Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov part of crowded Hart Trophy field

Lightnng scoring star Nikita Kucherov celebrates after his first goal in 12 games Thursday night DIRK SHAD | Times
Lightnng scoring star Nikita Kucherov celebrates after his first goal in 12 games Thursday night DIRK SHAD | Times
Published March 17 2018

TAMPA – When the Professional Hockey Writers' Association conducted a midseason poll for NHL MVP, Lightning wing Nikita Kucherov comfortably rose to the top.

He had double the first-place votes of No. 2 Nathan MaKinnon.

And why not? Kucherov, 24, was the best player on the league's best team. He still leads the league in scoring.

But when the Hart Trophy voting is done by the writers next month, there likely will be a more crowded candidate pool. Kucherov could still be a favorite, but with the emergence of Taylor Hall (Devils), Connor McDavid (Oilers), Patrice Bergeron (Bruins), Anze Kopitar (Kings), there will be many at least in that conversation.

And Kucherov's own teammate, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, should also garner some consideration. Vasilevskiy was fourth in Hart voting at PHWA's midseason poll.

"This is a strange year because you've got so many guys that have elevated," said NBSC analyst Pierre McGuire. "It's kind of interesting."

With McDavid making his one trip to Tampa for Sunday's game against the Lightning, and the Lightning facing Hall Saturday in New Jersey, it's worth weighing in on the race.

Case for: Kucherov entered Saturday leading the league with 91 points. He's racked up 34 goals too, so another 40-goal season isn't out of the question. As the Washington Post pointed out, since 1998-99, 14 of the 18 Hart winners have been a center or wing who led the NHL in goals or points. Kucherov was picked by 13 of 19 writers for MVP at their late February third-quarter poll.
Case against: Kucherov may not even be the MVP of his own team, with Vasilevskiy often the Lightning's best player. "I think Vasilevskiy should be in the conversation," McGuire said.

Case for: Hall has had a tremendous second half, including a 19-game point streak. He's got 30 goals and 44 assists, nearly single-handedly lifting the Devils into playoff position.
Case against: The Devils, holding on to the second wild card spot, may not even make the playoffs. Hall likely won't lead the league in goals or points, and there are many other forward candidates.

Case for: The reigning Hart winner is having a similar statistical season, his 33 goals already more than 30 last year. With 86 points, another 100-point season is not out of the question, especially with his 1.23 points per game pace.
Case against: The Oilers are awful, a stunning disappointment in missing the playoffs after being a popular preseason Stanley Cup final pick (including mine).

Case for: Bergeron, a four-time Selke Trophy winner as the league's top defensive forward, can dominate at both ends of the ice. His line with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak might have been the league's top trio.
Case against: Bergeron has been sidelined since late February with a foot injury, so the month he'll miss could hurt him.

Other deserving candidates:
Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche – The 2013 No. 1 overall pick is living up to his potential, the main reason Colorado is in a playoff position. Leads league in points per game (1.36).
Anze Kopitar, Kings – The two-way center has 29 goals (and 80 points), while making an impact in all the little areas for the third-place Kings.
Evgeni Malkin, Penguins, Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – The Russians are two of the league's three 40-goal scorers (Jets' Patrick Laine the other).
Vasilevskiy – The Vezina Trophy favorite has been the backbone for the league's top team all season long.

Thrilled to see PHWA deciding to make their award votes public, a long-awaited act of transparency. … Certainly doesn't feel like rookie Anthony Cirelli is going back to AHL Syracuse. … One underrated impact of Ryan McDonagh is alleviating some pressure (and minutes) from Victor Hedman, who logged just over 24 minutes Tuesday (after being close to 30 each game in recent weeks). … The fact Syracuse clinched another Calder Cup playoff berth is a credit to coach Benoit Groulx, who led a rookie-filled team; Groulx will be an NHL coach someday. … While G Peter Budaj is back, you wonder if Louis Domingue inspires more confidence from coaches with his play in the second half of the season (winning five of seven starts).
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] [email protected]_JSmith.