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NHL should love this year’s down-to-the-wire Hart Trophy race

Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire

Two months ago the battle for the Hart Trophy looked like a definitive three-horse race. In fact, the same could’ve been said even a couple weeks ago. And earlier in the year, people were prepared to award it to one specific player — before we even reached the halfway point of the season.

Turns out, that would’ve been a mistake. Connor McDavid is having a fantastic season and might still very well end up taking home the hardware handed out to the league’s Most Valuable Player. But we’re now experiencing one of the best races for the honor in recent memory. Sidney Crosby and Brent Burns are right there with — if not ahead of — McDavid. And Brad Marchand and Patrick Kane can’t be ignored any longer either.

Those aren’t even all of the players who could be one of the three finalists getting invited to Vegas for the Awards Show this summer. Erik Karlsson, Nikita Kucherov, Evgeni Malkin and Nicklas Backstrom have all had phenomenal years as well — the sort of efforts that would normally put somebody on the very short list of contenders. They could be on the outside looking in this time around, though.

In other words, this race is wide open. But there is still a point of view shared by some that it’s a forgone conclusion the Hart should just be handed to McDavid because he’s on the path to greatness and this would be a fitting coronation.

In all honesty, that would be one of the laziest possible cases for giving him the NHL’s most prestigious individual award.

Look, McDavid is an amazing talent. He was one of the most hyped prospects in the history of the sport, and he’s done absolutely nothing to disappoint anyone in his first 116 NHL games. He probably would have won the Calder had he been able to stay healthy all of last season, and he’s already one of the best players in the world.

On top of that, he may be the single most entertaining player in the sport when he has the puck. And the fact that he’s lived up to the monumental expectations heaped upon him is remarkable. That’s one of the most difficult things to do in all of sports.

The case for him winning the Hart is starting to dissolve, though. Not through any fault of his own, but through the impressive efforts of those around him. He was the clear leader earlier this season, and still has time to wrestle it back. His 80 points have him tied with Crosby for the league lead, and the argument most clearly working in his favor is the angle that the award should go to the guy whose team would suffer the most without him.

That’s a fair argument, but then the same claim could be made for Marchand out in Boston too. And that argument clearly wasn’t used when Kane took home the honor last year. Chicago would’ve been pretty good with or without him, after all. And if you’re talking about the top players in the game, all of their clubs would take a considerable hit if they stopped playing.

EDMONTON, AB – JANUARY 14: Edmonton Oilers Center Connor McDavid (97) looks for the best play against the Calgary Flames. (Photo by Steven Alkok/Icon Sportswire)

Working against McDavid is the fact that he’s currently tied for 27th in goals. As in, Anders Lee and Michael Grabner have more goals than McDavid does. Typically, the Hart Trophy winner outscores Anders Lee and Michael Grabner.

Granted, goals aren’t everything. And McDavid’s 55 assists tell the story of why he’s so important to the Oilers’ push for a playoff spot. But when the race is this close, it’s tough to overlook how far behind he is in terms of lighting the lamp. At the very least, it’s a pretty strong tiebreaker — and this could very well be viewed as a tie right now.

Crosby’s hat trick on Sunday afternoon may actually be vaulting him back to the top of the race. His 40 goals lead the NHL, and he’s tied with McDavid in total points — despite suiting up for six fewer games. He also plays much better defense than McDavid does at this point in his career, and is more useful in the faceoff circle.

When the best player in the game is defending a Stanley Cup by having one of the best offensive seasons of his career, it’s tough to poke holes in that MVP argument. Crosby’s broken the 40-goal barrier just two times in his career — and we’re going to tell him one of the seasons he did it in wasn’t good enough to win the Hart?

If that’s the case, there needs to be a better line of reasoning than “the Oilers wouldn’t be good without McDavid” coming back the other way.

It’s very possible Crosby doesn’t win it though, because of the different elements each of these contenders brings to the table. And Marchand might just be making the most compelling case of all to dethrone him because — like McDavid — his team probably misses the postseason without his performance this year. His 37 goals are second only to Crosby, and his 79 points are just one behind McDavid and Crosby.

Working against Marchand is the fact that he’s a winger, while McDavid and Crosby are centers. In theory, at least, the guys playing up the middle are able to impact the game in a wider variety of ways. Again though, Kane won last year. And he’s a wing.

Also working against Marchand is the notion that he’s not exactly Mr. Popularity. He’s narrowly avoided suspensions a couple times this year, which isn’t typical for the league MVP. Right or wrong, voters remember that stuff. And when the race is this close, every little x-factor counts.

That same issue of public perception could work against Kane as well. The Blackhawks forward has rapidly moved up the charts over the second half of the season, but would probably have to finish considerably ahead of everyone else statistically to pull off the back-to-back feat — particularly in a year where it’s as close as this.

There’s also Brent Burns, who brings a very unique component to this conversation as a defenseman having a historically impressive offensive year. His 70 points put him right up there among the top forwards in the league, and his 27 goals have him 11 clear of the next closest rearguard (Shea Weber). After that, he’s basically doubling all of the other top blueliners.

Burns has also been pretty solid defensively, but it’s seeming more and more likely that he’ll be hurt in the Hart balloting because he’s almost certainly winning the Norris Trophy already.

Ultimately, it’s going to come down to the final few weeks of the regular season. Which is the way it should be. McDavid could absolutely still win, but the conversation is getting complicated. If you take the literal stance that he’s the most “valuable” to his team, Marchand enthusiasts will quickly point to what their guy is doing for the Bruins. If you base the decision on who is having the best all around season, Crosby supporters probably win that debate.

Meanwhile, Kane fans can correctly note that few players have been hotter than him in the second half. And Burns is just an entirely different contender altogether, with his responsibilities on both ends of the ice.

Whether McDavid wins the Hart this time around or not, he’s going to win it soon. And often. His performance this year would be good enough to get his name called for the honor in a normal year, and the fact that he’s embroiled in such a hotly contested race right now isn’t a knock on him at all. If anything, it’s a reminder of how quickly he’s ascended to the point where’s he’s already among the best hockey players in the world.

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