If the 2014-15 season taught us anything, it’s that the margin between the best of the best seems to be smaller than ever. Is Sidney Crosby still the top player in the league? Yeah, probably. If you were starting a team from scratch (and you’re not a Flyers fan), he’s the guy you’d build around.
But he wasn’t even a finalist for the Hart Trophy. In fact, a goalie won the award for NHL MVP — and he won it going away.
Of course, Crosby did win the Hart in 2014 — his second time taking home the hardware. And Alex Ovechkin has won it three times. But there are several players at the very top of their game who have yet to receive that honor. So here’s a look at eight candidates with a very legitimate shot at being voted best in the league next season for the first time in their careers…
John Tavares, Islanders
He’s already been a finalist twice and, at age 24, he’s only getting better. He also has some decent weapons around him, and he plays the sort of game that makes all of his teammates better. New York suddenly finds itself in a pretty tough division, with the Capitals on the rise, the Penguins improved, the Rangers always near the top and the Blue Jackets emerging as a darkhorse capable of doing significant damage. Still, as long as the Isles can find their way into the postseason, Tavares will be a contender for this award on an annual basis.
Steven Stamkos, Lightning
He’s clearly one of the two or three best pure goal scorers in the world, having taken home the Rocket Richard Trophy twice by the age of 22. He’s 25 now, and coming off a year in which Tampa Bay came within two games of winning the Stanley Cup. Much like Tavares, he’s always going to be on the short list of viable Hart candidates as long as his team finds its way into the playoffs. And his supporting cast is about as good as it gets.
Tyler Seguin, Stars
Given the performance that Carey Price turned in last season, it’s tough to imagine a scenario in which anyone could have wrestled MVP honors away from him. Still, you can’t help but wonder how close Seguin might have gotten had he not been knocked out of the lineup due to injury for 11 games. As it was, he still managed 37 goals (No. 5 in the league) and 77 points (No. 7).
He’s right at the center of one of the most dangerous offenses around, he’s a natural goal scorer and he doesn’t even turn 24 until the middle of the season. As long as he stays on track, it almost seems inevitable that he’s going to win this award at some point.
Vladimir Tarasenko, Blues
Not only does Tarasenko score a lot of goals (58 in 141 regular season games over the last two years, plus another 10 in 12 playoff games), he scores them in electrifying fashion. Just ask the Rangers. And that dynamic style of play helps when the voters are deciding who should take home the game’s most prestigious individual award.
The Blues can’t seem to figure out the secret to playoff success, but they’re routinely right near the top of the regular season standings, which also helps.
Jamie Benn, Stars
Benn quietly won the Art Ross Trophy by piling up eight goals and eight assists in his final seven games last season. Well, assuming it’s even possible to “quietly” register 87 points. And it’s not as if he’s simply an assist machine — a characteristic that doesn’t tend to win the Hart — because he now has 69 goals over the last two years.
Skating alongside Seguin helps his numbers, but may also hurt him in the balloting, since he and his Dallas teammate could easily take votes from each other.
Patrick Kane, Blackhawks
In a way, it’s sort of crazy that Kane hasn’t garnered more attention for this award in the past. Then again, he tends to do his most damage in the playoffs — an attribute that suits Joel Quenneville and the fans in Chicago just fine.
Still, it is worth noting that Kane was on pace for 36 goals and 50 assists before he had his 2014-15 regular season cut short by injury. Those 36 goals would’ve been a career high, and the 86 total points would have landed him just one point away from the Art Ross.
Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks
He’s gone over the 80-point barrier three times (once over 90) and he gets a nice boost as the unquestioned leader of one of the better teams in the league. Some of Getzlaf’s biggest contributions don’t always show up in the raw stats though, and he’s not the pure goal scorer that some of the guys on this list are. Regardless, he’s been around the league long enough that most observers appreciate just how valuable he is.
Max Pacioretty, Canadiens
When most casual fans think of Montreal, they think of Price and his amazing play between the pipes. Or they think of P.K. Subban and his impressive production from the blue line and memorable suits.
But Pacioretty is the guy who makes the offense go, and he does a pretty remarkable job of it. The Canadiens don’t need to score a ton of goals to win on most nights, thanks to Price and Subban. So every bit of offense carries that much more weight. To that end, the Habs put up 221 goals in 2014-15, tied for No. 18 in the league. In 2013-14, they registered 215 (No. 21 overall). Still, Pacioretty knocked in 76 goals by himself in that stretch, meaning he has single-handedly accounted for 17 percent of his club’s scoring over the last two years.