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An Obscure Name has Entered the Hart Trophy Race. Heard of Him?

In a season headlined by scintillating performances from the game's young superstars, Sidney Crosby has quietly carried a hobbled Penguins team to first place. He's a sleeper MVP candidate.

Connor McDavid continues to post the most mind-boggling offensive numbers of any player in his generation, lapping the field in the 2020-21 NHL scoring race, on track to join Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe as the only players to win three Art Ross Trophies by 24.

Auston Matthews keeps popping the twine with his electric wrist shot, burying an incredible 34 goals in 44 games, scoring at the highest per-game rate of any player in the past 10 years.

Those two superstars likely have the inside track to finish first and second in the 2020-21 race for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Their respective linemates, Leon Draisaitl and Mitch Marner, could get votes, while Patrik Kane, Aleksander Barkov, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, among others, have done remarkable work.

One name not mentioned much until the past few weeks? It’s pretty obscure. He doesn’t steal many headlines these days. He’s 33 years old. He hasn’t won a major award since 2017 and hasn’t won a major regular-season award since 2014. Oh, but he also happens to be arguably a top-five player of all-time and just became the second player in history to open a career with 16 straight point-per-game seasons. Goes by the name Sidney Crosby. He’s been carrying a perpetually banged-up Pittsburgh Penguins team on his back all season long, and he’s vaulted himself into legitimate MVP consideration.

If we start with the more obvious surface numbers, it’s apparent Crosby is having a great season. At 56 points, he’s eighth in NHL scoring. His pace pro-rates to 34 goals and 96 points over an 82-game schedule. He’s helped the Pens stake out first place in the East Division.

But if we view Crosby’s work through the prism of the Hart Trophy definition, in which the award goes to the player judged most valuable to his team, Crosby’s case becomes especially interesting.

His individual on-ice impact is undeniable. With him on the ice at 5-on-5, the Penguins outscore their opponents 34-23, and their margin without him is 72-61. So the rest of the team holds the same plus-11 goal differential as Crosby alone, despite the fact Crosby’s most common opponents faced are a who’s who of elite play-drivers. His top six most faced players this season: Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock and Adam Fox on defense and Brad Marchand, Josh Bailey and Patrice Bergeron at forward. Five of those six players are massively impactful.

With Crosby on the ice at 5-on-5, the Pens outchance their opponents 359-286. Without him, they’re outchanced 640-628. So they’re plus-73 with him and minus-12 without him. He’s driving the play despite consistently facing top-tier competition. Among 216 forwards with at least 500 minutes played at 5-on-5 this season, he grades out as good but not elite in metrics like points per 60 and primary assists per 60, but that’s likely because of his defensive responsibility. He’s ranks second among all NHL forwards in neutral zone starts per 60, and the top 10 is populated with two-way pivots such Bo Horvat, Joel Eriksson Ek and Jordan Staal and pure checkers such as Barclay Goodrow and Casey Cizikas. Crosby also sits in the 93rd percentile in takeaways per 60. On top of his major two-way responsibility, he’s been a man on a mission since his co-superstar center, Evgeni Malkin, went down with a lower-body injury in mid-March. Since Malkin’s last game, March 16, the Penguins have gone 14-4-2. Crosby during that 20 game stretch: nine goals, including two game-winners, and 27 points in 20 games. He’s playing some of the most meaningful hockey of his career, elevating an injury riddled team to first place.

So does that mean Crosby has a chance to pull a 2017-18 Taylor Hall and snatch the Hart from McDavid? Doubtful. McDavid is the most valuable player in the league by any measure in 2020-21, not just because of the eye-popping point total. At 5-on-5, the Edmonton Oilers are plus-88 in scoring chances with McDavid and minus-183 without him. Absolutely staggering.

So McDavid should end up winning his second MVP this season, deservedly so. That sentence is bolded to calm down any enraged Oiler fans fearing another snub for No. 97 after seeing the headline of this article. But No. 87 has a strong case to appear as one of the three finalists. And if Crosby doesn’t win a Hart…what about the Selke?

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