Evgeni Malkin is the leader for the Hart Trophy at the moment, as he's been for most of the season. Right there with him are Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, unless the inherent bias against goaltenders as MVP finalists does him in. ("They have their own award," say the position player snobs.)
The game-changer is Steven Stamkos, who has a better résumé than that trio: a goals-per-game pace that'll challenge 60 on the season, with 38 (!) of them so far coming at even strength. He's also potted more overtime game-winners (4) than anyone else this season. If the Tampa Bay Lightning are invited to this dance, he should be the prom king, with all due respect to Malkin.
Right now, that's the field. But there are other players for whom a case can be made in the Hart Trophy race for 2011-12. They may not have the hype, but they have the credentials.
To reset the award's intentions: "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."
Keep in mind we've left off a few players that are MVP worthy but are on teams that likely won't make the cut: John Tavares and Jordan Eberle among them.
With that …
David Backes, St. Louis Blues
With 19 goals and 26 assists, Backes doesn't have the glamor stats for MVP, so he'll just have to settle for being the most vital skater on the Blues this season. He leads their forwards with 20:04 TOI per game, playing tough minutes against other team's big guns. He plays on the power play and shorthanded. While his numbers aren't on a Malkin level, he makes big plays: five goals to lead off the scoring in a game, four game-winning goals and three empty netters to ice victories. He leads the team in hits, takes faceoffs, gets his hands dirty … he's one of the League's top captains, and deserves some notice as an MVP.
Loui Eriksson, Dallas Stars
The Stars' goaltending has been nearly as important; depending on the number of starts he ends up with, it's not out of the question that Kari Lehtonen could be the MVP choice for Dallas. But Eriksson's been Mr. Everything for Dallas this season, playing 19:38 per night in all situations. He's leading the team in points (22 goals, 37 assists) and his goal-scoring has been clutch: 7 first-goals, 2 overtime winners and three game-winning goals. And while we loathe the skills competition, he's also 5-of-9 in the shootout with one game-deciding goal. Like Backes, he's not having his best offensive season — but that doesn't mean he hasn't been vital to the Stars' surprising success.
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
Guaranteed: If the vote was held today, Jason Spezza would get more MVP love than Erik Karlsson; which is unfortunate because Karlsson's been the pace-setter for this team. His 51 assists have been distributed well between even-strength (27) and the power play (24), as well as at home (26) and on the road (25). His speed is a game-changer. Intrinsically, his enthusiasm has helped energize the Senators this season. Would voters who oppose him for the Norris vote for him for the Hart?
Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey Devils
While his $100 million contract clouds his accomplishments — ask Chris Drury how that works — a funny thing's happened to Kovalchuk this season. First, he plays defense. Not in the "I'll wave my stick with the hopes of a turnover as I skate to the other zone" way. In the legit, responsible, non-liability way, for which Jacques Lemaire likely deserves a lot of credit after last season. Second, he's a team player in a way he never was in Atlanta, as this New York Times article chronicled. He's mired in a goal slump, but he's still 14th in the NHL in scoring.
Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
He's not getting the same kind of Hart hype as he did last season, probably because his numbers aren't as stellar. (Yes, we live in an NHL where a 2.30 GAA and a .927 save percentage are seen a regression.) But he's already eclipsed his career high for wins with 36, and his January was simply obscene: 11-1-0, giving up two goals or less in nine of those games. He'll always get that "product of a system" or "yeah, put me behind Weber and Suter and I'll have a .929 save percentage" rap. But he's essential to the Predators' success this season.
Who are some other stealth MVP candidates this season?