Making the case for each Hart Trophy candidate

The Auston Matthews Hart Trophy campaign was kicked into overdrive last week.

After scoring both goals in a win over the Minnesota Wild and collecting four points versus the Detroit Red Wings, Matthews captured and held onto the lead in the Rocket Richard race and moved into fourth in league scoring. Anchoring arguably the best line in hockey, this is as complete as Matthews has ever looked from an attacking standpoint, and he's paired that form with high-end production from a defensive standpoint, too.

In response, we've seen the price on Matthews to be named the league's MVP move dramatically.

No. 34 could be had for as high as +750 on certain sportsbooks prior to and even during the win over Minnesota. Since that point it's tumbled down to the +350 range — or the second-best odds behind Edmonton Oilers star and reigning Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid.

Much of the analysis since this major change on the odds board has been rooted in absolutes. Based on either perspective, Matthews is either the obvious front runner through the first five months of the season or should be in no way considered on the level as McDavid or even his Oilers teammate Leon Draisaitl.

Naturally the answer lies somewhere in the middle. But not unlike any narrative-based award, it's worth considering the story that Matthews and any other candidate can write for themselves when either considering or handicapping the race toward the NHL's MVP.

So let's break down these campaigns to see if we can sort through the candidates more effectively and possible derive some value from the Hart Trophy market — beginning with Matthews.

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 24: Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs salutes the crowd after receiving a star of the game after defeating the Minnesota Wild at the Scotiabank Arena on February 24, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Auston Matthews Hart Trophy campaign was kicked into overdrive last week. (Getty)

Auston Matthews (+350)

Matthews has arguably the most working in his favour when building a strong case. He's on the path to repeat as the NHL's goal-scoring king while at the same time on track to finish higher than ever before in the NHL's points race. His 31 assists to pair with a league-high 37 goals has Matthews on pace to improve on his personal-best point total by as many as 30. Sixty goals and 110 points isn't out of the realm of possibility, though it's possible that it won't be enough to break into the top three.

Maybe most importantly, individual excellence is leading to tremendous team results. The Leafs have the fifth-best record by points percentage through 52 games and are just three points back of the division-leading Florida Panthers with one game in hand in the race to the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic Division.

In addition, there are historical benchmarks at work here on both the individual and team level. Matthews is on pace to take down Rick Vaive's 40-year franchise record for single-season goals at 54 while the Leafs remain comfortably on pace for the most points in a season in franchise history.

Finally, Matthews placed second behind McDavid in Hart Trophy voting last season. If progression through the award process is a factor for some who will determine the results, Matthews has only one spot to move into.

Connor McDavid (+220)

The consensus best player in the world and the NHL's current co-leading point getter, McDavid is rightfully the default choice for the MVP award. He's on a path to deliver career-best totals with a 44-goal, 117-point pace, but has historically been more productive on a game-to-game basis in his career. His 1.88 points per game last season — which helped him earn a unanimous Hart Trophy win — represents a dramatically superior mark compared to his current 1.44 point-per-game clip.

While McDavid can survive an offensive downturn, the same likely can't be said about an absence of team success. The Oilers are narrowly outside the top eight in the Western Conference at the time of this writing. Without a nuclear individual finish for McDavid, it's worth wondering if he can outdo the other candidates without the Oilers ascending into a top three seed in the Pacific Division, let alone eke into the last wild card slot.

Falling short of his own standard and at risk of missing the postseason, McDavid has decidedly fewer levers to pull on when compared to Matthews despite the odds being in his favour.

Alexander Ovechkin (+500)

Though recent events — or more specifically existing and problematic affiliations — may deter some, Ovechkin had been the sort of candidate that those with ballots would have gleefully cast a vote in favour of. In his pursuit of Wayne Gretzky's goals record, Ovechkin's unrelenting goal-scoring ability seeing to it that he beats out a collection of hot shots in their primes to bag a record 10th Rocket Richard Trophy would have been a narrative too good to ignore. While still plausible, Ovechkin has slipped in the NHL's goals race over the last few weeks and months, currently sitting in fourth — five goals behind Matthews. He's also fading in the points race with just 13 points in 19 games since the calendar flipped to 2022. That's 135th league-wide.

Meanwhile, Washington's form has followed a similar path. After starting hot, the Capitals have been a below average team for the last three months, slipping into the eighth seed. They would be in danger of missing the postseason if there was one other reasonably competitive team in the NHL's Eastern Conference.

Leon Draisaitl (+650)

Draisaitl has outshone McDavid once before, and there's an argument that he's managed that to this point in the season as well. At the forefront of the Rocket Richard race all season long and just a point back of the league lead, Draisaitl is in position to have the NHL's strongest individual season from an offensive standpoint, which would certainly put him in the running for a second career MVP award out of the shadow of the game's greatest talent.

What applies to McDavid, however, certainly applies to Draisaitl. The Oilers are in danger of falling well short of expectation, which would likely scratch him from consideration. Still when comparing the prices and opportunities between the two Edmonton forwards, the value rests with Draisaitl.

Jonathan Huberdeau (+700)

Tied with McDavid for the league lead in scoring, Huberdeau is having an exceedingly special season with the Florida Panthers. His 75 points in 53 games is one of the main drivers behind a franchise-best season in Florida. Suffice to say, what hurts McDavid and Draisaitl is what's bolstered Huberdeau's case.

Where the problem lies is in the goal scoring. His 18 goals rank T-55 league wide. It's hard to imagine a Hart Trophy winner scoring half as many goals as the Rocket Richard winner.

Igor Shesterkin (+700)

Shesterkin has maybe the most compelling MVP case. The New York Rangers netminder seems like an automatic for the Vezina Trophy with 25 wins in 33 starts, and a dazzling advanced-metric profile that includes an all-situations .941 save percentage.

But to transcend the award category, it takes something beyond even the most exceptional stat line. Two Montreal Canadiens netminder — Carey Price and Jose Theodore — are the only non-forwards to win the the MVP over the last two decades. In both cases, the goalies appeared in over 80 percent of their teams' outings, while Shesterkin has handled just over 60 percent of New York's starts so far.

Though it depends on the perspective of voters, usage could be the only thing preventing Shesterkin from standing out beyond the collection of elite talent in the NHL as Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant manages the 26-year-old's workload.

Johnny Gaudreau (+3300)

Johnny Hockey isn't getting the credit he's due. First in even-strength points and sixth in overall production, Gaudreau has held down the starring role on the most dominant single line in hockey over the balance of the entire season. Its success has keyed the Calgary Flames' run to first in the Pacific Division.

Unfortunately, it might be others in Calgary recognized first. Head coach Darryl Sutter and Gaudreau's centre, Elias Lindholm, might be the favourites for the Jack Adams and Selke trophies, respectively, while netminder Jacob Markstrom might be considered the team's most valuable player.

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