With less than a month left to go in the NHL's regular season, the league's award races are heating up. Players are looking to make strong final pushes to not only help their teams in the standings but also help their own campaigns for individual honors.
The debate over possible Hart Trophy candidates has been interesting this year, namely because there are a handful of players making pretty strong (and unique) cases for the award, which is annually given to the league's most valuable player. As always, weighing Hart candidacies often largely depends on a person's definition of "most valuable." Is it the guy who puts up the most gaudy numbers, even if he's surrounded by plenty of talent? Or is it the one player whose singular contributions mean the most to his team?
There are strong candidates to support in both camps this year, including:
Let's examine what each of those candidates has working for and against them as we head down the home stretch.
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers
The case for: Well, for starters, the pure production. Draisaitl's numbers are better than anyone else's, and by a pretty significant gap. He's fourth in goals (43), first in assists (67) and his 110 points lead the league. That kind of offensive output is hard to argue against. The numbers look sexy on paper, especially when you consider eight of the past 10 Hart winners have led the league in points or goals.
Additionally, the Oilers are very much a team that relies on the contributions of a few players, Draisaitl being one of them. They're in the playoff hunt thanks in large part to his incredible production this season. He has directly factored into nearly 50 percent of his team's total offense this season, and his case is strengthened by the fact that he plays on a line separate from Connor McDavid and has thrived even with McDavid out of the lineup.
The case against: Some people choose to hold it against Draisaitl (or at least factor into their voting) that he often shares the ice with McDavid, who is arguably the most talented and skilled player in the world, even if they're not playing on the same line. Playing with McDavid in any capacity can certainly help elevate offensive production. Draisaitl also isn't great defensively and can be a liability in his own end, which might hurt his case when it comes to an overall MVP award.
Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche
The case for: MacKinnon being one of the best players in hockey is nothing new. He finished as the runner-up in Hart voting two years ago and sixth last year. This season, he's once again putting up elite numbers and is pacing to hit 100 points for the first time in his career. He an impact player who plays in all situations and, as dumb as a contributing factor as this may be, it also probably doesn't hurt that he's Canadian. The strongest argument for MacKinnon may be his level of production relative to the rest of his team. At 93 points (35 goals, 58 assists), he has nearly doubled the output of the next highest point-getter on his team (Cale Makar, 47 points). It's comparable to Taylor Hall winning over MacKinnon in 2018 when Hall led everyone on the Devils by 41 or more points.
The Avs are a good team that's right in the thick of the Central division race but MacKinnon has often had to carry a lot of the weight this season, especially with regular linemates Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog each missing extended chunks of time due to injury. He's been up to the task.
The case against: MacKinnon's numbers will likely fall short of Draisaitl's by a decent margin, and Draisaitl is somewhat of a comparable as someone who has carried a heavy load and thrived despite injuries around him on a (presumably) playoff-bound team.
David Pastrnak, Bruins
The case for: His goal-scoring. Pastrnak began to establish himself as an elite scoring talent last season before getting hurt, and he's built on that momentum this year. He could win the Rocket Richard as the NHL's most prolific goal scorer while also leading the league's top regular season team in points. Given Boston's lack of secondary scoring this season, the Bruins' top line and power play has needed to shoulder a lot of the weight and Pastrnak's contributions have helped get the job done in a big way. He's got the glamour stats on a glamour team.
The case against: He's arguably not even the most valuable player on his own team. Pastrnak's production is undeniable but Brad Marchand isn't far behind and is much better/more responsible defensively. If Draisaitl is going to be docked for being elevated by McDavid, it's hard not to make the case that Pastrnak also shouldn't be docked for playing alongside Marchand and Patrice Bergeron.
Connor McDavid, Oilers
The case for: He's widely considered the best player in hockey and is pretty much a perennial Hart candidate at this point. He has finished in the top five in Hart voting in each of the past three seasons, including winning it as 20-year-old in 2017.
Much like his teammate Draisaitl, McDavid has put up great numbers to help put the Oilers in the playoff hunt. The two will ultimately be pinned against each other in the Hart discussion if they finish one and two in points, as they are currently trending. Draisaitl might be the only player in the league that has been more productive than No. 97, but McDavid's numbers are close and he's nearly been just as good on a per-game basis. Plus, McDavid is more responsible on the defensive end. And more Canadian.
The case against: He's going to finish behind Draisaitl in points and that'll hurt his case, especially after Draisaitl has proven he can thrive without Connor in the lineup. Missed games due to injury may also play against McDavid, as he's played in 63 games whereas Draisaitl has played in all 70 of Edmonton's contests so far.
Artemi Panarin, Rangers
The case for: Panarin has been the catalyst and lifeblood of the Rangers' offense in his first season in New York. He's currently top-five in the league in points despite not getting a ton of help on his new team and, maybe more impressively, he's helped the retooling Rangers stay in the playoff hunt in an ultra competitive Metro division.
Analytics also make a strong case for Panarin based on his relative impact. According to Evolving Hockey's model, Panarin's 25.9 goals above replacement (GAR), 4.6 wins above replacement (WAR) and 8.8 standings points above replacement (SPAR) are tops in the league by a healthy margin, making a case for him as the most impactful and valuable player in the entire league this season.
If the Rangers sneak into the playoffs, it'll be hard to argue against Panarin, especially after seeing what this team was without him last year.
The case against: There's still a good chance the Rangers miss the playoffs, which would all but take Panarin out of the running, considering voter tendencies.