power play tally less than 90 seconds after a few stray Oilers caps hit the Bridgestone Arena ice.
With his five-point performance, Draisaitl not only matched his career-best single-game output, but set a far more impressive mark by reaching 107 points on the season, two more than his previous career best and a total that vaulted him 13 points clear of McDavid, the closest Art Ross Trophy competitor. It was a masterwork by Draisaitl, a night that likely earned him the spot as lead dog in the Hart race in the minds of many award voters. But the race isn’t over yet.
Over the next several weeks, the chatter surrounding the Hart is sure to pick up and there are certain to be a few top contenders breathing down Draisaitl’s neck. McDavid, of course, is a prime candidate as the most dominant offensive force in the NHL. Current Rocket Richard Trophy leader David Pastrnak, who sits third in the NHL and leads the Boston Bruins with 91 points as of this writing, is also front-and-center. Meanwhile, Nathan MacKinnon’s play for the battered and bruised Colorado Avalanche won’t be slept on, and if the New York Rangers can sneak into the post-season, there’s no telling where Artemi Panarin winds up in voting.
Panarin might be the most interesting player in the conversation, too, if for no other reason than the impact he could have on voting. If the Blueshirts make the playoffs on the strength of Panarin’s offense-driving performance, he’s going to get some love from voters who are blown away by his contributions. And even if New York narrowly misses the dance, the way Panarin has played this season will make him worthy of consideration, potentially even landing him in the top three. If the vote is tight, the third- or fourth- or fifth-place votes Panarin pulls down could make a difference in who wins the award, too. Just ask Jarome Iginla how important those votes can be. One vote would have won him the 2001-02 Hart, but he was left off of a single ballot. (In fairness, Jose Theodore, the Hart winner, was left off of four.)
There are players other than Panarin who could potentially earn a vote or two and influence the eventual Hart winner, however. Here are five on the fringe of the discussion who are likely to earn consideration:
Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins
The degree to which playing alongside Marchand will hurt Pastrnak’s case is likely less than the amount Draisaitl’s case will be impacted by his presence on a line with McDavid for a portion of the campaign. Some voters will view these duos as less impressive as those who’ve accomplished what they have largely by themselves. Not saying that’s the right way to go about voting, simply saying it will be the case for some when filling out their ballots.
More than pulling from those who favor Pastrnak as a Hart favorite, though, Marchand will likely take a fourth- or fifth-place vote away from someone else who needs it to bolster their voting total. And he has a case to make. He ranks ninth in the NHL with 20 goals at 5-on-5 and his 3.1 points per 60 minutes at five-a-side is the third-best mark among all players with at least 500 minutes. His underlying numbers are also phenomenal and Marchand’s 64.8 goals percentage ranks seventh out of the 262 skaters with 800 minutes at 5-on-5. His impact is felt at every strength and he’s a driving force for one of the NHL’s top teams.
Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues
The prevailing belief is that the Norris Trophy is John Carlson’s to lose. It’s true, too, that the Capitals defenseman has the inside track due to his offensive output. Entering action Tuesday, his 73 points put him 24 clear of Pietrangelo, who’s fifth among all defensemen with 49 points. That said, Pietrangelo also ranks fifth in on-ice goals (3.3) and 19th in expected goals (2.5) per 60 minutes among the 149 rearguards with at least 750 minutes. He’s been as impactful offensively as any other top blueliner.
But the deeper you dig, the better the case is for Pietrangelo as one of the league’s best blueliners – and one of the NHL’s best players – this season. Among the same group of 149 defensemen, Pietrangelo has been on the ice for the eighth-fewest shot attempts against (49.5), 13th-fewest shots against (28.4) and 36th-fewest expected goals against (2.3) per 60 minutes. He’s provided more value in all three zones than almost any other defender and he logs monster minutes at all strengths. Only 15 players in the NHL have a higher average ice time.
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
The Bolts’ tepid start to the season has pushed Tampa Bay's best off the Hart radar. There’s plenty of reason to consider Kucherov among the Hart contenders, however, especially if the Lightning, who are third in the league, can make up even more ground and overtake the Bruins for top spot in the Atlantic Division. Kucherov has been at the heart of Tampa Bay’s incredible surge up the standings and his second-half performance in particular has been outstanding. In fact, Draisaitl’s 45 points since Jan. 1 keep him atop the league, but he’s only six points ahead of second-place Kucherov since the calendar turned.
Adding to Kucherov’s resume this season is that few players have been as effective at five-a-side. Kucherov’s 1.3 goals, 1.8 assists and 3.1 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 rank 16th, 13th and third in the league, respectively. He continues to be one of the most effective scorers in the league and the focal point of one of the most dynamic attacks in the NHL.
John Carlson, Washington Capitals
What Carlson is accomplishing offensively is unheard of in the modern era for a blueliner. Though his pace has slipped and he’s no longer on target to put up a three-figure point total, Carlson still finds himself in line to register 92 points this season. To put that in perspective, the last defender with 90-plus points was Ray Bourque during the 1993-94 campaign. That was nearly 30 years ago during an era when teams averaged 3.24 goals per game. That rate is at 3.03 this season, making Carlson’s production all the more impressive.
Don’t go thinking Carlson won’t factor into the Hart voting just because he’s set to win another award, either. Last season, Mark Giordano earned two second-place, five third-place, seven fourth-place and sixth fifth-place votes. He absolutely pulled votes away from other candidates. And in each of the past five seasons, the Norris winner has earned some Hart consideration. The votes Carlson picks up here will take from another prime contender.
Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
One shudders to think where Winnipeg would be in the standings this season without Hellebuyck, who has started all but 15 games for the Jets. He hasn’t been without his slips and stumbles throughout the season, but looking at the complete picture, Hellebuyck has been jaw-droppingly good in the blue paint for Winnipeg.
On base statistics alone, one can make the case for Hellebuyck, who is tied for 10th in save percentage (.919), 21st in goals-against average (2.67), tied for first in shutouts (5) and first in saves (1,530) among all goaltenders with at least 10 games played. But it’s the underlying statistics where Hellebuyck really shines. Among the 56 goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played at 5-on-5, Hellebuyck has faced the 12th-highest rate of shots (32.5) and sixth-highest rate of high-danger shots (9.0) per 60 minutes of any goaltender. Despite that, Hellebuyck ranks 12th in SP (.926), 15th in high-danger SP (.836) and 11th in goals-saved above average (0.25) per 60 minutes. Hellebuyck’s overall GSAA at 5-on-5 is 10.5 and 16.2 at all strengths, too, which is higher than that of all but four netminders.
There’s a kicker here, as well. Measured by Evolving-Hockey’s goals saved above expected, which takes into account the shot quality he's faced and not just the volume, Hellebuyck is miles ahead of the next-best goaltender. His 12.5 mark is 5.5 goals saved above expected higher than Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask’s 7.0 mark. Hellebuyck is likely the sole reason the Jets are in the wild-card race as we head into the stretch run. If the Jets make the post-season, he'll be the reason why.
(Advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
Want more in-depth features and analysis? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.