By Allan Muir
There really ought to be an asterisk on the Hart Trophy to designate the years in which it is awarded to the NHL's best player instead of, as stipulated by the rules, "the player adjudged to be most valuable to his team."
Some years, that player is one and the same. This won't be one of those years because Sergei Bobrovsky isn't among the finalists. And there is no one in this league who more demonstrably had a greater impact on his team's fortunes than Bob.
That's not to overlook the achievements of the three players who made the cut: Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin of Washington, and New York Islanders' star John Tavares. You can make a solid argument for any of them as the league's top performer.
Crosby likely would have run away with the thing if not for an unfortunate collision between a Brooks Orpik slap shot and his jaw. The injury cost Sid a quarter of the season, diminishing his candidacy in the eyes of some, but obviously not many, voters. Fair enough. Crosby was in the midst of a magical year up to that point, running away with the scoring title as he piled up points at a rate of 1.56 per game. That's a pace, as SI.com's Sarah Kwak pointed out yesterday, that has been matched only by Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Eric Lindros during the past 20 years. Crosby notched multiple points in nearly half of his games (17 of 36) and finished fourth in the league with a plus-26 rating. Injury or not, that's a pretty stout year.
Ovechkin's bid is marred by a brutally soft first-third of the season as he struggled with the manipulations of coach Adam Oates, who hoped to revive his career by moving him from left wing to right. Once he gave in, he looked like the Ovie of old, just coming from a different angle. He finished the season on a thrilling tear, scoring 23 goals in his final 23 games to capture his third Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's top sniper. No arguing his value, either. Led by his resurgence, the Caps finished the season 11-1-1, rebounding from 15th in the East to capture the Southeast Division title.
Tavares' development took a huge step forward as he ranked third in the league with 28 goals. He led the Isles with 47 points in 48 games, willing them almost singlehandedly to their first postseason berth since 2006-07. Like Crosby, he played with a number of wingers -- not all of whom were quite first-line material -- but he continued to produce. And like Crosby, he imprinted his team with his humble but fiercely determined personality. This isn't his year, but his being in the Hart mix for the first time tells you everything you need to know about the respect he's earned around the league.
So, who wins? Without Bobrovsky's name in the hat, it's a toss-up. Do you take Crosby, who's season was brilliant from the beginning until it was cut short by injury? Or Ovechkin, who recovered from his early disinterest to finish at a level reminiscent of when he won the award previously in 2008 and 2009?
Given the support staff that Crosby has, and the ability of the Penguins to go on a 10-2 run shortly after he was hurt, and the rise of the of the Capitals that coincided with Ovechkin's rebirth, I'd guess that Ovie has the edge.