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MVP roll: MacKinnon makes his case for Hart Trophy as Avs go streaking

Nathan MacKinnon has continued to rise up the NHL scoring race all season, and with the red-hot Avalanche on the cusp of a wild-card playoff spot, it’s time to consider the Colorado star’s Hart Trophy case.

When THN voted on its mid-season awards, compiled here by colleague Matt Larkin, Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Nikita Kucherov was selected as the runaway winner of the Hart Trophy. With good reason, of course. Kucherov has been pacing the league in points since the start of the season, he’s in the hunt for the Rocket Richard Trophy and continues to challenge for the mantle as the NHL’s most lethal offensive player. It’s a selection few took issue with and were Kucherov to maintain his scoring pace and take home the Hart at year’s end, there wouldn’t be much to fuss about. As the top scorer on the top team, he’d be a no-brainer selection, the easy choice for the hardware.

If there was a case to be made against Kucherov, though, it might go something like this: was he really, in the most literal sense of the award, the league’s most valuable player? The NHL defines the Hart Trophy as the “annual award given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team.” And while Kucherov will most likely — given he stays healthy — end the campaign as the league’s top scorer, and quite possibly top goal-scorer, on a team that looks to be in line for the Presidents’ Trophy and a run at the Stanley Cup, he skates on a line with another Hart candidate in Steven Stamkos, plays on a Lightning team backstopped by a Vezina Trophy candidate in Andrei Vasilevskiy and, prior to a recent injury, often skated out with Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman manning the blueline. There are a lot of driving forces in Tampa Bay, and while Kucherov might be chief among them, he’s not the lone reason for the Lightning’s success.

If not Kucherov, though, then who? Well, if we’re to go by the league’s definition of the most valuable player, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to overlook Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon.

At this time last season, the Avalanche were the league’s laughingstock, a hapless bunch who seemed desperate for the season to end so they could close the book on the most embarrassing chapter in franchise history. When 2016-17 closed, Colorado finished with 22 wins, 48 points and as the punchline of countless jabs about on-ice futility. But on Monday in Denver, the Avalanche put the finishing touches on their seventh straight victory — nearly one-third of last season’s total — with a 3-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks. And firing home the winning goal for the second consecutive game was MacKinnon, who has made a habit this season of lifting Colorado to victory.

MacKinnon’s goal was his 20th of the season, his sixth game-winner, and 54th point on the campaign. It put him into the top 10 in goal-scoring and into a tie for second in game-winners as well as total points and points per game. The goal also stretched MacKinnon’s point streak to seven games, which not-so-coincidentally coincides with the Avalanche’s aforementioned winning streak. MacKinnon has been an unstoppable force, already eclipsing last season’s point total, and if he keeps up scoring at this rate is primed to end the season with 100-plus points for the first time in his career. But most importantly, MacKinnon has been the Avalanche offense. He has factored in on 38.3 percent of all goals scored by Colorado this season, which is the seventh-highest percentage among all players in the top 50 in scoring, not to mention slightly better than the 37.7 percent mark held by Kucherov. The next-best Avalanche scorer, Mikko Rantanen, has factored in on 29.1 percent of Colorado’s goals.

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The impact of MacKinnon’s play has been far greater than that of any other player, too, and you need not consider much else beyond the shift the Avalanche have seen in one season. With MacKinnon leading the charge, the Avalanche are primed to finish the campaign with 97 points. That’s 49 more points than last season, more than double the point total Colorado had over the course of the entire 2016-17 campaign. How significant a change is that? Last season, the greatest point increase was the Edmonton Oilers’ 33-point change. The Avalanche would surpass that increase by more than a dozen points. And a 97-point season would put Colorado in contention for a playoff berth, which is a scenario no one — and we mean no one — would have predicted at the start of the season.

Contention doesn’t mean the Avalanche make it to the post-season, however, and that might be the one argument most will have against MacKinnon as the league’s MVP. There’s some merit to that argument, too. The Avalanche presently sit two points out of the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference and four points behind the St. Louis Blues for the final berth in the Central Division. That said, Colorado boasts the fourth-best points percentage of Central teams and have games in hand on all but the Vegas Golden Knights and Nashville Predators. They have room to make up ground. Still, there is no guarantee the Avalanche make the post-season. And if Colorado fails to do so, it would certainly be a dark cloud hanging over his candidacy. But MacKinnon winning — or finishing as a finalist — for the Hart despite his team missing the playoffs wouldn’t exactly be unprecedented.

In 1987-88, Mario Lemieux won the Hart on the back of a 70-goal, 168-point season, but his production meant little to the Penguins’ playoff hopes. Pittsburgh finished dead-last in the Atlantic Division and third from the bottom in the Prince of Wales Conference. Granted, Lemieux won the goal-scoring crown by 14 goals and led the league in scoring by 19 points, but the fact remains that the Penguins missed the post-season and ‘Super Mario’ still captured all but nine first-place votes for the Hart. Reason being is Lemieux was, as the award itself declares, the player who brought the single-most value to his team.

Times have changed, though, and chances are a non-playoff finish for the Avalanche precludes MacKinnon from winning the Hart. After all, Lemieux is the one exception to what seems to be the rule — MVPs playing for playoff teams — in the post-expansion NHL. But if MacKinnon maintains this pace and Colorado earns a post-season berth, he’ll be worthy of much more than an also-ran finish behind Kucherov. The reality is that by the very definition of the award, the Avalanche star will have a case as great as any player in the league.

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