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
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
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