The Hart Trophy conversation could not be any less clear heading into the final month of the season.
NHL players are spiking up and down ballots as certain stars are producing at a jaw-dropping rate. Others, however, are cooling off from hot streaks. It’s making for a highly-contested fight to the finish of the regular season for the NHL MVP honor.
The top five hasn’t changed a ton for Sporting News from the last time we looked at the NHL MVP race, but there was some shuffling in positioning and a couple new faces have entered the fray as potential candidates making a late season push.
We’ve entered the home stretch of the season and it’s time for players to make their closing arguments to stake their claim on the Hart Trophy.
Let’s take a look at the leading candidates for NHL MVP.
NHL Hart Trophy Ladder
1. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
Matthews continues to be scorching hot in the month of March. After failing to score a point on March 2 to open the month, the Maple Leafs star has recorded at least one point in all 10 games since while scoring at least one goal in nine of those contests.
He’s first in the league in goals with 49 and his fifth in the NHL with 85 points, setting new career-highs in both of those categories. Not only is he an offensive machine, but he’s greatly improved in his own zone, quickly becoming one of the best defensive forwards for the Leafs.
The 24-year-old is surrounded with plenty of talent on the Maple Leafs, playing alongside one of the best wingers in the game in Mitch Marner. The fact that he’s in the hockey hub of Toronto certainly helps his case.
While he remains high on the public’s ballots, it’s not a lock that he earns his first-ever Hart Trophy. He’ll need to continue to propel the Maple Leafs’ offensive machine at a high level, with other qualified candidates lurking behind him.
2. Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers
Shesterkin is the Vezina Trophy winner, which is awarded annually to the NHL’s goaltender who is “adjudged to be the best at this position,” barring any drastic drop-off in production to end the season. But he’s making a strong case for the Hart Trophy, as well. However, he’s had a few bad outings in March that may be hurting his case.
The Rangers goaltender remains first in save percentage (.936%), but dropped to second in goals against average (2.11) and second in goals saved above expected (31.5). His 32 wins place him in a tie for fourth in the league, but his win percentage of .727 is second. He has added three shutouts, as well.
Shesterkin has fallen back down to Earth in March. In 10 starts this month, he’s 7-3-0 with a 2.68 GAA and a .916 SV%. He’s given up at least four goals in three of those starts, including getting pulled for the first time this season on March 10 against the Blues.
I explained in my previous NHL MVP ladder how hard it is for goalies to win the award. The last four times a goalie has been given the award, he has started in over 80% of their team’s games. Shesterkin has only started 65%.
There’s no denying that, without Shesterkin, the Rangers would not be sniffing the success they have this season. New York’s 5-on-5 numbers are horrible as it’s a team that relies heavily on the power play and goaltending. But between the odds already stacked against a goaltender and Shesterkin showing recent signs that he is in fact human, is it enough to earn the votes?
3. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
Perhaps one of the most controversial players in the Hart Trophy conversation is Huberdeau.
The Panthers winger has been passing his way to the tops of the NHL point leaders all season long. His 70 assists are first in the league, six ahead of the next-closest player which is Josi. He has totaled 93 points in 66 games, sitting in third behind McDavid and Draisaitl in points. Huberdeau’s 70 assists are a career-high and he’s well on his way to breaking his career points mark of 92.
There’s no doubt that Huberdeau is deserving of more recognition. He’s viewed as one of the more underrated players in the league, stuck in a small market in Florida. Because he doesn’t own the name recognition like a Matthews or a McDavid, his production isn’t likely known to the casual hockey fan.
He’s also on a loaded Panthers team where there is a strong argument he’s not even the MVP on his own team, and there are some questions in his defensive ability. It all has made for quite the Twitter banter back and forth between fans and media members alike, including Huberdeau’s agent Allan Walsh defending his client in the MVP race.
Some think he’s the most deserving of the award, others feel he shouldn’t even be in the top-5. I had him at No. 5 in the last MVP ladder, but his consistent playmaking ability has shot him up to third. Ultimately, it’s the voters’ opinions that matters the most.
4. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
McDavid’s numbers scream Hart Trophy. But it feels like he’s slipping away from a top spot.
The Oilers captain is looking to repeat as the league MVP after sweeping the Hart and Ted Lindsay awards last season. McDavid already has two Hart Trophies in his young career. With his 98 points leading the way in the NHL, there’s a strong argument a third will be in his hands at the end of the season.
Much of his production comes on the power play. He is first in the league in power play points (38) and power play assists (30). It’s a factoid that occasionally raises questions when it comes to MVP speculation, but it hasn’t stopped voters from giving the award to McDavid in the past.
The biggest issue could be voter fatigue, and I’ll admit, that’s why I have him at No. 4. McDavid has finished in the top-five of Hart voting in the last five seasons, with his rookie year being the only one in his career that he did not achieve that feat. It just gets old after a while always including him at the top.
Plus, believe it or not, McDavid is having a down year based on his standards. His 1.48 points per game this season is his lowest rate since 2017-18. He produced 1.86 points per game last season, 1.52 in 2019-20 and 1.48 in 2018-19 (he’s at a 1.484 this season and in 2018-19 he had a 1.487 so by a smidge, he had a better rate that season).
If it’s anyone else’s name next to those numbers, they’re likely the front-runner. But it’s not as spicy just to give the MVP to the best player in the league yet AGAIN.
5. Johnny Gaudreau
Similarly to Huberdeau, Gaudreau is having a career-year that isn’t getting the recognition it deserves.
The Flames forward is tied with the Panthers winger in points with 90 and his 60 assists are fourth-best in the league. He is on pace to set new career-highs in goals, assists and points.
The line of Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk have been the best line at 5 on 5 this season. The trio is first in the league among forward lines in expected goals for (44.5). They also take up three of the four best plus/minus marks in the league, with Lindholm and Gaudreau tied for the league lead at +49.
In a contract year, Gaudreau has exploded to be one of the most dynamic scorers, helping the Flames to the best record in the Pacific and look to be one of the teams to beat in the Western Conference. He has 25 points in 14 games in March, his most points in a single month this season.
If Gaudreau continues this insane stretch to end the year, he may keep rising up in the Hart Trophy rankings.
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
Ovechkin jumped out early in the season as a leading candidate for the Hart, but has dropped down since, despite passing Jaromir Jagr for third place on the NHL’s all-time goal scoring list. While his 42 goals put him fourth in the league, his 78 points put him 14th. He’ll have to settle with continuing to chip away at Wayne Gretzky’s career goals record.
Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche defenseman is one of the leading candidates for the Norris and should be in the Hart conversation as well. He’s on pace to hit 30 goals this season, which has not been done by a defenseman since Mike Green in 2008-09. Makar is first in goals among defenseman with 24 and second in points with 74.
Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
The only defenseman to have more points than Makar is Josi, one of the other front-runners for the Norris. His 81 points put him in a tie for ninth in the league. The Predators captain has been scorching hot in March, with 28 points in 14 games, getting on the score sheet in every contest this month besides one.