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March 17, 2011 :: 5:12pm ET
Ya gotta have Hart
With the trade deadline over and the post season still weeks away, our attention turns to the MVP candidates

LOS ANGELES, CA -- When I started sports writing over a decade ago, I never dreamt I'd have the opportunity to vote for the NHL post season awards. The fact that I was getting into hockey games for free suited me just fine as the lone inducement, but when presented with the responsibility of casting a ballot for awards with the legacy of the Norris, Calder and Selke it was simultaneously humbling and exciting.

While we've paid little attention to post season hardware candidacy so far, a question I received the other night commenced the consideration of individuals for the granddaddy of them all, the Hart Trophy. For the lesser informed, the Hart recipient is the league's most valuable player and the hardware is named in honor of Canadian Dr. David Hart.

Dr. Hart, who donated the original trophy to the NHL, was the father of Cecil Hart, a former Coach and General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens. Wayne Gretzky took home the trophy a record nine times, including eight consecutively and in further support of the greatness of the winners, with the exceptions of Tommy Anderson, Al Rollins and Eric Lindros, every eligible player who won the Hart Trophy has been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Last season, the Vancouver Canucks' Henrik Sedin wrestled the trophy away from the two year stranglehold the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin had on the award. Sedin was the league leading scorer, an accomplishment that garnered him the Art Ross Trophy as well, but more importantly signaled the realization of the potential that's accompanied (and dogged) both he and his twin brother, Daniel since they entered the league for the 2000-01 season.

As for this season, the numbers appear to bear out the fact that the Hart wouldn't be leaving the Sedin family. Daniel, the left winger of the clan, leads in the scoring race and is second to Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos for the goal-scoring title. With the Canucks likely to end the season with the NHL's best record, it's apparent that Daniel will be presented with the Hart at the NHL Awards ceremony in Las Vegas in June.

Well, not exactly.

There's a large camp that says that Daniel Sedin isn't even the most valuable player on his team and I'm one of them.

I've seen the Canucks play four times in person so far this season and the virtuosity of the brothers is unquestioned. They make the most difficult game in the world to play look easy with their smooth strides and accurate shooting. Unfortunately for Daniel, one of his teammates is experiencing a breakthrough season that will take many votes away from his tally when they're casted not soon after the regular season concludes (the post season trophies do not take into consideration playoff accomplishments).

Ryan Kesler, the Canucks second line center, a fact that gives testimony to the depth of the Stanley Cup favorites, was considered a solid 2nd pivot and a Selke candidate for his defensive work before the start of this season. The Livonia, Michigan native came out of the box on fire and stayed that way all season. He's experienced a career year and may reach the 40 goal plateau if he's not rested down the stretch by coach Alain Vigneault.

With the Sedins consistent year-to-year performance and production, the argument goes that Kesler's rise has been the defining factor in Vancouver's rise to the top of the NHL.

What handicaps Kesler most is that old specter of 'East Coast bias,' the fact that most of the voters for the Hart are based in the East and don't see the Canucks play regularly by virtue of the unbalanced schedule and the fact that most of Ryan's games start at 10PM ET. So while Kesler is likely to be a Finalist, he's 'geographically undesirable.'

Venturing east from the Canadian Pacific Northwest to the U.S. heartland, a lot has been made of Jonathan Toews incredible close to this season. He's placed the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks on his strong shoulders and carried them to within striking distance of a Central Division title when many Blackhawks supporters were jumping off the bandwagon as recently as January. He's leading the league in scoring over the past month and has left no doubt about who is the leader of the champions. Toews is in the Top 10 in scoring with his late season rush, but he's more likely eligible for the half-a-Hart than the full season hardware. He's likely to finish 20 points behind the league leader and if the Hawks don't recapture the Central (an unlikely occurrence that will only occur if Chicago sweeps its three remaining games against the Red Wings), it will further impact his candidacy. Combine that with the fact that he plays on a line with the Patricks -- Kane and Sharp -- one can argue that Toews should be the league leader in scoring, a 100 point player and not a number of strides away from the top. Toews is a great leader, the most irreplaceable Blackhawk, still improving as a player and a likely finalist but not this year's model of the Hart.

The NHL Official Guide and Record Book defines the Hart Trophy as the award given 'to the player adjudged to be most valuable to his team.' Given the strict interpretation of the qualifications of the award, there's a clear cut leader and he happens to reside in the Cradle of Hockey.

No, it's not Scott Gomez.

The only way Carey Price could have entered the season with more heat on him was if he was standing on the Sun. In the wake of the playoff hero Jaroslav Halak being banished to St. Louis, the pressure of being THE MAN for a conference finalist was in existence from Game 1 for the 23-year-old native of Vancouver. He's quieted every critic, even Allan Walsh, Halak's boisterous agent who injected himself in last year’s goaltending controversy with his savvy use of Twitter.

It's not just the raw statistics that Price has put on the board that makes him the No. 1 contender, it's the context in which he's fashioned them. Both his goals against and save percentage have hovered in the Top 5 for netminders this season, but considering the makeup of the team in front of him, the need for Carey to be close to perfect most nights makes a convincing and winning argument.

Unless Michael Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn have a huge final month (and they won't), Tomas Plekanec will be the only Hab to score more than 50 points this season, numbers that the Sedins past in January. With Montreal lacking a high powered offense and a possessing a coach with the defensive stylings of Jacques Martin, there's no mistaking the fact that these Habs will ride and die on how well they keep the puck out of their own net.

Compounding the pressure on Price, the cast of characters chosen to assist on defending the goal has drastically changed throughout the season as three integral members of the blueline corps, Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges and Jaroslav Spacek sit on injured reserve. General Manager Pierre Gauthier made smart acquisitions up until the trade deadline, but even the imports haven't escaped the blueline injury rash as veteran Brent Sopel is currently sidelined with a hand injury. So with the 43rd highest scorer in the league and with a defense that won't make anyone forget Serge Savard and Larry Robinson, the Canadiens sit in a pennant race for the Northeast Division with their arch rivals, the Boston Bruins, who in some corners are the pick to emerge from the Eastern Conference.

The trials and tribulations of last year's saga has actually been a positive as his teammates attest.

"He has a lot of talent and the way he acted last season proved a lot," said Cammalleri, a polar opposite to the goaltender in the manner in which he gravitates to the spotlight.

"He has gone through so much, he went through being booed by his own fans at the Bell Centre and he never complained," conveyed the injured Gorges.

Price, in classic matter of fact manner, echoes his teammates' sentiments: “Every athlete goes through ups and downs, even LeBron James goes through tough times. You just need to get over them and make sure that they don't last too long.”

The primary reason why the Habs have a shot at a third seed and home ice advantage in the first round is the maturation of Carey Price. While his vanilla personality doesn't produce the quotes the ever-hungering Montreal media throngs want, it's the same calmness that makes him a winner on the ice. Other than the occasional fight with the Bruins' Tim Thomas, he rarely shows emotions when things don't go well. Without him, the Montreal Canadiens wouldn't be close to a playoff spot much less contending for a division title and that's why he's likely to get our lead Hart Trophy vote when the ballot comes.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com. You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.


 

 

Archives:
Mar. 06, 2011 Canucks don't care
Feb. 27, 2011 Trade Deadline: Tracking the West
Feb. 15, 2011 Same Merde, Different Day
Jan. 02, 2011 Kings of Queens?
Dec. 17, 2010 The Price is Correct
Nov. 16, 2010 Sweet Blues under the Arch
Nov. 01, 2010 A Fine Mess
Oct. 07, 2010 Two Bucks on Canucks
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