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Connor McDavid is the Hart Trophy favorite in a flooded field of challengers

This isn’t just a Crosby vs. McDavid debate.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL’s Hart Memorial Trophy isn’t a simple MVP award. As the NHL describes it, the Hart is “given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team.”

As we look back on the 2016-17 regular season with that criteria in mind, the field is flooded with worthy candidates. But there can only be three, and the NHL will unveil who the Pro Hockey Writers’ Association nominated a week from today.

So let’s run through that crowded gamut and predict who gets a trip to Las Vegas and the awards ceremony on June 21.


Frontrunners

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-San Jose Sharks at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

McDavid began this season as a 19-year-old. Let's just start there.

And now, the stats: won the Art Ross Trophy with a league-leading 100 points, just the 11th 20-year-old in NHL history to do so (Alex Ovechkin was the last, in 2005-06); led the league with 70 assists; barely finished behind Crosby in goals created (35.6 to Crosby's 35.9); and completely dominated the league in assists per game (0.85; Ryan Getzlaf was a distant second with 0.78 A/G.)

That's just a smidgen of arguments that could be made for McDavid winning. His nomination, though, is all but assured.

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Same for this guy. A weird year for Crosby, in that he was a more prolific goal-scoring threat than a pure goal-creator. Crosby's 0.59 goals-per-game pace gave him a league-leading 44 goals and his first Maurice Richard Trophy since 2009-10. You can pencil in Crosby for a Hart nomination most every year, but this time his name was etched in ink by January.

The other contenders

Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks

Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Edmonton Oilers at San Jose Sharks John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

If I couldn't separate these two in my Norris nominee discussion, I can't justify it here. Though it's really hard to imagine a non-forward securing a Hart Trophy nod. Like NFL MVPs are reserved for quarterbacks, NHL defensemen and goalies are usually resigned to the Norris and Vezina, respectively.

But name two defensemen for playoff teams more integral to their team's success this year. I'll wait.

Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

Pittsburgh Penguins v Columbus Blue Jackets - Game Four Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

If that third nominee slot doesn't go to a forward, it probably ends up with a goalie. And the only goalie worthy of a Hart this year is Bobrovsky. Columbus' netminder led the league in goals-against average (2.06) and save percentage (.931) on a team that gave up the fourth-most shots against in the NHL. The Blue Jackets might be out of the playoffs already, but they don't go on that 16-game win streak or dominate the Metro division so long without Bobrovsky's play. "Bob" is as important to Columbus' success as any one hockey player can be for a club.

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Spoiler alert: If I had a vote, I'd vote for Kucherov. The Lightning forward ended in the top five in goals (40), points (85), goals created (33.6), and offensive point shares (9.7). But those are just end-of-year stats. The context of his Hart race emergence is everything.

No team in the Eastern Conference Wild Card race put up more than Tampa Bay's 44 points. The Bolts went on a flaming tear after the All-Star break, and Kucherov was the guy pouring fuel. Tampa Bay won 20 of its last 31 games, and Kucherov was a 1.79 point-per-game player while racking up 34 points in those victories. The Lightning finished just one point out of a playoff spot.

Is Kucherov more deserving of a Hart than McDavid or Crosby? Not sure. But he's probably deserving of a nomination.


And the nominees should be ...

McDavid, Crosby, and Kucherov. I can't in good conscience leave Kucherov off the ballot. He impressed me too much down the stretch.

But the nominees will be...

McDavid, Crosby, and Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky makes it as a proxy vote in the writers’ war against John Tortorella and Jack Adams.