Chris Peters: My top 10 early-season candidates for NHL MVP
Our NHL expert picks out his early favourites for the Hart Trophy as the 2020/21 season begins to take shape.
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If there’s one thing the NHL’s divisional reshuffle is going to alter, it’s the perception of who should win the Hart Trophy as most valuable player in the league.
The writers that vote on the end-of-season awards won’t get the chance to see as many teams live this year, but in the age of streaming packages and easily-accessible statistics, that excuse doesn’t work as well anymore.
Either way, the vote still is going to be tough. There are many players making big impacts for their respective teams and several have a pretty reasonable claim to being most valuable to their teams.
As most teams have reached the quarter mark of their seasons, I thought now would be a good time to take a look at top MVP candidates across the league.
All statistics as of March 4.
1. Auston Matthews | Toronto Maple Leafs
There is not much separation at the top right now, but it’s hard to ignore what the best player for the league’s best team has done.
Though Matthews has dealt with an injury that has knocked him out of some games, his impact on the Maple Leafs is undeniable. He leads the NHL with 18 goals in 21 games and looks like he’ll run away with the goal-scoring title if he can stay healthy enough.
Though Connor McDavid has the most points in the league, Matthews has a distinct advantage in the defensive side of the game. The Leafs have been routinely outscoring opponents with Matthews on the ice. At the time of writing, Toronto is scoring 62 per cent of the goals at five-on-five with Matthews on the ice.
The big thing is that they’re scoring a lot, but they’re also able to prevent goals at a higher rate with Matthews on the ice than Edmonton can with McDavid. There is definitely a disparity in team quality, but Matthews has provided the automatic scoring that can put a team over the top.
2. Connor McDavid | Edmonton Oilers
He’s the best player in the game today and one of the most incredible talents of all time.
Leading the league in scoring is always a one-way ticket to being a Hart Trophy finalist. Assuming McDavid stays healthy, there’s a good chance he leads the league the whole rest of the way. McDavid is second behind Matthews in goals with 14 and has had so many big moments for an Oilers squad that is sure to make the playoffs this season.
Edmonton has not been a good defensive team as a whole and that has definitely hurt some of McDavid’s defensive metrics, but they’re notable enough. Plus, if the Oilers finish behind Toronto in the standings, that’s going to cost McDavid votes.
Either way, he’s as reliable a player as you’ll find in the league, and as long as he keeps putting up cartoonish points, he’s in the discussion.
3. Patrick Kane | Chicago Blackhawks
Currently tied for third in the league with 34 points, Kane is one of those players that you can’t imagine his current team without.
The Blackhawks have been one of the league’s most surprising teams despite the absence of captain Jonathan Toews. A lot of it has to do with Kane essentially being automatic this year with his ability to put up points. He leads the Blackhawks by 11 points and is tied for the team goal-scoring league.
Kane is the kind of player who makes those around him better - he's been involved in 47.2 per cent of Chicago's goals so far this season - and fellow winger Alex DeBrincat is looking like he’s going to put together a career year thanks to that ability.
4. Andrei Vasilevskiy | Tampa Bay Lightning
It is really difficult for goalies to win the Hart Trophy, but Vasilevskiy has made a strong case this season. He’s been the best netminder in the league with a .942 save percentage so far.
The defending Stanley Cup champs have leaned heavily on their No. 1 to give them a lot of minutes and he’s delivered.
With the Lightning’s most recent Hart Trophy winner, Nikita Kucherov, out of the lineup, his countryman has stepped up in a major way to make sure he's giving them chances to win, regardless of whether they're finding the net at the other end.
5. Mark Stone | Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights have two legitimate MVP candidates, but it’s hard to overlook Stone as the top choice at this point.
He’s one of the two-way forces in the game and has had a number of games this season that he simply took over and pulled his team across the finish line.
Averaging 1.26 points per game, Stone has shown incredible playmaking ability alongside his ultra-competitiveness to make things difficult on the opposition.
6. Anze Kopitar | Los Angeles Kings
Speaking of surprise teams, the Kings look a little ahead of schedule in their rebuild phase. A lot of that has to do with their core veterans stepping up in a major way this year, none more so than the captain Kopitar.
Already revered as one of the top two-way players in the game, Kopitar leads the Kings in scoring and has averaged over a point per game so far this season.
The Kings are fighting for a playoff spot in the West and, while they may not get there in the end, Kopitar is showing the next wave of Kings youngsters what it takes to compete when a lot of people have already counted you out.
7. David Pastrnak | Boston Bruins
If we do another list like this later in the season, I expect Pastrnak to be a lot higher.
Since returning from an injury that cost him the early portion of the season, he’s been a scoring machine - he’s fourth in the league in points per game and has already almost caught up to teammates Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron for the Bruins' scoring lead despite playing in seven fewer games.
He’s one of the great goal scorers in the game right now and has showed that by averaging .77 goals per game since his return. When he’s on the ice, he’s always a threat.
8. Mark Scheifele | Winnipeg Jets
I think Scheifele has had one of the quietest great seasons among top players in the league.
He’s not as big a star as some of the other guys on this list and certainly plays in a market that can be a little tougher to get the attention deserved.
Winnipeg has a more balanced scoring attack, which also may slightly diminish Scheifele’s chances, but he’s eight points ahead of his next closest teammate and is one of only seven players in the league with a 1.40 points-per-game rate or higher.
9. Marc-Andre Fleury | Vegas Golden Knights
After all of the drama surrounding Fleury last postseason, the Golden Knights goalie is showing he’s got a lot of gas left in the tank.
With Robin Lehner injured, Fleury has seized on his opportunity for more starts and is now second in the NHL with a .939 save percentage.
The Golden Knights are one of the league’s top teams and Fleury has looked every bit like a top goalie in helping them achieve that status.
T-10. Leon Draisaitl | Edmonton Oilers and Mitchell Marner | Toronto Maple Leafs
When you’re a forward who is playing with another MVP candidate, it’s easy to get overshadowed. Both of these players have to a certain degree, but both are going to receive well-deserved MVP votes when the season is over.
Draisaitl is second in league scoring right behind McDavid and actually has a better goals-for percentage at five-on-five this season.
Marner is in a similar situation - he’s also got a better goals-for percentage but slightly trails Matthews in the points-per-game hunt.
It’s going to be interesting to see how these two fare as the season rolls on and if they’re able to overtake their teammates. It’s not out of the realm of possibility and both are worth keeping an eye on for good value on futures.
Some other names to watch closely in the MVP race:
Nathan MacKinnon | Colorado Avalanche
Brad Marchand | Boston Bruins
Artemi Panarin | New York Rangers
Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau | Florida Panthers
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