We're not yet to Christmas, so perhaps some might argue that it's too early for discussions about regular season awards like the Hart. But this is my column and I say it's not too early, especially when there are so many players thriving and putting their names into that discussion right now. So let's talk about it.
Perhaps no one on the planet is playing better hockey than Jack Eichel right now. The Buffalo Sabres captain is in the midst of a 17-game point streak -- the longest the NHL has seen this season. He's scored 16 goals and added 15 assists over that span, and he's doing his best to almost single-handedly keep the Sabres in contention.
For the second straight season, the Sabres got off to a blazing hot start only to squander the early momentum as they came crashing back down to the earth. But Buffalo is currently holding onto second place in what's essentially a wide open Atlantic division behind Boston, and Eichel's play is the biggest reason they find themselves in that spot.
To illustrate just how important he's been, here's an examination of his production compared to the rest of the team during the past 17 games:
It took just 35 games for Eichel to hit the 50-point mark with 24 goals and 26 assists. He's on pace to shatter his previous highs in goals (28) and points (82) and he's averaging nearly 22 minutes of ice time per night -- a huge load for a player whose team obviously realizes how much they need him.
Buffalo is a team that's somewhat desperate for a taste of success. They haven't made the postseason since 2011 and their last playoff series win came in 2007. The 23-year-old Eichel is obviously going to slow down and put up some goose eggs eventually, but if he continues to play even near this well for the remainder of the season and ends up dragging Buffalo back into the postseason, there's no question he's going to find himself in the MVP conversation.
That being said, he's certainly not the only guy making his case through the first few months of the season, so let's quickly look at some of the other challengers.
Connor McDavid and/or Leon Draisaitl
The Hart has never been split between two players before but this might be as good a season as any to consider it. McDavid and Draisaitl have simply willed the Oilers' relevance into existence this year thanks to their spectacular play and it's certainly arguable that no two players are more important to their team than these two are to Edmonton.
At the time this is being written, McDavid and Draisaitl lead the NHL in points with 59 and 57, respectively. Of the Oilers' 66 goals at five-on-five this year, McDavid and Draisaitl have directly accounted for 35 percent of that output. If you factor in goals from Zack Kassian, who has spent most of the season playing alongside the two, that total share jumps up to 53 percent.
The Oilers' success is absolutely and directly correlated to the production of McDavid and Draisaitl, so if that duo plays well enough to carry Edmonton into a playoff spot then they'll be in the Hart conversation. It'll probably be McDavid who gets more attention considering he's the most talented player in the league and has won the award before, but at this rate Draisaitl deserves almost as much recognition.
I touched on Carlson's incredible start in last week's column and he's undoubtedly the leading favorite in the Norris race right now, but he also deserves some consideration when it comes to the Hart. The Washington Capitals defenseman has 12 goals and 45 points through the first 35 games of the season, putting him on pace for 28-77-105 -- or the best season ever by a defenseman not named Bobby Orr of Paul Coffey.
Sure, plenty of that production comes from Washington's fearsome power play unit, but Carlson is also doing plenty of work at five-on-five while averaging nearly 25 minutes a night for the Caps. His offensive numbers may not end up being as sexy as some forwards, but he's a workhorse who's putting up historically good numbers for a defenseman. That should be good enough for some.
The Colorado Avalanche star has been in the Hart conversation in each of the past two seasons and he's in the midst of his best season yet. He's currently third in the league in points (20-31-51) behind McDavid and Drasaitl and is on pace to hit 50 goals and 100 points for the first time in his career.
Colorado has been the best team in the Western Conference so far this year despite a plethora of key injuries, including lengthy simultaneous absences from both of MacKinnon's top line wingers in Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. MacKinnon's stellar play and production is one of the biggest reasons why Colorado has been able to not only stay afloat but continue to thrive without those key pieces. If the Avs keep pace and finish as one of the league's top teams with their stud center near the top of the league's statistical leaderboard, he's going to get plenty of consideration.
The Winnipeg Jets came into this season with pretty low expectations after losing almost their entire defensive corps over the summer, but they've been a pleasant surprise and find themselves in the playoff picture sitting third in a very tough Central division. The biggest reason for their surprising success is the play of Hellebuyck between the pipes.
The 26-year-old goaltender ranks third among starters in save percentage (.926) but that number becomes a lot more impressive when you consider the quality of shots he's stopping. The Jets' defense has allowed the third-most high-danger chances in the league so far this season. Winnipeg has the league's second-worst expected goal share (44 percent) but, in reality, they own the fifth-best goal share (54 percent), and Hellebuyck standing tall under immense pressure is a big reason for that discrepancy.
Is it sustainable? Maybe not, but on the chance that this trend continues, Hellebuyck is as deserving as any other name on this list.