Undercover MVPs: Five early sleeper candidates for the Hart Trophy

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Let’s say the season ended today. It doesn’t, of course, but let’s just say it did. Who wins the Hart Trophy? Has to be Connor McDavid, right? The Edmonton Oilers captain is leading the league with 51 points, he’s third in the league with 19 goals, his 22:19 average ice time is second-most among all forwards and, I mean, come on, he’s Connor freakin’ McDavid. His ability to slice and dice defensemen and end up on the highlight reel at least once per outing has to come with a little extra MVP clout.

That McDavid is the odds-on favorite – and he is – through little more than one-third of the campaign isn’t altogether surprising. Barring his first season, of which he missed nearly half the campaign, McDavid has finished top-five in Hart voting in each of his NHL campaigns, winning the award as a sophomore and finishing third on a bottom-of-the-barrel Oilers outfit last season. So, that he finds himself the frontrunner at a time when Edmonton sits atop the Pacific Division, second in the conference and tied for fifth in the entire NHL is in no way an earth-shaking revelation.

That’s not to say McDavid doesn’t have competition. Teammate Leon Draisaitl has been in lockstep with McDavid in the scoring race, and some might even argue Draisaitl has as much claim to the Hart. Based on five-a-side production, Draisaitl actually has the scoring edge, three points clear of McDavid. Then there’s Brad Marchand, who is tied with McDavid with 27 5-on-5 points and ranks third in overall scoring with 44 points. The Bruins winger is also a two-way dynamo, logs plenty of time shorthanded and plays all the important minutes for a Boston side that is arguably the best team in the league at this point in the season. You can go ahead and add the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon to the mix, too. And, hey, why not show Washington Capitals blueliner John Carlson some love? He’s on pace to score like no other defenseman in the post-lockout era.

But if those five are the proverbial cream of the Hart Trophy crop with one-third of the campaign in the books, who are some of the fringe candidates who are flying under the radar?

Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes
Real stunner to see Kuemper on this list, surely. Obvious as his recognition might be, though, it can’t be said enough just how well Kuemper has played this season. He’s tied for eighth in the league with 11 wins, his .936 save percentage is tops among goaltenders with at least 10 appearances, his 1.97 goals-against average is the lowest and his .941 SP among goaltenders with at least 500 minutes played at 5-on-5 ranks second. Kuemper is playing the best hockey of his professional career and his play – along with that of Antti Raanta – has been the backbone of the Coyotes’ success. Arizona is in line to snap their playoff drought this season. If they ultimately accomplish that, Kuemper, who received one Hart vote last season, will be a big, big reason why.

Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
As colleague Steven Ellis outlined earlier this week, we’re witnessing Eichel’s maturation from standout offensive player to legitimate top star. He has been exceptional through the first 28 games of the Sabres’ campaign, notching 17 goals and 38 points. He’s 16 points clear of the next-highest scorer in Buffalo and Eichel is averaging more ice time per game than all but defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. Much like the Coyotes, the Sabres are striving to snap a years-long playoff drought and after a quick start and a rocky stretch, things seemed to have levelled out in Buffalo. If Eichel can continue to pace the Sabres and puts them in a position to enter the post-season, be it by way of the wild-card or a divisional berth, you can rest assured there will be some Hart support.

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
Huberdeau is one half of arguably the most underrated one-two punch in the NHL, and his influence on the Panthers’ success this season can’t be understated. That’s especially true when what was perceived to be one of the team’s greatest strengths, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, has, in fact, been one of Florida’s greatest weaknesses. The reason that isn’t getting more mention, though, is because Huberdeau has been magnificent. He’s tied for eighth in league scoring with 33 points and, along with Aleksander Barkov, has been an offensive catalyst for the Panthers. The attack has had to drive the results in Florida, too. Despite ranking seventh in the NHL with 93 goals for, the Cats also rank seventh-last with 94 goals against. As goes the offense, so go the Panthers, and right now, they’re staying in the playoff hunt.

Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers
There is no one – no one, I say – who expected the Rangers to be in the running for anything other than top odds in the draft lottery this season. Truth be told, that was almost by design, too. New York is rebuilding, and rebuilding means taking your lumps in order to land some top talents through the draft. But if dropping to the bottom of the NHL was the Rangers’ intention, they haven’t done a great job of it. For that, they can thank Panarin. The summer’s biggest signing is pacing the Blueshirts with 12 goals and 33 points, is averaging more ice time than all but Mika Zibanejad and Jacob Trouba and has helped the Rangers stay in the playoff mix. Through their 26 games, New York has a .558 points percentage. Only eight Eastern Conference teams have been better.

Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
Only one goaltender has won the Hart in the post-lockout era and only two in the past 20 years. And, frankly, that’s the only reason we’re going to consider Hellebuyck a mere fringe candidate. Otherwise, the Vezina Trophy frontrunner has all the reason in the world to be considered one of the most valuable players in the league this season. After Winnipeg saw almost complete turnover on their blueline – Josh Morrissey and Dmitry Kulikov are the only mainstays – many expected the Jets to drop off precipitously this season. Hellebuyck has been one of the main reasons that hasn’t happened. He’s tied for the league lead with 14 wins, his .934 SP is tied for second among goaltenders with 10 appearances and his 2.17 GAA ranks fourth among the same group. But the kicker? His underlying numbers. Of the 43 goalies with 500 minutes at five-a-side, Hellebuyck’s .943 SP, 14.3 goals saved above average and .84 GSAA per 60 minutes all rank first. He keeps this up, MVP chants are going to ring out inside Bell MTS Place by season’s end.

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