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Top 10 Hart Trophy candidates for 2017-18

It's unlikely McDavid releases his vice grip on the big awards anytime soon, but he has some legit challengers for the MVP.

My 2017-18 NHL award predictions blogs conclude with the most coveted of all, the Hart Trophy for league MVP.

If you missed the other awards blogs, you can find them here:

We end with the Hart, the award tied closer to team performance than any of the other major ones. Since the Hart Trophy was first handed out in 1923-24, only three players have won it without making the playoffs that season: Al Rollins in 1953-54, Andy Bathgate in 1958-59 and Mario Lemieux in 1987-88. When predicting the top 10 contenders for the award this year, then, it only makes sense to factor in our team forecasts. For instance, I expect Jack Eichel to be one of the best players in the sport this season, but I can’t imagine him contending for the Hart since I don’t see the Sabres making a serious playoff push yet. He thus ranks outside the first tier of contenders.

1. Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers

No reason to overthink anything here. McDavid is the reigning MVP and only getting better at 20 years old. He should be one of the league’s best two players again, and he holds the tiebreaker over Sidney Crosby because McDavid has a larger influence on his team. Crosby is still massively important to the Penguins – hence his ranking on this list at No. 2 – but he does have Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel and Matt Murray and Kris Letang. McDavid’s supporting cast continues to improve, especially with Leon Draisaitl emerging as “his Malkin,” but it doesn’t quite measure up to Crosby’s yet. McDavid is as crucial to his team’s success as any player in the sport, and he’s the Hart Trophy frontrunner, especially with his Oilers rising in the standings.

2. Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh Penguins

McDavid insists Crosby remains the best player on Earth, and there’s nothing wrong with that assertion. Crosby is the most complete player, that’s for sure. He’s still an elite scorer as well, and he plays for the team we’ve picked to win the Stanley Cup. But the Hart isn’t awarded to the best player – or it’s at least not supposed to be. Crosby plays for the top team in the sport, whereas McDavid for now still feels like a dominant player elevating a good team to great, so Crosby sits juuuust behind McDavid in these rankings. The Professional Hockey Writers Association felt that way this past spring, too. Most of us slotted Crosby No. 2 on our ballots behind McDavid.

3. Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning

Kucherov ranked fourth in the NHL in points per game behind the top two guys on this list and Malkin last season. Kucherov tied for second in goals and fifth in points. He exploded for 19 goals over his final 22 games. Alas, he wound up eight in Hart Trophy voting. He was one of the NHL’s five most valuable players, but voters evidently penalized him for missing the playoffs. We predict the Tampa Bay Lightning not only return to the playoffs, but win the Atlantic Division this season. Kucherov should be just as stellar, only this time he’ll be perceived as more valuable since he’ll play on a winner. That makes him a legit contender for the Hart.

4. Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs

Matthews is the first Leaf to capture a major individual Trophy in 24 years, with Doug Gilmour’s 1992-93 Selke the last one, unless you count Alexander Mogilny’s 2002-03 Lady Byng as major. Matthews won his Calder on real merit, tying Kucherov for second in goals with 40. And Matthews has a real chance at the Hart Trophy this coming season, not because he “plays in Toronto,” but because he’s an emerging superstar playing on a Leaf team that appears poised to become a Stanley Cup contender, maybe even as soon as this season if it can shore up its defense. If Matthews crosses the 80-point barrier while also playing effective two-way hockey with his pick-pocketing skills, he’ll be one of the league’s most valuable players.

5. Carey Price, G, Montreal Canadiens

Price joins McDavid and Erik Karlsson on the shortlist of players who influence their teams’ fates the most. Price won the Hart with an amazing 2014-15 campaign. When he got hurt the next year, Montreal missed the playoffs. Price was healthy last season and, voila, the Habs went from out of the playoffs to winning their second Atlantic Division title in three years. If the Habs contend again in 2017-18, he’ll be more responsible than anyone for it, and he’ll thus land on many voters’ Hart radars.

6. Patrick Kane, RW, Chicago Blackhawks

Kane is an interesting name to watch this year. He captured the Hart with a dream season in 2015-16, busting out for 106 points. His best two offensive seasons are his past two, and he enjoyed both with Artemi Panarin on his line. Kane was obviously the chief reason for that line’s success, but it will be interesting to see if his production dips without Panarin’s sublime offensive skills complementing him. If Kane has another monster year with inferior linemates, it will highlight how valuable he is to the Hawks and vault him into the Hart race.

7. Jamie Benn, LW, Dallas Stars

Maybe Benn is in line for a career year. He’s healthy, and his Dallas Stars made a ton of improvements over the summer. A full season of Benn playing with Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov could produce monster numbers for all three players, and the Stars, armed with new starting goalie Ben Bishop, are our pick to win the Central Division. It’s not a huge stretch to imagine Benn putting up 90 points on a 50-win team.

8. Ryan Getzlaf, C, Anaheim Ducks

Getzlaf was one of the best players in hockey down the stretch last season. I interviewed him recently, and he said the Ducks’ bye week rejuvenated him. He looked five years younger while posting 34 points over his final 25 games last season, lighting up the scoreboard with linemates Rickard Rakell and Patrick Eaves. If Getzlaf carries that production into this fall, he’ll be one of the game’s elite players. He gets overlooked because he’s 32, but his all-around play, leadership and good team check off Hart Trophy boxes.

9. Brent Burns, D, San Jose Sharks

Burns won the Norris and finished fourth in Hart voting last season. He led the league in shots as a defenseman. He may be even more valuable to the Sharks in 2017-18, as Joe Thornton’s recovery from a serious knee injury could cause him to start his season slowly. The Sharks also lost Patrick Marleau to free agency and added no help. It didn’t seem like they could depend on Burns any more than they already do, but that should be the case this season. The only knock on his Hart chances: these depleted Sharks no longer look like a lock for the playoffs.

10. Erik Karlsson, D, Ottawa Senators

Karlsson deserves a higher rank on this list. He means as much to his team as anyone in hockey. He controls the game from the back end. But voters don’t seem to give him enough credit. He’s been robbed of two straight Norrises and has never finished higher than fifth in Hart voting. His off-season foot surgery could also cost him the first few weeks of the season. He’s a top-three player in the world but may play a shortened campaign on a team not guaranteed to reach the playoffs, hence him finishing a modest 10th on this list.

Other Hart Trophy candidates to watch:

Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets; Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets; Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins; Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues; Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning; Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames; John Tavares, New York Islanders; Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals; Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals; Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars; Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets; Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins; Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers; Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres; Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins; Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals


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