The NHL's version of the Most Valuable Player award is called the Hart Trophy. Like the other major "Player of the Year" awards, it's defined as the player judged most valuable to his team. The NHL has the most colorful stable of awards, with an award for gentlemanly conduct topping the list. The NHL Awards also stand out with a formal televised ceremony, instead of leaking each award out to the press as other sports usually do.
While technically any player on the ice can win the Hart Trophy, it is almost never awarded to goalies. So they'll be left off the list by default. Only two goalies have won the award in the modern era, though a third may be added this season in Carey Price. There are still a lot of great players remaining that never had that one standout season where they were the best in the league. Some of these players won other hardware - for best Rookie, best Defenseman, or even most points in the league. But none of them ever won the Hart.
It takes a lot of consistency to stand out and also to make the Hall of Fame (as many of these players have) without the type of stand-out season that gets a player the Hart Trophy. That's not to say there aren't superstars that never won the MVP. Lots of factors could go into a great player always being the bridesmaid and never the bride. Also, plain bad luck can strike. A career that overlaps with Wayne Gretzky's nine Hart Trophy run is probably going to come up short. A great player can have his best season while another has an all-time best season.
However, these 15 players all had their share of great seasons. They were never voted the best of any given year, but their careers all add up to make them some of the best of all time.
*All stats were taken from hockey-reference.com.
15 Peter Stastny
Known as "Peter The Great," Stastny entered the league on fire in 1980, winning the Calder Trophy (best rookie) and reaching the 100 point plateau in seven of his first eight seasons in the NHL. Peter would never really get out of Gretzky's shadow (playing for Quebec didn't help) despite ending up the 2nd highest scorer of the 1980s. Even after an injury-plagued end to his career, Peter the Great would end up 7th all time in points per game. His legacy in the NHL should continue on through his son, currently playing for the St. Louis Blues.
14 Henri Richard
Henri Richard also has some history playing second banana. The little brother of Rocket Richard (and unfortunately nicknamed "The Pocket Rocket"), Henri would nevertheless carve out his own legacy as a great NHL player. He didn't score goals at the same rate as his older brother, but he was prolific in assists, leading the NHL twice.
Henri would join his brother in the Hall of Fame after 20 seasons in Montreal. Even more eye-popping is his 11 Stanley Cups as a player, including 5 in his first 5 seasons.
13 Chris Chelios
Chelios was a tough, durable defenseman that embodied the term "Iron Man." Known for his longevity in his later years, Chelios played at a top level longer than almost anyone else in hockey. He was still playing 17 minutes a game at the age of 46, and that wasn't even his last season.
After 26 years playing hockey at its highest level, Chelios retired ranked 5th all time in games played. In addition to that, he logged nearly three additional seasons' worth of games in the playoffs. He ended up playing professionally in four decades and was rewarded by joining the Hockey Hall of Fame.
12 Doug Gilmour
Doug Gilmour, also known as "Killer," spent his NHL career defying his doubters. He was a tenacious player with a very physical style, despite standing only 5'11". He was also a consummate journeyman while playing for seven teams during his Hall of Fame career.
Despite being traded so often, Gilmour was a valuable contributor to every team. He played great defense, winning the Selke Award as best two-way player once. Finally, he was always a threat on offense with his great passing. Gilmour ended up 13th all time in assists, despite his ever-changing cast of teammates.
11 Pavel Datsyuk
Datsyuk might be the scariest player currently in the NHL. If you ever see him with the puck near your goalie, just cover your eyes. No one still playing scores prettier goals than Datsyuk when he hits the open ice.
He is also a class-act player that can truly do it all. He's won four Lady Byng Trophies and three Selke's. After two cups with the Red Wings, he's one of the only players still remaining from the tail end of that dynasty. Even if he decided to retire tomorrow, he would definitely see a spot in the Hall of Fame in his future.
10 Luc Robitaille
Luc Robitaille was a talented and consistent goal scorer who flourished in Los Angeles alongside Wayne Gretzky. He came into the league on fire in 1986, winning the Calder Trophy and posting eight straight 40 goal seasons. He also proved a capable leader and assumed the Kings' Captaincy when The Great One was injured.
His consistency and durability landed him in the top ten of goals scored all time. He blazed a path into the Hall of Fame and left plenty of LW records for Ovechkin to break.
9 Pavel Bure
Better known as "The Russian Rocket," Pavel Bure would have a short, but very impressive career over his decade in the NHL. Bure topped 50 goals in a season on five occasions, including two Rocket Richard Trophies for most goals in a single season. But none of those great seasons were enough to win a Hart. His short career would never land him on any of the all-time leaderboards, but Bure posted the 6th highest goals per game in NHL history. He was also elected into the Hall of Fame despite his shortened career.
8 Teemu Selanne
The Finnish Flash lived up to his nickname when he burst into the NHL at the age of 22. He obliterated the previous record for goals in a season by a rookie with 73 and easily won the Calder Trophy. Selanne wasn't a true rookie (he played pro hockey in Europe), but it was still an impressive feat.
His first season turned out to be his best in goals and total points, but he still had a long, Hall of Fame career going into his 40s. He also was a four-time Olympic medalist in hockey, holding the record for second most points by an individual.
7 Al MacInnis
MacInnis split his 23 year career between the Flames and Blues, but he might be most remembered for splitting a goalie's mask with a slapshot. Al's biggest claim to fame was the hardest slapshot in the NHL. He also ranks 3rd in NHL history for goals, assists, and points by a defenseman.
The Hall of Famer also proved to be a leader when it mattered most. He led the Flames to the Stanley Cup, winning the Conn Smythe in the process. Over 10 years later, he would also be a part of the Canadian Olympic team that brought home the first gold medal in 50 years.
6 Paul Coffey
Paul Coffey was one of the rare NHL stars that could do it all. He was great at his primary position, winning three Norris Trophies for defense. He was also very durable, playing over 1,400 games for nine different teams. Finally, he was a great passer and offensive threat. He ranks second all-time in nearly every points category behind Ray Bourque (though Bourque played 200 more games). Most of Coffey's points and Stanley Cups came during his long stints on Gretzky's Oilers and Lemieux's Penguins. With those teammates, it was almost impossible for Coffey to win the Hart himself.
5 Marcel Dionne
Dionne was another prolific goal-scorer with the bad misfortune of playing his best season at the same time as Wayne Gretzky. Any other era would surely have given him a couple MVP trophies, but it wasn't to be.
Dionne played for several teams and never won a Stanley Cup, but he did enter the NHL setting points records as a rookie, and would never let up. His career also stretched impressively over nearly 20 years. With his consistency scoring, Dionne would land in the top 10 all-time lists for goals, assists, and points.
4 Mike Bossy
The Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups in the late 1980s and Mike Bossy was the superstar powering those wins. He was a prolific goal-scorer for his short career, playing only nine seasons but ending up #21 all time in goals scored. He does still hold the record for career goals per game, ahead of even Gretzky and Lemieux.
In addition to all the goals, Bossy was one of the cleanest players in the game, winning three Lady Byng Trophies. He kept his production up in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as well, leading the team and scoring two Cup-clinching goals.
3 Nicklas Lidstrom
This star defenseman dominated the new millennium, winning seven out of ten Norris Trophies from 2000-2010. His veteran leadership also helped carry the Red Wings dynasty of the 90s, adding a Stanley Cup in 2007 after most of the core had already retired.
His lack of flashy offensive numbers likely kept him from being on the MVP radar, but Lidstrom very quietly racked up his gaudy +/- numbers, with hard-nosed defense that's harder to quantify in statistics. He only ended his NHL career a couple years ago and the Hall of Fame is undoubtedly in his future.
2 Steve Yzerman
This lifetime Red Wing and anchor of their late 90s dynasty is one of the best leaders in hockey history. He's also proving his hockey acumen and mind for the game by being one of the best GMs in hockey and building a contender out of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Yzerman was one of the best all-around players in the league and he's proven that with his diverse accomplishments. Most notable is his ability to deliver in the clutch. He led the Red Wings to three Stanley Cups, including winning the coveted postseason MVP award, the Conn Smythe.
1 Raymond Bourque
The narrative of this Hall of Famer's career for the longest time was always "best player to never win the Cup." After 21 years in Boston and a controversial trade to the hot Avalanche, Bourque finally won Lord Stanley's Cup and rode off into the sunset after 23 seasons in the NHL.
So, now he's moved on to "best player to never win the Hart." Bourque was decorated with several Norris Trophies as the league's best defenseman, but never the overall league MVP. He would place 2nd twice in the voting.
After coming up short for two straight decades in the playoffs, it's pretty obvious that Bourque was more interested in hoisting the Stanley Cup than the Hart Trophy.