Hard Hits: A Hall of a Hart race


HARD HITS

By Derek Felix

As March rolls in with thunder snow courtesy of the latest, craziest bomb cyclone that dumped between 10 inches to over a foot of the white stuff Wednesday, there’s a similar storm brewing for the NHL’s Hart Trophy.

With just a month left, the MVP race is wide open. Chalk full of contenders, it’s anyone’s guess who will wind up taking home the hardware in Vegas this June. It largely could depend on how the NHWA defines what a most valuable player stands for.

If it’s based on team success and likely winning the scoring title, then Lightning sniper Nikita Kucherov would win. The electrifying Russian leads the league with 86 points (33-53-86) on first overall Tampa Bay. A terrific scorer who can do damage finishing and setting up with his 53 helpers tops in the NHL, he’s been part of a dynamic duo with Steven Stamkos. After nearly carrying the Bolts to the playoffs a year ago with 85 points, his 86 is already a career high in 65 games.

Only 24, Kucherov continues to excel. Of his 33 markers, just six have come on the power play. That means he’s done most of his damage at even strength sniping another 27 past goalies. The breakdown is 55 points at even strength and 31 on the power play. He has six game-winners and remains lethal on breakaways. Just ask Braden Holtby. There’s a reason he was our preseason Hart pick. All signs pointed to a breakout with a Art Ross possible. He leads comrade Evgeni Malkin by two points. It should be a exciting race down the stretch.

Malkin has stayed healthy this season for the Penguins. What that means is dominant play by the lanky Russian who’s been in beast mode for a while. Ever since the two-time defending champs found themselves in trouble on the outside of the playoffs in January, Geno has taken off like a speeding rocket. He’s back to dominating shifts and games with his dynamic skills.

The combination of size, speed and edge have always made the former MVP and Conn Smythe winner a scary player for opponents to deal with. It’s always been about health. He won’t play in 82 games. However, the 64 he already has show that he will come close. Here we are with quite possibly the most overlooked superstar of our time due to Sidney Crosby and oblivious writers ignoring his greatness by excluding him from the Top 100 Players List All-Time. How in a world where Jonathan Toews is somehow in that list is Malkin not? Could it be due to Canadian bias? No disrespect meant to Toews, who’s been a fine two-way player and leader of three Blackhawks Stanley Cups.

Malkin has climbed up to second in scoring with 84 points with his 38 goals tied for second with Winnipeg’s sophomore sensation Patrik Laine, trailing NHL leader Alexander Ovechkin by two. On a talented team that includes Crosby and overlooked American scorer Phil Kessel, Malkin has shined most with a huge second half that’s put him in the MVP conversation. With 38 goals and 46 assists, he leads the Pens in scoring. His 13 power play goals rank third in the league behind Stamkos (15) and Laine (17).

The 31-year old has a chance for his fourth 100-point season of his career and first since taking the Hart in ’11-12 with a career best 50 goals to go with 59 assists for a league-leading 109 points. Ironically, he hasn’t appeared in at least 70 games since that year. He has seven game-winners and also 65 penalty minutes. That’s who he is. A tenacious player who won’t back down. His production breakdown is 52 points at even strength and 32 on the power play.

If it came down to only the scoring title on contenders, Kucherov and Malkin would be 1-2 with everyone else behind. But the award shouldn’t just reward the game’s best scorers on great teams. Let’s face it. The Lightning and Pens have a leg up on most of the competition which benefits its stars.

What about the overlooked player who doesn’t get the same offensive support trying to will their team to the playoffs when most pundits including this blogger had them missing?

The emerging candidate packing a lot of punch is Devils leading man Taylor Hall. Following a disappointing first year in New Jersey on a bad team after being acquired by GM Ray Shero from the Oilers for defenseman Adam Larsson, all Hall has done is lift his team on his shoulders into the first wildcard. On a rebuilding team that wasn’t expected to be in this position due to 2017 first overall pick Nico Hischier along with youngsters Jesper Bratt, Will Butcher, Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha, Hall has been head and shoulders the best player on his team.

Currently on a unofficial streak of 26 straight games he’s played in with at least a point, the 26-year old Hall has finally figured it out with his new team. Having never been part of a postseason before, he’s done it all for Jersey’s team. It’s truly been a Hall of a effort by the 2010 first overall pick of Edmonton.

How important is he to the Devils success? Try this. He not only leads them in scoring with 74 points which include a career high 30 goals and 27 power play points (10-17-27). But those 74 are 33 more than rookie Hischier’s 41 which rank second in team scoring. The 30 goals are 14 better than Kyle Palmieri’s 17 which is second. He’s done this with injuries limiting Palmieri to 48 games. Finally rounding into form, he’s come on lately climbing up to third on the team with 33 points.

There’s a significant difference separating Hall from most of his teammates. It’s not just his skill level but his will. His compete has been much better in Year Two in Newark which explains his success. It’s why Devils fans serenade number 9 with “MVP! MVP! MVP,” chants at The Rock. He deserves it.

More than any other player in hockey, Hall has done more with less. Don’t forget starting goalie Cory Schneider has also missed significant time and not performed up to expectations. The Devs have had to rely on backup Keith Kinkaid for some big wins. They’re not always pretty. But due in large part to Hall, they get the job done.

When scoring dried up until the other night in a wild 6-4 home win over the Canadiens in which vets Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle scored big goals, it’s basically been the Taylor Hall Show for the Devils. When they need a big play, he makes it. When they need a clutch goal, he scores or sets it up. He has been unbelievable since the start of 2018. How special has he been? Try 18 goals and 20 assists for 38 points with a plus-11 rating and three game-winners including two in overtime for huge extra points factoring into the first tiebreaker of ROW (regulation and overtime wins).

More impressive is Hall’s home/road splits. He has two more points away from home with 38 (17-21-38) in 31 road games compared with 36 (13-23-36) in 31 home games. A commendable output that shows even when coach John Hynes doesn’t have the match-up, Hall fares well against the best quality competition.

With another important game tonight against the very tough Winnipeg Jets at home, Hall will be counted on to lead the way down a tough stretch that includes a visit to Stanley Cup contender Nashville on Saturday followed by a stiff challenge in Vegas next Wednesday. With 76 points, 30 ROW and 15 games left, it’ll still be a uphill climb for Hall and the Devils to make the postseason for the first time since 2012. They are currently in the first wildcard three up on second wildcard Columbus and five clear of the surging Panthers, who have three games in hand. If they do make it, Hall has to be at the top of the MVP list.

Perhaps his chief competition is Colorado’s 22-year old young gun Nathan MacKinnon. He’s really taken off since Matt Duchene departed in a three team blockbuster trade with Nashville and Ottawa that sent Duchene to the Senators with Kyle Turris winding up on the Predators. The Avalanche did well getting defenseman Samuel Girard along with good prospects and high draft picks.

Sometimes, less is more. For the surprising Avalanche who are tied with the Kings with 77 points competing for the second wildcard, they have to be pleased with the progress after a forgettable season a year ago that made them a laughingstock. No one had them being this competitive. You can make the case that if MacKinnon gets this team in, he should win the Hart over Hall. But he does have more help. So let’s get to it.

In only 58 games, MacKinnon has 78 points which leads the Avs. The 32 goals, 46 assists, 78 points, 12 power play goals and jaw dropping 10 game-winners (tied for second with Brayden Point trailing Sean Monahan-11) are all career highs. He is a special talent. The fifth-year center has put it together. If the past three seasons were underwhelming following a 63-point rookie campaign in ’13-14 after being taken first overall over Panthers emerging superstar Aleksander Barkov, he’s more than made up for it this season.

The first line of MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen have been front and center in Colorado’s emergence from the butt end of jokes to a potential headache if they make the playoffs. It’s rare that that happens. But in the curious cases of both the Avalanche and Devils, they each could be tough outs. Both are led by great players who are finally discovering how good they can be.

MacKinnon has a flair for the dramatic scoring three OT winners including one on a ridiculous solo effort that had me in awe. In a year where he missed time which hurt his team’s chances, he’s come back with a vengeance. After missing most of last month, he’s put up 17 points (8-9-17) in only nine games. In fact, a heroic five-point effort (2-3-5) in a blowout home win over the Wild on March 2 even left Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau speechless. He gave MacKinnon high marks.

The big question is this. If Colorado doesn’t make it which is a distinct possibility given the competition, would that hurt his candidacy? Most writers like to cast their votes for players who got their team in. Look how many voted for Sergei Bobrovsky last year. He finished a distant third behind Crosby and McDavid.

The Avalanche are in this thing without top defensemen Erik Johnson with Semyon Varlamov having another injury riddled inconsistent campaign on a team who missed Johnson’s leadership. If they do qualify for the postseason, it might be enough to give the edge to MacKinnon, who has the best points-per-game average. It all depends on how it plays out.

A couple of other emerging candidates are Bruins’ pest Brad Marchand and the Wild’s Eric Staal. Marchand remains a head scratcher due to his penchant for dirty plays like the elbow that concussed key top six Devils forward Marcus Johansson following a whistle. He was suspended five games. Johansson meanwhile hasn’t returned with not much in terms of updates.

If he were a clean player, he’d be a lot more respected by peers and press. A recent hat trick and five point performance in a overtime win over the Red Wings highlighted by a Marchand backhand OT winner in a Boston victory is definitive proof of how dominant he can be. The same player who’s hated by most is very skilled. He’s followed a career high 85 points which included personal bests in goals (39), assists (46), even strength points (56), power play points (24) and game-winners (8) with 66 points in just 51 contests. The five-game ban along with a injury explains why he hasn’t taken part in more action.

The 29-year old from Nova Scotia who was a integral part of the Bruins Stanley Cup in 2011 is one of the league’s biggest bargains with a AAV of $6.125 million thru 2022. Imagine a super pest who is over a point-per-game that can both score and set up clutch goals who plays in any situation and can flat out dominate shifts in the offensive zone with his speed and tenaciousness along with elusiveness. He also is money on breakaways possessing great hands. He can beat goalies with the deke to the backhand or wrist shot top shelf.

This is a very dangerous and polarizing hockey player who finished seventh for the Hart a year ago with Edmonton’s Connor McDavid winning the award. Truthfully, Marchand is a top 10 player who’s proving he can still be a big factor minus the game’s best overall center Patrice Bergeron, who himself was having a MVP season.

Think of him as a more skilled Claude Lemieux. The comparison might draw criticism. But Lemieux was a winner helping Montreal win as a rookie and New Jersey win twice and Colorado once. He was every bit as dirty but when it came down to money situations, he was clutch. So, what are his chances? Well, given his track record and another deep field…

Maybe a dark horse is Staal. A well liked and respected veteran who once led the Hurricanes to Lord Stanley over a decade ago after the lockout, the 33-year old number one center on the Wild is having his best year since he was in his prime with Carolina. If you consider what he’s done in St. Paul when many including myself thought wrong about where he was in his career following the Rangers mishap due to Alain Vigneault, Staal’s been nothing but brilliant.

He’s followed up a 65-point ’16-17 with a even better ’17-18. His 36 goals, 67 points, 11 power play goals and two shorthanded goals all pace the Wild. The 36 markers are his most since getting 40 in ’08-09 as a 24-year old. Amazing. It’s his first 30-goal season since ’10-11 when he notched 33 with the Canes.

How hot has he been? Centering a very overlooked top line that includes Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker, Staal has the Wild third in a loaded Central Division with 83 points. It’s the most competitive division in the league with Nashville and Winnipeg battling for first. The Preds lead the division with 95 points which is six ahead of the Jets. Minnesota is three up on first wildcard Dallas and six clear of Colorado and Los Angeles.

Staal is at a point-per-game with 67 points in 67 games so far. He has six goals and eight points in the team’s last three wins. In a victory over the Blues, he recorded his first hat trick as a member of the Wild while adding two helpers. He also torched the Rangers for four points (2-2-4) on Feb. 23 to go over 900 points for his NHL career. An empty net goal in a road win at New Jersey gave him 900. In February, he was on a tear going 13-8-21 with a plus-11 rating to earn the NHL’s First Star of the month.

With Zach Parise a shell of himself due to wear and tear, it’s up to Staal and his line along with Ryan Suter to get Minnesota to another postseason. Assuming they qualify, they won’t be a easy out.

You could mention other players for the Hart as well. Bergeron was in my list before he got hurt. In 55 games, the certain Selke winner was 27-27-54 with a plus-26 rating, nine power play goals, two shorthanded goals and five GWG’s. Blake Wheeler has had a great season with Winnipeg posting 75 points (18-57-75) to lead the Jets into one of the West’s best.

Some have mentioned Claude Giroux from the Flyers with his bounce back season of 23-56-79 and a plus-17 rating in 67 games a big part of the Flyers surprising season that currently has them third in the Metro Division with 79 points. Two behind the Caps and three off first place Pittsburgh. However, he’s shifted to wing with Sean Couturier picking up added responsibility on a unique top line that features emerging second-year forward Travis Konecny. It hasn’t been only one player with plenty of contributions from Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov on the blueline.

So who will win? My guess is they’ll vote for Kucherov because he’s on the best team. I could see the vote being close but also wonder if Malkin will take away votes from Hall and MacKinnon. This has been a fun season despite where the Rangers are in the standings. The Hart race remains hard to predict. It should be one hell of a conclusion.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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