The Neutral Zone: 2010 Hart Trophy Picks

Familiar foes are among the finalists, but this year's Hart winner should be a fresh-faced Swede (Dave Kuhn/Flickr).

Alex OvechkinOne moment encapsulates the impact Ovechkin can have on a game and it did not even take place in an NHL contest.  Jaromir Jagr circled in the neutral zone as the Czech Republic advanced up the ice at the 2010 Olympics.  Ovechkin closed in quickly and destroyed Jagr with a fierce shoulder check, which created a counterattack leading to a game-winning goal for the Russians.

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What Ovechkin did for Russia in that moment was precisely what he did all season for the Capitals.  After Chris Clark was traded to Columbus, it was fitting that Ovechkin assumed the captaincy as he did whatever the situation called for all season.  With his boundless energy and skilled improvisation, Ovechkin also excelled in the uncalled for.  At all times, he could resurrect a dead play with an unconventional stick-handle, hit the net from a difficult angle, or level the puck-handler with a vicious check.  Ovechkin draws near to the rarefied air of Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan and the transcendental figures in sport.  Each year, it is more of a challenge to build a case for him than against him and this season the talent surrounding him and the ten games he missed may be the only justifications not to award him a third consecutive Hart Trophy.

Sidney CrosbyCrosby took a cue from Pavel Datsyuk as he rounded out his game to a robust form this season.   Crosby finished just ahead of Datsyuk at 11th in faceoff win percentage, a feat magnified by the fact that Crosby led the league in faceoffs taken as well as faceoffs won by a 137-win margin.  For the fourth time in five seasons, Crosby topped 50 assists, recording 58 helpers.  Oh, yes, the Penguins captain also set a career high by tallying 51 times this season.

Crosby missed 34 games over the past two seasons, but this year missed only one game.  He improved his production at even strength by ten points and added two shorthanded goals over last year’s total for an overall six-point jump.  His defensive play also improved as he went from a +3 to a +15 with no significant change in team scoring.  Crosby, who sat in on penalty killing meetings earlier in his career though he was not assigned to a shorthanded unit, also greeted greater responsibility a man down with alacrity and success.  There was no more complete star in the Eastern Conference and maybe not the entire league than Crosby, who again demonstrated that he has the indefatigable work ethic to match his superhuman talent.

Henrik Sedin In a season that saw no shortage of inconsistency and injuries, Henrik Sedin was the lone constant for the Northwest champion Canucks.  Even without lifelong linemate Daniel Sedin or stellar play from captain and franchise goalie Roberto Luongo, Sedin produced consistently and lifted the level of his teammates’ play continually.  In the absence of Daniel, Henrik scored at a point-per-game pace and recorded his first career hat trick.  Alongside his twin and his brother from another mother, Alex Burrows,  Sedin darted out to the scoring lead and defended it all the way to the Art Ross Trophy.

While his point total may be gaudy, Sedin has remained an understated star who shunned praise and went only so far as to celebrate his consistency, not his dominance.   Yet Sedin displayed the ability to take over a shift at a level that was seldom surpassed by even Ovechkin and Crosby this season. His vision, determination  and persistence on the puck were regularly on display.  Between games, he cultivated chemistry with his linemates that burgeoned by the day.

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Ovechkin’s Capitals were seldom tested as they sprinted to the Presidents Trophy, feasted on a weak division and tyrannized nearly all the U.S. franchises.   Crosby and the Penguins found themselves without Evgeni Malkin at one point and spent much of the second half battling New Jersey for the Atlantic Division title.  For the captain’s part, he did not perform especially well minus Malkin and the Penguins were unable to capture the division title, a loss that  dropped them from second to fourth in the East.

Meanwhile, Henrik Sedin seemed to elevate his game as the stakes escalated all season.  Henrik scored a career-high 29 goals thanks in large part to the nine tallies he posted during the 18-game absence of Daniel.  He also maintained a superb offensive acumen on the road, recording 46 points in 41 road games, including  14 points during an arduous 14-game road swing in which the Canucks went 8-5-1 over the course of the 40 days preceding and succeeding the Olympic break.  Where Washington did not have another playoff team in their division and the Penguins had one major foe atop the Atlantic, the Northwest saw three different first-place teams from December onward.  Henrik scored eleven points in six meetings with Calgary.  After twice being held scoreless by Colorado, Henrik rallied to post eight points in four contests against Colorado.

Sedin’s defensive ability also allowed the Canucks to play their domineering top line and emerging second line at will.  Finally, his durability remained remarkable as he played all 82 games for the fifth straight season.  He has missed just eight games in nine NHL seasons.  Sedin’s consummate effort, timely play, consistency and quiet dominance make him an easy choice for the Hart Trophy this season.  If he has any disadvantage it is only the politics of NHL stardom.  Then again, who wouldn’t want a pair of Swedish twins?

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