To many, the 2017/2018 Hart Trophy will be a two-horse race.
But while it’s true that the Oilers’ Connor McDavid and the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby are the top two candidates for the NHL’s most valuable player award this season, it’d be a mistake to simply assume that one of them will take home the trophy next spring.
The Hart Trophy gets passed around more than a joint at a Willie Nelson concert. Nine different players have won the award over the last nine years, and there have only been two repeat winners (Alex Ovechkin in 2008 and 2009 and Dominik Hasek in 1997 and 1998) since Wayne Gretzky monopolized the award in the mid-80’s.
So don’t be surprised if McDavid doesn’t repeat, and it won’t be a shock if Crosby doesn’t win it either. Despite being universally recognized as the best player in hockey over the past decade, Sid The Kid has just two Hart trophies on his mantle.
Instead, let’s try to keep an open mind and consider these five dark horses to win the NHL MVP award in 2017-18.
1. Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs
It’s not crazy to think Matthews could claim the award in his sophomore season in Toronto. At least, that’s what odds makers in Las Vegas think, listing Matthews behind only McDavid and Crosby on their Hart Trophy odds for this season.
Edmonton fans get offended when Matthews is compared with McDavid, and I’m not here to suggest that the budding Leafs’ star is as good as the Oilers’ captain. But Matthews scored 40 goals last year as a rookie, and if you buy into the theory that experience makes you better, he could approach the 50-goal threshold this season.
Matthews already gets a ton of attention from playing in hockey’s most intense media market. If he can pot 50 and the Leafs can challenge for the Atlantic Division title, Matthews will get a lot of Hart Trophy love.
2. Patrick Kane, Blackhawks
I know that Jonathan Toews has been the face of the franchise for a long time, but the Blackhawks are Kane’s team now.
Only one player, Artemi Panarin, finished within 15 points of Kane’s team-leading 89 points last year, and Panarin is now in Columbus. The next-highest scorer on the Blackhawks last year was Toews, who collected just 58 points.
There’s fear that Kane’s offensive numbers might suffer without Panarin by his side, but Kane put up big numbers long before Panarin came along. In fact, Kane’s averaged at least a point per game in seven of his last eight seasons, including 106 points in his Hart-winning 2015/16 campaign.
After losing Panarin, Scott Darling, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marian Hossa and Trevor van Riemsdyk over the offseason, the Blackhawks are expected by many to take a few steps back this year. However, it won’t be a surprise if they take their customary spot atop the West, and if they do, Kane will be a huge reason.
3. Carey Price, Canadiens
Price isn’t one of the favorites for the Hart this season, but it’s hardly a stretch to think the Habs’ goaltender could take home the hardware.
Price has done it before, becoming the first goalie in 13 years to be named NHL MVP when he captured the award in 2014/15. He was also an early contender to win the Hart last year, receiving 12 of 13 first-place votes in an NHL.com poll conducted after the first quarter of the season.
Price’s save percentage (.923) and goals-against average (2.23) last year were his worst in the last three years. It was still enough to lead an offensively challenged Canadiens team to the Atlantic Division title before bowing out in the first round to the NY Rangers in six.
Montreal has bolstered its 15th-ranked attack with this summer’s acquisition of Jonathan Drouin, but any success the Habs enjoy this year will be due to their goaltender – especially if he returns to the form of previous seasons.
4. Jamie Benn, Stars
Benn has been on the radar of Hart Trophy voters before, finishing third to Kane and Crosby in 2016. That year, he almost single-handedly carried the Stars to the best record in the Central, elevating his game down the stretch after Tyler Seguin tore his Achilles tendon in mid-March.
Last year, things didn’t go nearly as smoothly for Benn or his Stars. Benn broke his nose in January and was limited to 69 points in 77 games, and Dallas was probably the most disappointing team in the league, finishing 11th in the West.
Fortunately, there’s great potential for a big bounce back year from Benn. Projected new line mate Alex Radulov is a three-time KHL MVP whose gritty puck-chasing style should complement Benn and Radulov nicely.
The acquisition of goalie Ben Bishop and more focus on defense under Ken Hitchcock should return Dallas near the top of the West. Even if Benn’s offensive numbers suffer, he’s a solid two-way player who can also receive recognition for his defensive play and leadership skills.
5. Erik Karlsson, Senators
We all saw Karlsson’s value to the Senators during last year’s playoffs. Had Ottawa reached the Stanley Cup Final (remember, they were an overtime goal away from beating Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final), Karlsson might have won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP regardless of who ended up winning the Cup.
Take Karlsson away from the Senators, and what do you really have? Not much. Only three other Senators’ players posted 40 points last year, and though goalie Craig Anderson signed a two-year extension last week, he’s not commonly included in anyone’s list of elite goaltenders.
Karlsson’s already a two-time Norris Trophy winner who some believe should have earned his third last season. And though Karlsson has always been best known for his offensive, puck-moving skills, he’s gotten a lot better in his own end and gained a lot of respect for playing through a crippling foot injury in last year’s playoffs.
Karlsson’s MVP chances could be hurt by that same foot injury, as he’s expected to miss opening night of the season. Once he returns, and he’s back to full health, any success the Senators enjoy this year will be directly attributed to their slick-skating Swede.
Who do you think will win the 2017/2018 Hart Trophy? Let us know below in the comments section.
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