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January 5, 2012 | 1:52pm ET


Never too early to have Hart
 Dennis Bernstein takes the first look at narrowing down the field for the NHL's MVP.

LOS ANGELES -- With the NHL season hitting the halfway point as the calendar turns to 2012, it's been both intriguing and entertaining, notwithstanding the large specter of the concussion issue that the League and NHLPA must address now.

With the hope that the two sides have a fireside chat in Ottawa during All Star weekend, we'll address the on ice efforts of the healthy competitors.

As a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, we're grateful and fortunate to be among those that vote for the major post season awards. The crown jewel that is the Hart Trophy, which symbolizes the League's MVP. There will not be a repeat winner this spring, regardless the amount of the goals incumbent Corey Perry will garner over the final 40 games. The Ducks' plummet to the nether regions of the Western Conference eliminates consideration of the London native by the voting class.

With the field wide open, we'll throw count down our front runners that based on their body of work through New Year's, are likely to be on the short list if they trend likewise:

4. Marian Gaborik -- Henrik Lundqvist is on a Vezina track, Brad Richards has been worth the big check, John Tortorella proves on 24/7 that's he's a great motivator, but the difference between the Rangers being at the top of the East, when compared to last season, is the production of the Slovak Sniper. He's already matched his production of last season and more importantly, is on track for 81 games played.

Coming into the season, critics said the team needed to score more and with Gaborik on track for 50 goals, he's mirroring Perry's season. Among his gaudy first half stats include four game winning goals and a plus-10 rating. If he's not the Hart winner, likely he puts the Rocket Richard Trophy on the mantle.

3. Evgeni Malkin -- Until the Sidney Crosby situation becomes more definitive, Malkin has come back with a vengeance from a catastrophic knee injury suffered last January. He's immune to the lack of attention paid to him in the light of his far more famous teammate, despite a season that has him third overall in scoring despite missing seven of the first ten Penguins matches.

Regardless of 87's status for the balance of the season, Malkin will carry this team through a three dog race for the Atlantic Division crown. There is no surprise that being after securing the No.1 pivot role, he had a huge run of points shortly thereafter. He will never get his proper due, but if the Penguins win the division and get a No.1 seed, he's probably your MVP.

2. Claude Giroux -- Everyone knew the breakout season was coming for Giroux, it was just a matter of when (Well, we knew, that's why he's on the cover of the winter issue of our magazine).

While Chris Pronger may prove to be the one irreplaceable member of the Flyers roster, the young star is its finest. When he missed four games due to a concussion, the Flyers only managed to win two.

The partnership with Scott Hartnell has the winger on track for a career best season in goals and points, while the Jaromir Jagr reclamation project is a go due to Giroux's feathery setups.

Not bad for a guy who was selected behind Michael Frolik and Trevor Lewis in the 2006 Entry Draft.

1. Jonathan Toews -- As our friend Tab Bamford will remind us, a healthy Marian Hossa is likely the biggest impediment to Captain Serious winning the Hart. Already possessing the Conn Smythe Trophy for his work in the Blackhawks' championship season, Toews has altered his game not unlike Crosby did a few seasons ago. When Sid was criticized for not scoring enough goals two seasons ago, he stepped up with eye popping stats to quiet those critics. Even with gunners like Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane, 2012 starts with Toews as the Western leaders leading goal getter.

With the Hawks lacking a legitimate scoring threat at second line center when the season commenced, JT already knew it was on his to step up the production. When you add to the mix that he leads forwards in time on ice, a faceoff winning percentage of almost 61 and has four game winning goals, it makes sense that the leader of the top ranked team in the NHL is the top contender at this point of the NHL season.


CLASSIC WINTER CLASSIC

Before we hit the City of Brotherly Love, we experienced an undercurrent of disdain for the Winter Classic, with the thread being the game is too far skewed to East Coast teams thus renders the game irrelevant for a major section of the United States and to some extent, Canada.

They're wrong.

This was our second Winter Classic, we attended the 2009 affair in Boston that pitted the Bruins against the Flyers and while the rotation of the teams does need to be expanded, the event is here to stay.

While the first time around for most things is usually the most special, what eclipsed the Fenway affair for us has little to do with the game itself.

The NHL set up a private tour of the Fens the day before the game including a trip inside the venerable Green Monster, so it's impossible to eclipse that. For the average Joe who spent likely triple the amount of their normal seat at TD Garden or Wells Fargo Center, it was money well worth spent. Of the 80,000 fans that were at the two games we've witnessed, we've yet to hear from a fan who said it wasn't worth it and that's because the League has played it perfectly, they've achieved something that was thought to be unthinkable.

The NHL has turned a regular season game into a moment of history and that's why NBC is able to sell out its advertising inventory while competing with various college football bowl games. Let the record stand that they're also smart enough to move the game off of an NFL Sunday, a celestial event that will occur only once every seven years.

The scale has become more grand with the inclusion of an awesome media partner in HBO, as their 24/7 vehicle has been the perfect primer to non-hockeyaholics and won't be disappearing anytime soon. It's as if all parties involved understood that the intrusions and distractions are necessary to serve the greater good, a greater imprint of the game in the sports fan collective mind. Even tough guy coaches like John Tortorella and Peter Laviolette concur.

"It's been a great experience. They have shown us as an organization and (the people presenting it) certainly understand how they need to handle themselves," Tortorella revealed in the depths of Citizens Bank Ballpark a few minutes after the Rangers third victory of the seasons against the Flyers.

"The players loved it, I look at some of the family things that these players are going to have on film with their family at a young age, it's great stuff. I have no problem being involved in this because (HBO) has been a first class outfit."

The other member of the coach's union echoed the same sentiments, noting the network involvement dialed up the attention more than a few degrees from the Flyers-Bruins match he participated in.

"The Winter Classic is a tremendous event and our organization is thrilled to be involved in it," Laviolette said. "To play in an atmosphere like tonight, the only disappointing thing is the result. HBO is what makes it, having the camera around, the way that put on the show for the last month, is very different than what goes on the hockey world.

"In saying that, HBO did a tremendous job handling themselves with a ton of class and respect to what we need to do. The product that comes out Wednesday night speaks for itself."

But Laviolette's final salvo showed that enough was enough: "Yeah, we're all ready to say goodbye to HBO."

The curious thing from a business aspect is that HBO 24/7 has been a vehicle exclusively reserved to promote an upcoming HBO pay-per-view boxing event like the phenomenally successful Oscar De la Hoya-Floyd Mayweather series that was another notch in the network's groundbreaking programming ability. While there's no evidence that any discussion have taken place, it's not a stretch to think that someday fans may have to pony up $24.95 a viewer for the right to view the spectacle.

As for fans in the Western part of the United States craving to witness a game, you should be checking eastbound flights for the end of December for the near future. Commissioner Gary Bettman conveyed to me in the post-game press conference that the possibility of a sunbelt Winter Classic just isn't in the cards.

"We are tightly controlling the number of outdoor games we have," he said. "There has been considerable debate, both outside my office and within the League and from the clubs. There are a number of clubs who say, 'I want this, and even if I've hosted it, I don't want to wait 10 years to get it back. So let's do more and more and more.' Other people say this has become a special event, because it's unique and that's something that, over time, we'll probably continue to wrestle with. But I don't think we are going to change the format in the short term."

Our guess for next year's model would be either the old Minnesota franchise versus new (Stars-Wild) at Target Field in Minneapolis or an original six matchup between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings in front of roughly 110,000 in the Big House in Ann Arbor.

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.


 

 

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