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Top 10 Hart Trophy candidates for 2019-20

History tells us the MVP is most likely to go to a high-scoring forward on a playoff team. MacKinnon has those traits, but can he topple the giants McDavid and Kucherov?

Few awards spark debate in hockey circles like the Hart Trophy, which goes to the player judged most valuable to his team. A couple years back, Connor McDavid was deemed dominant enough to win the Ted Lindsay Award for most outstanding player as voted by the players, but Taylor Hall snagged the Hart after carrying the New Jersey Devils to the playoffs on his back. The Hart voters punished McDavid for missing the playoffs and have consistently done so for great players who fail to reach the big dance. No one has missed the post-season and won the Hart since Mario Lemieux in 1987-88.

Last season, a new Hart debate came to the forefront: can a player on a powerhouse franchise, surrounded by many other elite players, be the most valuable to his team? Nikita Kucherov lapped the field in the scoring race enough that no one could deny him the Hart, but he may have to do so again to repeat as MVP. His teammate, Steven Stamkos, finished 14th in the balloting with a second-place vote, a fourth and two fifths. Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Vezina last season and earned one fifth-place Hart vote. So if Kucherov doesn’t win the scoring race by a dozen points again, his own teammates could cannibalize him in the voting this year.

Who are the best bets for the 2019-20 MVP? Here are my top 10. It’s a subjective list for a subjective award.

1. NATHAN MACKINNON, COLORADO AVALANCHE

MacKinnon was the runner-up in the 2018 Hart vote, he finished sixth last year, and he arguably checks the most boxes of any MVP candidate. We know there’s a strong correlation between the Hart and elite offense. You don’t have to win the scoring title to be the MVP, but you have to at least be in the discussion if you're a forward. Seventeen of the past 20 Hart winners were forwards, and 12 of those 17 forwards or 71 percent, also won the Art Ross. The five who didn’t finished second, second, third, third and sixth in points, and three of those five led the league in goals. So that means 15 of the past 17 forwards to win the Hart have led the league in points and/or goals. Joe Sakic won the Hart after finishing second in goals and points in 2000-01. Hall was the true exception in 2017-18, buoyed because he outscored his closest teammate by 41 points.

MacKinnon’s been the third most productive offensive player in the game across the past two seasons, averaging 103 points per 82 contests. He’s sitting in his peak zone now at 24 years old, likely to maintain his elite production but not ascending to another stratosphere. So if he can’t catch McDavid or Kucherov in the scoring race, can he beat them both for the Hart?

We know MacKinnon’s Colorado Avalanche project to be a playoff team and Stanley Cup contender, so that gives him a leg up on McDavid. And we know MacKinnon, though he has stellar linemates in Gabriel Landeskog and (when signed) Mikko Rantanen, doesn’t have the overall supporting cast Kucherov does. So I see MacKinnon as a nice blend of (a) good team, (b) almost-elite offense and (c) a team situation in which he is very clearly the driving force.

2. NIKITA KUCHEROV, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

I don’t fault anyone for projecting Kucherov to win the MVP again. He has as strong a claim as anyone to “best in the world” status right now. As I outlined in the Art Ross prediction piece, Kucherov blew away his competition in points per 60 minutes and was the game’s best puck distributor at all strengths in terms of generating first assists last season. Of course, he was passing those pucks to fellow elite players such as Stamkos and Brayden Point. To overcome the “great teammate” bias threatening his Hart chances, Kucherov had to outscore the next-best MVP candidate by a mile, which he did, topping McDavid by 12 points.

Kucherov’s 128 points were the most by any player since 1995-96, so it will be difficult to repeat that feat in his age-26 season. If he’s locked in a tighter race for the scoring crown this year and Hart voters are trying to break ties, the “great teammate” factor could play into the decision more, meaning Kucherov isn’t quite the Hart lock he was last year.

3. CONNOR MCDAVID, EDMONTON OILERS

Back to Lemieux, who won the MVP despite missing the playoffs in 1987-88. What did he accomplish that year? He led the league in goals with 70 and points with 168, besting second-place finisher Wayne Gretzky by 19 in the latter category. Lemieux had 89 more points than his closest teammate, and the Pittsburgh Penguins missed the playoffs by a single point.

So Lemieux came within inches of carrying a team on his back to the post-season and did so at the peak of his powers at 22 years old. Does McDavid have a chance to repeat this feat? Of course, the very comparison implies McDavid will miss the playoffs. Sorry, but that’s indeed the prediction here. Hiring coach Dave Tippett isn’t enough to offset the fact a team that missed the playoffs by 11 points last season lists Markus Granlund, James Neal and Mike Smith as its top personnel additions.

So if we accept that the Oilers aren’t a post-season team, McDavid has to win the scoring race by a double-digit margin and/or at least get the Oilers close to a playoff berth to have a serious shot at the Hart. Edmonton doesn’t look like a team that will come close to the playoffs considering McDavid had a career-best 116 points in 2017-18 and it wasn't enough. But there is potential for a personal high water mark on the scoresheet, assuming his rehabbed knee holds up. At 22, McDavid falls in the same age zone (22-23) when most generational talents have posted their career-best seasons, from Lemieux to Gretzky to Sidney Crosby to Alex Ovechkin. If we’re going to see that supernova 140-point season, the type of ceiling only McDavid can reach, it could very well be this year. But it’s also possible Tippett trims McDavid’s minutes down from the 22:50 that led all forwards last season. Too many things have to go perfectly for McDavid to achieve 'The Lemieux Conditions' of 1987-88. McDavid is obviously still an elite contender for the Hart – but not the favorite.

4. JOHNNY GAUDREAU, CALGARY FLAMES

If Gaudreau kept up his torrid first-half pace, which projected to almost 120 points, he would’ve made a real run at the Hart last year. He still did despite a second-half swoon, finishing fourth in the vote. Even though he’s a winger, he has the ability to control a game like most centers can. To quote Flames coach Bill Peters when he spoke of Gaudreau at last year’s All-Star Game: “It used to be the center was the playmaking center and he was the driver of a line. And now you have a lot of guys who are playmaking wingers, and they’re acting as a center, and the center’s more of a goal-scorer, and that’s what we have with Johnny and (Sean Monahan)."

Gaudreau plays for a team that should challenge for a second straight division title and, with just a hint more consistency, he has a real chance to score 100 points this season. Among forwards with 1,000 or more minutes played at 5-on-5 last year, only four averaged more points per 60 minutes than ‘Johnny Hockey.’ To break through into the top-tier of MVP threats, he must build on the defensive improvement he showed last season. He set career bests in team shots and shot attempts against when he was on the ice.

5. ALEKSANDER BARKOV, FLORIDA PANTHERS

It’s long been established Barkov is one of the best two-way forwards in hockey. He logs obscene amounts of minutes, he tangles with the other team’s best players, he kills penalties, and he has an amazingly active stick. Among NHL forwards with 1,000 or more minutes played at 5-on-5 over the past two seasons, Barkov ranks 15th in defensive zone starts per 60, a list that includes all-defense forwards such as Jay Beagle and Luke Glendening. Barkov is also 10th in takeaways per 60.

But on top of that all-world defensive play, Barkov has finally delivered the offensive output to match his incredible hands, which belong in the same tier as Gaudreau’s, McDavid’s and Patrick Kane’s. Barkov exploded for 96 points last season. If he can stay above 90, with Selke-caliber defensive play, and if his Panthers finally return to the playoffs, we’re looking at an MVP candidate. Barkov’s overall profile is starting to resemble that of Sergei Fedorov – who, in 1993-94, became the first and only player to win the Hart and Selke Trophies in the same season.

6. SIDNEY CROSBY, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Crosby may not be a top-tier MVP threat anymore, but he’s probably the safest pick to be a finalist, having finished second in three of the past four seasons. His scoring ceiling can’t be any higher than last season’s 100 points anymore given he’s 32 but, when you factor in the two-way play, you get an all-around candidate with a similar case to Barkov’s. Crosby's 200-foot game was the best it's ever been in 2018-19.

“It was a bit more of a role playing against other team’s top lines,” Crosby said in June, reflecting back on his season. “That was just something that happened more for whatever reason.”

The biggest threat to Crosby’s MVP case could actually be the lack of a guaranteed playoff berth for a Penguins team that traded away Phil Kessel after finishing third in the Metropolitan and getting swept in Round 1.

7. AUSTON MATTHEWS, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Matthews is a shooter, not a passer. Since debuting in 2016-17, among forwards with 1,000-plus minutes at 5-on-5, he’s first in goals per 60 and 12th in shots per 60. He’s 108th in assists per 60. So if Matthews is to deliver an MVP-caliber season, it will be one in the mold of Corey Perry’s 2010-11 or Alex Ovechkin’s 2012-13. Matthews will do it as a goal-scorer.

And we certainly know that’s possible. As discussed in my Richard Trophy primer, Matthews is the most productive goal-scorer in the league on a per-60 basis. What he needs now are health, an increase in ice time from coach Mike Babcock, and to stay out of his own way and avoid any more scandals like the disconcerting story that surfaced this week of an alleged incident involving Matthews and female security guard.

Off-ice news notwithstanding: if we get a full, healthy, season from Matthews in which he plays more than ever, we could see 50 goals and an MVP award.

8. BRAD MARCHAND, BOSTON BRUINS

David Pastrnak or even center Patrice Bergeron could occupy this spot. Consider it reserved for any member of Boston’s big line, which is still the NHL’s best. Bergeron is the best two-play player of the group, Pastrnak the best goal-scorer, and Marchand is the top playmaker, racking up the fifth-most points in the NHL over the past three seasons. He tends to garner the most Hart love from the Professional Hockey Writers Association, perhaps because he brings extra intangibles with his disruptive penalty killing, agitation and occasional over-the-line play. Marchand finished fifth in the 2018-19 Hart vote following his first 100-point season.

9. PATRICK KANE, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Kane earns a spot on this list because he’s such a strong bet to finish near the top of the scoring race again. He quietly set a career high with 110 points last season. The problem: part of the reason why Kane scored so much was that the Blackhawks weren’t a great team. They allowed the second-most goals and shots in the league last season. Playing such an open style freed up Kane to run and gun as Chicago had to play catchup all the time.

It appears the Hawks will have the same problem this year – which should lead to another banner offensive season from Kane but also keep the team out of the playoff picture. If any non-playoff guy gets MVP support, it’ll be McDavid before Kane.

10. ALEX OVECHKIN, WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Goals don’t always correlate with MVPs. ‘Ovie’ has won six Rocket Richards in the past seven years but hasn’t even cracked the top five in the Hart vote since 2014-15. Because he sets up on the power play, where he plays more than anyone else in the league, and does so much of his damage with the same predictable-yet-unstoppable tactics, he doesn’t get enough credit for becoming a more complete player in recent seasons. Still, if he’s the best bet to lead the league in goals, I can’t leave him off the Hart list altogether.

Other 2019-20 Hart Trophy candidates to consider: Mark Scheifele, Mitch Marner, Taylor Hall, Artemi Panarin, Mark Stone, Sergei Bobrovsky, Ryan O’Reilly, Brent Burns, Elias Pettersson, Brayden Point, John Tavares, Tyler Seguin, Blake Wheeler, David Pastrnak, Steven Stamkos, Erik Karlsson, Sebastian Aho, Mikko Rantanen, Mathew Barzal, Carey Price, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Patrice Bergeron, Claude Giroux, Jack Eichel, Evgeni Malkin

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