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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.