As the season winds down, whispers surrounding players' awards candidacies are turning into full-blown conversations. None are more interesting than those surrounding the Hart Trophy, awarded to "the player judged to be the most valuable to his team," according to the NHL's criteria.
The Sharks have already seen their fair share of MVP candidates since the trade deadline, and will encounter yet another one on Tuesday when Taylor Hall and the New Jersey Devils stop by SAP Center. They'll see a couple more beyond Hall over the next three weeks, too.
Who do we think has the best case? With no disrespect meant to Nikita Kucherov or Anze Kopitar, Hart Trophy candidates that the Sharks won't play before the playoffs, we'll look at the ones the Sharks have played since the deadline or will play before the end of the regular season.
The Dark Horses
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: The demise of the ‘Great Eight' was greatly exaggerated. In his 13th NHL season, the 32-year-old is tied for the league lead in goals (43), 11th in points (78), and has led a depleted Capitals roster to the precipice of a third-straight division title. That probably won't be enough to earn his fourth Hart Trophy, but this is undoubtedly one of Ovi's best seasons.
Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild: Staal was a pleasant surprise when he scored 65 points last year, but has been even better this season. He's tied for fourth in the in goals (39), tied for fifth in even strength goals (26), tied for 19th in points (71), and leading his team in each category as a 33-year-old. The Wild are a near-lock for the postseason at this point, and a resurgent Staal deserves much of the credit.
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: McDavid's candidacy comes down to where you fall on the "non-playoff players winning MVP" debate, but his value to the lottery-bound Oilers cannot be denied. Edmonton is 28-19-3 when he's scored a point, and 3-17-2 when he hasn't.
The former is about a 97-point pace in the standings over an 82-game season, while the latter is about a 30-point pace. In other words, the Oilers are basically a playoff team when McDavid scores, and historically bad when he doesn't.
We're sympathetic to questions about how valuable a player can be when his team will finish so far out of the postseason. However, imagining how much worse the poorly-constructed Oilers would be without him makes him a worthy candidate alone.
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: The Colorado Avalanche were 31 points worse than the league's second-worst team last season, and finished 46 points out of the postseason. A full offseason with second-year coach Jared Bednar, as well as some under-the-radar acquisitions have helped the Avalanche's remarkable turnaround into a Wild Card team, but Nathan MacKinnon is undoubtedly the catalyst.
The former No. 1 pick has put it all together this season, and is tied-for-second in points (89) with McDavid, despite playing eight fewer games. His 1.39 points per game are the most in the league, as are his 3.49 points per 60 minutes of five-on-five play, according to Natural Stat Trick (minimum 500 minutes played).
The Avalanche is the league's fifth-worst five-on-five puck possession team overall (47.42 percent corsi-for), but are right around league-average with MacKinnon on the ice (50.96 percent). He'd be a very worthy Hart Trophy winner, and likely would be the clear-cut frontrunner if not for the man leading the Devils into SAP Center on Tuesday.
Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils: McDavid is not the only No. 1 pick the Oilers drafted that's in the MVP conversation, but he's the only one still on their roster. The other is Taylor Hall, who has the best Hart Trophy case in our eyes.
Hall strikes the sweet spot between McDavid's case, as a superstar with little support around him, and MacKinnon's, as an emergent force leading a resurgence, and he has a 26-game point streak to his name. He sits outside the top 10 in points (77), goals (31), and assists (46), but has scored points at a higher rate per game (1.15) than all but six qualifying players.
He also doesn't have Mikko Rantanen or Leon Draisaitl skating alongside him as MacKinnon and McDavid do, nor does he have a supporting cast like Kucherov and Kopitar. Of all the players the Sharks have and will face down the stretch, Hall's been the player most valuable to his team this season.