The Hart Trophy is Patrick Kane's to lose, and that's an understatement. In a vacuum, free of any opinions or speculation on his investigation, he's the best all-around player in hockey right now. If the season ended today, he'd win the scoring race by 16 points and join Sidney Crosby as the only other player this millennium to win by a margin that wide. Only Crosby, Jaromir Jagr, Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Gordie Howe have won by more than 16 in the modern era.
So, yes, Kane is the odds-on favorite to win the Hart as league MVP this June. But it's not like a computer determines the winners. Hockey writers, who are probably human, cast the votes. The Hart technically goes to the player judged most valuable to his team, and Kane has a lot of help in Chicago. Even teammate Corey Crawford has a stake to the MVP race. He ranks second to Kane in point shares among all NHL players this season, per hockey-reference.com.
The door for another candidate to win voters' hearts thus remains open, especially when every team has at least 14 games left to play. Who are the Hart dark horses? Consider these five names. Six, actually. I cheated. Keep in mind that, given how good Kane has been, everyone not named Kane qualifies as a dark horse.
1. Joe Thornton
Did we dream the whole feud between 'Jumbo Joe' and San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson? And all the trade rumors? Thornton is playing his best hockey in years. He has long been an unappreciated two-way player, regularly ranking among the league leaders in possession stats. Per war-on-ice.com, among the 491 players with 500 or more minutes this season, Thornton ranks seventh in the NHL in score-adjusted 5-on-5 Corsi relative. He dominates the shot attempt game, and the "relative" in that stat indicates he's not just benefitting from all the other Sharks having great seasons, most notably Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns.
Thornton has also peppered the scoresheet this season. His 64 points through 66 games rank him seventh in the NHL. He hasn't finished that high since 2006-07. His 0.94 points per game stand as his best mark since 2009-10. Thornton never stopped being a sound 200-foot player but, at age 36, he's reintroduced an elite offensive game. Jumbo has done it all this year. Better yet, he's saved his best for the stretch run, with 23 points in 18 games since the all-star break.
2. Patrice Bergeron & Brad Marchand
Two of the rare players ranking above Thornton in the aforementioned Corsi stat: Boston's powerhouse first-liners Bergeron and Marchand. Each has staked a strong claim to MVP consideration, especially in the New Year. Bergeron, we know, is the best two-way forward of his generation. I'll take it further and call him the best since Bob Gainey. Hyperbole? No way. If Bergeron wins the Selke Trophy this summer, he'll equal Gainey's record of four. Bergeron remains a workhorse shutdown pivot. He plays in every single situation. He leads the NHL in face-offs taken and hums along at a 57 percent success rate. And, like Thornton, Bergeron has really upped the offense. His 0.91 points per game equals his career-best mark and is essentially superior because the NHL was a higher-scoring league in 2006-07, the first time Bergeron scored at that rate.
Marchand just can't stop scoring goals. He's as prolific as Alex Ovechkin in the New Year. Ovie has 19 goals in his past 25 games. Marchand has 19 goals in his past 25 games. Four have been game winners. Boston's record over its past 25: 16-7-2. If that doesn't epitomize immense value to a team, nothing does. If you set aside that he's an agitating player people love to hate, he's a deserving MVP candidate.
3. Jamie Benn
Benn won the scoring title last year but finished just 12th in Hart voting. Was it because Dallas missed the playoffs? Voters can't use that excuse to rule him out this time around. The presence of equally talented linemate Tyler Seguin seems to water down voters' appreciation of Benn. It's too bad, as he's the game's best power forward. He's been the top pure offensive force in hockey this year besides Kane and perhaps Ovechkin.
4. Henrik Lundqvist
'The King' hasn't generated much Vezina Trophy love, let alone Hart buzz, but perhaps we should examine him closer. He's fifth in the NHL in wins, eighth in save percentage and fifth in shutouts. His numbers aren't as gaudy as those of Corey Crawford, Braden Holtby, Cory Schneider or Ben Bishop. But Hank's 5-on-5 save percentage of .942 leads the league among goaltenders with 1,000 or more minutes played. He has posted an SP of .922 or better in four of five completed months this season, and he sits at .930 since the all-star break. The Blueshirts have to hope he doesn't miss too much more time with his neck spasms.
5. Anze Kopitar
Kopitar happens to exist in the same era as Bergeron, a player who does so many of the same things well. Kopitar has finished fourth, second and third in Selke voting the past three seasons. Any swell of MVP support for Bergeron may cancel out Kopitar again. He deserves better. He's among hockey's most complete players. He posts stellar possession stats every single year. He's also scoring at his highest per-game rate since 2011-12. He has no holes in his game.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin