Mark Madden: Evgeni Malkin in top 2 Hart Trophy contenders

March 31, 2018 GMT

The credibility of the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP) died in 1989, when Wayne Gretzky was selected despite Mario Lemieux having 31 more points (all goals).

Gretzky’s Los Angeles team had just four more points than Lemieux’s Penguins, so that was no appreciable factor.

No good explanation was ever given for this blatant robbery, likely because none existed. Pro-Anglophone prejudice, perhaps, or maybe a reward for Gretzky (presumably) helping the NHL’s profile by going to Los Angeles that season. It was Gretzky’s last MVP.

“I judge myself by Stanley Cups and scoring titles, because nobody votes on those,” Lemieux famously said later.

Keeping that in mind is a good way to begin discussion of this season’s Hart Trophy balloting.

There are three clear front-running candidates, with one dark horse. The dark horse could emerge further if his team makes the playoffs.

The three front-runners are:

• Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay winger. Kucherov leads the NHL in scoring, and the Lightning have the second-most points in hockey.

• Evgeni Malkin, Penguins center. Malkin is second in points and goals, and the Penguins sit second in the Metropolitan Division.

• Alex Ovechkin, Washington winger. Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals, and the Capitals lead the Metro Division. Ovechkin is propping up a fading Capitals team that lost several key players from last season and is suffering through a bad year by goaltender Braden Holtby.

The dark horse is:

• Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado center. MacKinnon is fourth in scoring. His Avalanche are tied for a wild-card spot in the Western Conference. If Colorado makes the postseason, MacKinnon will be rightly perceived to have elevated the Avalanche after finishing last in the West last year.

The explanations are simplest for the candidacies of Kucherov and Malkin. That makes them the best choices. Each has strong individual stats. Each is part of a successful team and legit Stanley Cup contender. It’s about how the player does and how his team does: Keep it concise.

Whenever explaining your choice for an award gets complicated, you’re too often indulging personal preference. Finding a reason to pick the player you like (or not pick the player you don’t).

That brings us to New Jersey’s Taylor Hall.

Hall is being touted in many circles as a strong Hart candidate. The Devils winger is having a great season and looks the part. Speed and skill.

But Hall is just 12th in scoring, and his team sits precariously in the Eastern Conference’s final wild-card spot. How “valuable” is Hall if he’s not among the top 10 scorers and New Jersey misses the postseason? To put Hall in a class with (especially) Kucherov and Malkin is letting the imagination run wild.

Hall has one big qualification: He’s Canadian. So is MacKinnon. Kucherov, Malkin and Ovechkin are not.

Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association select the Hart Trophy winner. While just seven of the NHL’s 31 teams are based in Canada, 55 per cent of those voting for the Hart Trophy are Canadian.

That shouldn’t matter, but it might. We could pretend it’s inconsequential. Like many pretended Gretzky was more valuable than Lemieux in 1989.

There are different descriptions of what the Hart Trophy represents. Does “most valuable” equate to “best player?” Should goalies or defensemen be considered, or do they have their own awards? How much does team success mean? Should a player from a non-playoff club be considered? Does it mean more to excel late in the season than early in the season?

If that last factor is heeded, Malkin has 26 goals and 27 assists in 32 games played since Jan. 1. He has been the NHL’s top player over that span.

For me, it’s down to Kucherov and Malkin.

If Malkin wins the scoring title, he’s got a 50/50 chance. If Malkin finishes first in points and goals, he should be a lock.

But, while the memory of 1989′s MVP debacle might not burn brightly for Malkin, being omitted from the NHL’s official list of 100 greatest players could still sting. That was announced a little over a year ago and is no less absurd now. Duncan Keith, Mats Sundin, Jonathan Toews and at least a dozen others on that index couldn’t carry Malkin’s jock in a goalie’s equipment bag.

Memo to Malkin: Judge yourself by Stanley Cups and scoring titles.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).