When it comes to the NHL’s annual awards during the offseason, the Hart Memorial Trophy is arguably the honor that carries the most anticipation from the league’s players and fans alike.
“The Hart Memorial Trophy is an annual award given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team. The winner is selected in a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association in all NHL cities at the end of the regular season,” according to NHL.com.
The Hart Memorial Trophy includes a recipient list of familiar All-Star caliber NHL players, and typically players who ended, or end, up being elected into the Hockey Hall Of Fame.
Notable hockey legends such as Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Joe Sakic, Brett Hull, Eric Lindros and Mario Lemieux all took home the Hart Trophy at some point during their memorable careers. More recently, stars such as Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin and even Montreal Canadiens netminder Carey Price have earned the MVP honor.
For this season, there will be some new names in contention for the illustrious award. But who will walk away with the Hart Trophy come season's end? Here are 15 players that not many would peg to take home the Hart this year, but could very well find themselves as a contender for the award come season's end.
15 Connor McDavid
As expected, the Edmonton Oilers' 2015 first-overall draft-pick lit the lamp from the get-go in Western Canada. Center Connor McDavid displayed flashes of MVP esque qualities last season with not only his performance on the ice, but McDavid's professionalism and leadership qualities away from his play too.
Sure, McDavid's potential to become one of the best players to ever lace up the skates is high, but it would still be surprising if the Ontario native took home the Hart Memorial Trophy in 2017. The sophomore player still has plenty of competition to battle in that regards, but one thing for sure is that McDavid will be the Oilers' MVP come season's end. No.97 recorded 48 points in 45 games played last season, and if it weren't for McDavid's long-term injury -- the Oilers' youngster more than likely would have won the NHL's Rookie of the Year (Calder Trophy). If a McDavid-Hart Trophy doesn't happen for the upcoming season, it will in 2018.
14 Wayne Simmonds
The name Wayne Simmonds and the Broad Street Bullies go hand-in-hand, and if you haven't already noticed, Simmonds was born to don a Philadelphia Flyers sweater. The 27-year-old was one of four Flyers to play in at least 80 games last season, and Simmonds also finished second on the team in points with 60. Yes, when you use the term "MVP" and in relation to the Philadelphia Flyers, one automatically thinks of team captain Claude Giroux...
Still, it was apparent last season during Philadelphia's historic comeback towards clinching a Stanley Cup Playoff berth that Simmonds was arguably the club's MVP; as his dedication and passion for his team was made known night-in-and-night-out. The past typically shows that whichever direction Simmonds' performance is going -- is what the results show for with the Flyers; if he's producing consistently then Philly wins.
I'll predict that Simmonds takes another step forward in his career for 2017, has his most productive season and will at least be named the Flyers' MVP.
13 Cory Schneider
The New Jersey Devils were one of the biggest surprises for the 2015-16 season, and Jersey's yeam didn't even clinch a Stanley Cup Playoff berth. How many times have NHL fans heard that statement since April, right? New Jersey can thank goaltender Cory Schneider for the entertaining season.
Schneider was the clear and cut MVP for the Devils, and probably should have been nominated for the Vezina Trophy for the league's best goaltender, but he was snubbed. Schneider defines what it means to be a recipient of the Hart Memorial Trophy, and while his memorable saves from last season speak for themselves, the Massachusetts native isn't shy about being a vocal leader for New Jersey either. Schneider is arguably the best player on the Devils' current roster, and will be the number one reason why New Jersey may find itself back in the playoffs. As long as Schneider is in between the pipes for the red and black, then Jersey's team will automatically be in contention. Don't be surprised to see his name in consideration for the Hart this upcoming season.
12 Phil Kessel
One of the Pittsburgh Penguins brightest stars from their 2016 Stanley Cup championship run was forward Phil Kessel. After getting called out for his play by general manager Jim Rutherford earlier in the season, there were Conn Smythe Trophy whispers around Kessel as the Pens hoisted their fourth Stanley Cup in club history.
Kessel appeared more than comfortable last postseason when the American born served in let's say a third fiddle role, behind captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. At this rate, Kessel should be expected to produce close to Crosby's number by the time April of 2017 roles around. And, don't be surprised if the former Toronto Maple Leaf flirts with the 40 goal mark this season. But how likely is it for another forward other then Crosby or Malkin to win the Hart Memorial Trophy? Then again, with Kessel -- anything is possible, right?
Winning the Hart Trophy would add all the more dramatics to Kessel's apparent troubles of being a "team oriented player" too.
11 Nikita Kucherov
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov stormed onto the scene during the 2014-15 regular season and hasn't looked back since. In fact, Kucherov led the Lightning in points last season; yes, ahead of team captain Steven Stamkos. It's hard to imagine that the Bolts would have another possible Hart Memorial Trophy winner on their roster (Stamkos), but the Russian native will make his case in the near future.
Kucherov's play last season portrayed that there's more production and skill to come from the former 2011 second-round draft pick. Kucherov's dynamic play puts fear in his opponents at all times, and his ability to create something out of nothing is one of a kind. Sure, Tampa will always be Stamkos' team, but Kucherov could be an MVP in due time. The 23-year-old is on his way towards becoming a superstar, and he and Stamkos could be compared to Crosby and Malkin -- if the Bolts' forwards aren't already...
10 Nathan MacKinnon
The former Rookie of the Year winner has had his up and downs in a short time frame with the Colorado Avalanche. Yet, MacKinnon has shown flashes of MVP-like play for the Avs, and under a new coaching regime this season there's hope MacKinnon can blossom into a top tier NHL leader for Colorado.
The Avalanche have relied on goaltender Semyon Varlamov for a majority of the team's success in the recent past, but in the fourth year of MacKinnon's NHL career a big step forward is possible. Whether MacKinnon realizes it or not, the Halifax, Nova Scotia native will be leaned on more than ever and from the get-go this season. MacKinnon appears to have some fight and a unique competitive edge, and similar to that of Giroux of the Flyers. I'll expect a 60 point season from the former first-overall draft pick (2013), and a weight lifted off of his shoulders with the departure of former head coach, Patrick Roy.
9 Brent Burns
The 2017 Hart Memorial Trophy may receive his award in Las Vegas with a toothless smile, lumberjack beard and unique suit pattern. San Jose Sharks' defenseman Brent Burns proved how valuable he is to the Sharks last season, and when it matters most.
At 31 years of age Burns recorded his most productive season with 75 points, and his dynamic play in all areas of the ice had him in the same conversations as Los Angeles Kings' stud d-man Drew Doughty. Burns is a unique player who can excel on both the offensive and defensive side of the puck, and it seemed that no.88's play improves as the stakes get higher for the teal. Yes, Burns has become a popular face and a bit of a celebrity for the NHL, but his performance on the ice for the Sharks cannot go unappreciated. And, sure, San Jose has a handful of talented leaders, but Burns is now a center piece for the Sharks success going forward.
8 Aaron Ekblad
Aaron Ekblad has turned into a coach's dream and a top two defenseman that the Florida Panthers have been patiently waiting for, well, a long time. His maturity for a young defenseman is second to none, and his passion to make the Panthers Stanley Cup contenders, yes you read that correctly, is among the best compared to leaders around the NHL.
The list can go on forever when it comes to Ekblad's performance on the ice; he's clutch, offensive, well-rounded defensively, has size and can move the puck up ice better than most. He's the cornerstone for the Florida Panthers team overall. NHL.com has even ranked Ekblad at number 46 overall for the league's best players, which is interesting. If you weren't a Panthers fan one would probably assume that Ekblad has been in the league for at least four years already; but the 20-year-old will be entering his third NHL season this October.
Sure, the Panthers have plenty talent on their roster, but the Florida defenseman calms down the storm for the Cats and is an inaugural piece to the puzzle in South Florida.
7 Evgeny Kuznetsov
Like Kucherov, Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov has some major competition on his own club in relation to the Hart Memorial Trophy. Capitals' captain Alex Ovechkin was won the Hart three times and is the heart beat of the Caps. Still, Ovechkin isn't getting any younger, and another Russian born is on the rise in the United States capital.
Kuznetsov led Washington in points last season, and all while chipping in 57 assists. Kuznetsov's numbers are impressive for a 24-year-old center, and only a second year pro in the NHL, technically. Last season, the center displayed a lot of upside with his savvy stick handling and play-making abilities. He also finished the regular season as a plus-27, and added in four game-winning goals. There's no doubt towards one of the greatest players of all-time in Ovechkin, but you have to wonder if Kuznetsov will slowly start to take the reigns from the former multiple MVP winner, no?
6 Blake Wheeler
Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets is the definition of the old saying, "a pro's, pro." Wheeler has transformed into one of those invaluable leaders, and for a hockey city such as Winnipeg. The Minnesota native can contribute in almost every aspect of the game, and arises to the occasion for the Jets whenever duty calls.
At the age of 29, Wheeler is coming off of his best season where he posted 78 points. It's evident he's in the prime of his career, and that the Jets will be taking one step forward in the right direction as the Patrik Laine era is set to begin. Still, Wheeler will carry the Jets offense, and look to get Winnipeg back into Stanley Cup playoff contention, especially with the departure of former team captain, Andrew Ladd. Wheeler was born to don a captain's "C" and serve as a team's MVP and, potentially win a Hart Memorial Trophy when a door opens and presents an opportunity. It will be an exciting season in Winnipeg.
5 Johnny Gaudreau
The Calgary Flames' former fourth-round draft-pick has defied the odds the last two seasons. Johnny Gaudreau, or as most know him by, Johnny Hockey, avoided a sophomore slump last season and recorded an impressive 78 points with 30 goals and 48 assists.
Gaudreau is the Energizer Bunny that Calgary has been missing in the past few seasons, and there's no questioning that his skill level is MVP-like for the Flames' sake at least. At this rate, it would seem that Gaudreau's production will only progress, and could do even better with a new head coach behind Calgary's bench this season too. If he increases those numbers listed above while potentially counting the Flames in for a playoff berth, expect him to be a possible Hart Memorial Trophy winner.
Gaudreau has the swagger to be a superstar in the NHL, and he's compared to former Tampa Bay Lightning stud Martin St. Louis on a regular basis. Oh, and by the way, St. Louis won a Hart Memorial Trophy during his underdog career. The future is bright in Western Canada for the New Jersey native.
4 Brandon Saad
Forward Brandon Saad finished a career high for goals scored and points last season, and a year which was also his first with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Saad proved he can still produce without a star player such as Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks -- Saad's former team. The Blue Jackets will look for Saad to lead them back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially after a disappointing 2015-16 season.
Not only did Saad display his skill assets, but the Pittsburgh native did show positive signs of maturing into a legitimate leader for an NHL club, and one who is hungry for success in the postseason. Saad will continue to bring the necessary passion that every team's leader should entail night-in-and-night-out, and his play should earn him at least a team MVP award. Still, as the 23-year-old enters his fifth full season, Columbus should be excited for another breakout season from its newly beloved goal scorer. "If," plays a vital role in this pick, but if the Blue Jackets can rebound from last season's woes, then Saad could find himself in talks for the Hart Memorial Trophy come next summer.
3 Jack Eichel
The Buffalo Sabres are hoping their 2015 second overall draft pick pans out to be a Hart Memorial Trophy winner, and in the near future. Yes, McDavid typically gets more of the spotlight than Sabres' youngster Jack Eichel, but don't be surprised if Eichel has a statement sophomore season.
Buffalo has done a commendable job at rebuilding and surrounding its future All Star with talented players. Eichel should thrive with the Sabres going forward, and at the age of 20 could shock the hockey world as a candidate for the Hart Trophy. The Sabres are expected to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2011, and in large part to Eichel's potential breakout season. At times, fans witnessed moments when the former Boston University player put the Sabres on his back to win games in exciting fashion. The pedigree is there to be an MVP, and now it's just a matter of when...
2 Max Domi
The future is looking bright in the desert. The Arizona Coyotes are the owners of one of the most exciting players in all of hockey to watch. 2016 rookie sensation Max Domi crashed the McDavid-Eichel parade, and made his mark known in the NHL from day one. Domi not only posses the skills of a future all-star, but his two-way play and chippy attributes separates him from a young class of potential Hart Memorial Trophy winners.
Sure, it's a stretch to have Domi on this list, but then again anything is possible with a player of his caliber and on a team whose success will sway in the direction of Domi's performance. Domi may not finish in the top ten for scoring, but pay closer attention to the special teams columns, and the game-winning goal column too. Domi has a talent that you just can't teach -- the son of Tie Domi is clutch. The higher the stakes, the better Domi will perform. He's also a streaky scorer, so he'll make plenty of headlines and continue to prove to be one of the most valued players for the Yotes in years to come. Like father like son, teams will grow to strongly dislike Domi, while his city will treat him like a rock star.
1 P.K. Subban
For the first time in defenseman P.K. Subban's career he will dress for an NHL team other then the Montreal Canadiens. Subban was arguably the heart and soul for the Canadiens over the past three seasons, but the business side of the sport came back to haunt the Olympic Gold Medal winner as Subban was traded to the Nashville Predators in exchange for defenseman Shea Weber this offseason. While Subban had a "down" season in 2015-16, there's still plenty of room for optimism heading into 2016-17.
One thing for certain is that Subban is one of the most competitive skaters to hit the ice each night, and failure doesn't sit well with the 27-year-old. Keep in mind, Subban was also left off of Team Canada for the World Cup of Hockey 2016, which takes place in Toronto. If you thought number 76 was already going to play with a chip on his shoulder in the Music City -- now the wager has gone up with his motivation to succeed. The Toronto native should blossom into a better overall player in Nashville, and he'll inspire his Predators teammates with his uncanny energy off and on the ice. It was evident Subban wasn't happy about leaving Montreal, but change may be a blessing in disguise for one of the game's biggest names.