Hart Trophy candidates who could benefit from Oilers' struggles

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TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 5: Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks on against the Edmonton Oilers during the second period at the Scotiabank Arena on January 5, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 5: Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks on against the Edmonton Oilers during the second period at the Scotiabank Arena on January 5, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

In recent seasons, there's been a general rule to live by when considering the Hart Trophy and the race toward Most Valuable Player in the NHL. If the Edmonton Oilers don't fumble the weapon and shoot themselves in the foot, and therefore manage to make the playoffs with the two most productive players in the league season in and season out, it boils down to not much more than a simple choice between Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Should they miss, well then, the floor is open.

Maybe the story of the NHL season right now — at least aside from the pandemic continuing to throw wrench after wrench at the league office — has been the Oilers' dramatic and chaotic fall after their incredibly impressive start. With just two wins since Dec. 3, the Oilers have slipped from a position of overwhelming strength in the Pacific Division all the way down to sixth, albeit remaining just a point back of the final wild-card position.

Despite the early-season probabilities and the presence of those aforementioned superstars, there is very much a world where the Oilers take an enormous step back this season. That means that every other star whose peak has lucklessly aligned with McDavid's and Draisaitl's should be sensing an opportunity right now.

In part due to the endless mismanagement in Edmonton, but more importantly the outstanding individual campaigns being built in other markets, one of the more interesting and debate-worthy Hart Trophy races is shaping up.

So, let's run down the contenders that can take advantage of an Oilers season which could command no accolades.

Alexander Ovechkin

It should be stated that Ovechkin's prime shares little overlap with the stars in Edmonton. The Washington Capitals mega-star is arguably more than a decade removed from the absolute peak of his powers, having failed to exceed 100 points in a season since 2009-10.

Yet, with the carrot of Wayne Gretzky's goals record dangling in front of the organization, the 36-year-old has pieced together one of the single-best starts to a season for his career, scoring goals and collecting points at the upper ranges of his entire 17-season NHL sample.

With 24 goals and 51 points in 36 games to start the campaign, Ovechkin is on pace for his third-most prolific goal-scoring season and a career-best 116 points. Most incredibly, he's doing it without outlandish power-play totals.

Though there have been no real indications of diminishing returns, it is worth wondering if Ovechkin can continue on this pace or, perhaps more accurately, something that closely resembles it. Ovechkin is one of few players, let alone superstars, to appear in all his team's games this season and he hasn't gone more than two outings without registering a point.

Also important when weighing impact, Ovechkin's resurgent numbers have driven meaningful results, as Washington's 49 points are two shy of the league lead.

Auston Matthews

In what could mimic the transfer of power on a much larger scale when it comes to the NHL's goal-scoring ecosystem, Auston Matthews appears poised for a charge toward more meaningful hardware in the second half of the season.

Since Dec. 1 — or once he shook off the effects of the offseason wrist surgery which cost him the first few games of the season — Matthews has been the league's most productive scorer, notching a league-high 21 goals in just 24 games. That pace has only increased over the last six weeks, and Matthews's 1.15 goals per game over that stretch has pulled him to within four goals of the league lead.

It's still a disproportionate number of goals compared to points for Matthews, who has never put up gaudy point totals as more of a shoot-first offensive player. Though that hurts his MVP case in theory, it's important to note that Matthews has been largely on an island during his current scoring binge, routinely scoring without the help of the mostly sidelined Mitch Marner.

If Matthews continues to score at the level he has, and the supporting talent compares to what other candidates have down the stretch with a healthy Marner, this could be the Leafs star's best chance to nab a Hart Trophy.

Nathan MacKinnon

Nineteen points behind Leon Draisaitl for the league lead, a cursory look at Nathan MacKinnon's season would suggest that he's out of any race for league honours. But when looking at per-game production, not a single player has shown to be on the level of MacKinnon, who is piling up points at a rate he hasn't managed at any point in his career.

MacKinnon's 1.62 points per game through 21 appearances is the NHL's high-water mark at this point in the season. With a career point-per-game player on the nose, the expectation should be that his production fades, but so far the Colorado Avalanche star is converting on a paltry 5.3 percent of his shots on goal.

With some positive regression in the goal-scoring category and the Avalanche hitting their stride after a difficult start, MacKinnon has every opportunity to emerge in the Hart Trophy race.

Jonathan Huberdeau

Jonathan Huberdeau might be third in line when listing Florida Panthers skaters in consideration for major individual awards, but with consistent high-end production for one of the league's elite teams, he's played himself into the conversation — or the conversation's periphery.

Fourth in NHL scoring with 13 goals and 46 points in 35 games, Huberdeau is driving immensely impactful results for the Panthers outside of Aleksander Barkov's minutes, which in itself might be considered the key to success for the team with the NHL's best record.

Cale Makar

It might be safe to assume that Cale Makar will have to win a Norris Trophy before truly entering the conversation for League MVP, but there are certain historical benchmarks that would trump that sort of measured approach — 40 goals by a defenceman being one of them.

With 15 goals in 27 games to start, Makar is on pace to comfortably clear a threshold that only two — Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey — have managed previously.

Forty goals would have to put Makar in the mix for the NHL's Most Valuable Player, but perhaps it's a pipe dream that doesn't properly contextualize how incredible his start has been. Through what amounts to a third of a season, Makar is already halfway to 30 goals — a mark that only eight defenders in league history have reached previously.

Thirty goals is a highly realistic outcome to the season for Makar, who would likely secure a Norris Trophy by adding his name to that exclusive group.

Victor Hedman/Andrei Vasilevskiy

Though each in the conversations, neither Victor Hedman nor Andrei Vasilevksiy are clear frontrunners for the respective awards at their positions. But with the Tampa Bay Lightning managing to exceed expectations after back-to-back Stanley Cups, competing for the league's best record even with Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point missing time.

After many key contributors exited in the offseason, voters will need to assign credit somewhere. Hedman and Vasilevskiy are the most obvious candidates after spectacular starts, and could potentially graduate beyond their positional award classes if Tampa continues to dominate in the regular season.

In particular for Vasilevskiy, a Hart Trophy would be befitting of the career he's put together.

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