At last — it's September. The new NHL season is on the horizon following a thrilling playoff run that saw the Colorado Avalanche emerge as the Stanley Cup Champion.
What's in store for 2022-23? And who will take home the honors as league MVP?
Officially, the Hart Memorial Trophy is an annual award given "to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team." That wording is important: voters from the Professional Hockey Writers' Association weigh a player's role as well as his skillset and stats when they fill out their ballots at season's end.
Those voters are required to rank their top five choices, in order. And while it's still very early to lock in on which star will rise above the rest this year, here are five names that could figure prominently when the ballots are tabulated.
1. Auston Matthews - Toronto Maple Leafs
The NHL hasn't had a repeat Hart Trophy winner since Alex Ovechkin went back-to-back in 2008 and 2009. But as he turns 25 this September, there's every reason to think that Auston Matthews was finding his stride last season, rather than hitting a career peak.
On his way to a decisive Hart Trophy win, Matthews led the NHL in goals for a second-straight year. He also beat his personal season best by 26 points — all in just 73 games and after missing the beginning of the season following wrist surgery.
While their goaltending will look very different this season, the Leafs are returning all of their key skaters — still with something to prove, and now with Matthews just two years away from potential unrestricted free agency.
Look for another record-setting campaign from the reigning champ.
2. Connor McDavid - Edmonton Oilers
Turning 26 next January, Connor McDavid also hit a new high last season. He tallied 123 points on his way to his fourth Art Ross Trophy in seven NHL seasons.
After their playoff run to the Western Conference championship, McDavid and the Oilers are now ready to prove they can take the next step. Jay Woodcroft hit all the right notes after taking over as head coach and McDavid's chemistry with Evander Kane helped boost his production even higher in the playoffs.
McDavid already has two Hart Trophies to his name, from 2017 and 2021. This season, expect him to aim to re-establish himself as the best player in the NHL.
3. Nathan MacKinnon - Colorado Avalanche
This summer, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky and Valeri Nichushkin all parlayed career-best seasons with the Colorado Avalanche into lucrative new contracts. But they couldn't all stay with their Cup-winning club. Joe Sakic and Chris MacFarland have been conserving cap space for their next big impending UFA, Nathan MacKinnon.
Known for his relentless drive, MacKinnon now has his Stanley Cup ring. But for him, that sense of satisfaction won't linger for long. Now 27, he'll be looking to crack the 100-point plateau for the first time and potentially set himself up as the highest-paid player in the NHL as the Avs embark on their quest to repeat as champs.
MacKinnon has been a Hart Trophy finalist three times in his nine seasons. He finished as runner-up to Taylor Hall in 2018 and to Leon Draisaitl in 2020.
With the wizardry of Conn Smythe winner Cale Makar also on his side, watch for MacKinnon to make a solid case for his first Hart win this season.
4. Igor Shesterkin - New York Rangers
Since Dominik Hasek went back-to-back with his Hart Trophy wins in 1997 and 1998, only two other goalies have won this award: Jose Theodore with Montreal in 2002, and Carey Price in 2015.
Igor Shesterkin proved last season that he's the same kind of game changer, finishing third in Hart voting behind Matthew and McDavid. His .935 regular-season save percentage was 10 points better than his closest rival, Ilya Sorokin (.925). He also led the NHL in goals saved above expected in both the regular season and the playoffs, per MoneyPuck.
At 26, Shesterkin won his first Vezina last season — in his first year as a starter in an 82-game season. Expect to see him come back even stronger this year, and work his way into the Hart conversation.
5. J.T. Miller - Vancouver Canucks
Like MacKinnon, J.T. Miller is one year away from unrestricted free agency. And while he has been a top trade-rumor target for months and isn't believed to be close to a contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks, head coach Bruce Boudreau said on Aug. 31 that "I don’t anticipate (Miller) going anywhere."
Now 29, Miller has taken full advantage of his opportunity to play a key role since arriving in Vancouver in 2019. Last season, he led all Canucks forwards in ice time, averaging a career-high 21:05 per game while playing in all situations. He finished ninth in NHL scoring, with a career-high 99 points. And he has taken on a leadership role in the locker room — a fiery personality who holds his teammates accountable.
After a strong second half that saw them narrowly miss the playoffs last season, the Canucks are looking to take another step forward. That makes it tough for the new management team to deal Miller away even though their salary-cap situation looks tenuous in 2023-24, especially with captain Bo Horvat also in need of a new deal.
For now, Miller is saying all the right things about wanting to be in Vancouver and wanting to win. Until his next contract is signed, he has all the motivation in the world to raise his game to another level.