- Damien Cox, NHL
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It's an intriguing group. Some were tabbed to be stars from the beginning. Others were viewed as long shots from the moment NHL scouts first laid eyes on them.
These are the 10 top candidates for this season's Hart Trophy as league MVP. While some may suggest others deserve mention on this list -- like last season's winner, Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks -- you can guarantee the 2007 winner will be one of the players listed below.
Of the 10 players, five are French Canadians, two are Europeans and none are Americans -- although three are former NCAA stars, one at the University of Maine, another at Wisconsin and a third at Vermont.
One player was never drafted, but already has one MVP award to his name; another once passed through NHL waivers with no takers. Four are with the same team that originally drafted them, but only two were judged to be the best player available in their draft year. Two were traded for each other, while another was involved in last summer's biggest blockbuster trade.
They are the NHL's most valuable players this season, but who is the most valuable? (Stats are through Tuesday's games.)
Daniel Briere, C, Buffalo Sabres
• GP: 68; G: 29; A: 54; Pts: 83; Plus/Minus: +18; PIM: 60.
There are nights you don't notice Briere quite as much as you should, only because the Sabres, the NHL's best offensive team, have more than a few attackers worth watching.
But the little big man the Phoenix Coyotes traded away (after failing to give him away on waivers first) is the locomotive that drives Buffalo with his tireless energy and passion.
His ability to make plays at high speed and cause problems for the opposition in tight distinguish his game. Don't worry about his breaking down in the squeeze of postseason play -- he had 19 points in 18 games for the Sabres last spring.
Martin Brodeur, G, New Jersey Devils
• GP: 66; Record: 41-18-7; GAA: 2.14; SV%: .924; SO: 12.
One suspects the goaltending record book will be torn to shreds by the time Brodeur is finished, and this season he's taken dead aim at Bernie Parent's 33-year-old record for most wins by a netminder in a single season.
Brodeur himself believes this may be his best season yet because of injuries to the New Jersey defense, and with so many of the NHL's top shooters playing in the East, he's been forced to face a big-time sniper almost every night.
Taking away his puck-playing talents under the "new" NHL hasn't changed a thing; Brodeur is headed for what would be his third Vezina Trophy in four seasons. At $5.2 million a season in the first year of a six-year deal, Brodeur will continue to be the rock upon which GM Lou Lamoriello builds his teams.
Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh Penguins
• GP: 66; G: 29; A: 74; Pts: 103; Plus/Minus: +7; PIM: 54.
You may have heard a little about the player they just call Sid, perhaps even seen him on the odd NHL advertisement. That, needless to say, is just one element of Crosby's extraordinary season. He has achieved so much, not only as a 19-year-old but also while being anointed the league's most important ambassador.
Crosby helped save the team in Pittsburgh, too, and responded to the big arena deal news with a goal, two assists and the shootout winner Tuesday night. Of his 103 points, 52 have come on the power play. Since the Pens have been given more manpower advantages than any other team this season, and since Crosby draws a lot of those penalties, it's reasonable to say fouling Sid the Kid is not a strategy that has proven successful.
Dany Heatley, LW, Ottawa Senators
• GP: 70; G: 42; A: 48; Pts: 90; Plus/Minus: +26; PIM: 62.
There was a theory about Dany Heatley: His NHL career would top out after being the driver in the car accident that killed Atlanta teammate Dan Snyder and after he suffered a serious eye injury playing in Europe. But the former Badger is proving that theory was ill-placed.
He has a shot at his second consecutive 50-goal season; and in a season in which the Sens have fought through injuries to almost all of their top forwards, Heatley has been a model of consistency. He hasn't gone longer than five games without a goal this season and has become the Senator other teams key on.
His partnership with Jason Spezza has flourished, although Spezza has missed 15 games with injuries.
Marian Hossa, LW, Atlanta Thrashers
• GP: 71; G: 40; A: 50; Pts: 90; Plus/Minus: +20; PIM: 47.
Ever since he was traded for Heatley in an August 2005 swap, comparing the Slovakia-born Hossa to his Ottawa counterpart has been a regular pastime for the hockey media.
With 182 points as a Thrasher, Hossa sits 11 points behind Heatley's Ottawa numbers, but Hossa has supplanted Ilya Kovalchuk as the forward most vital to Atlanta's attack. Currently riding an 11-game goal streak, Hossa is second only to Washington's Alexander Ovechkin in shots this season and is the only player in the league with 40 or more goals. One-on-one, there may be no NHLer more difficult to handle.
Paul Kariya, LW, Nashville Predators
• GP: 71; G: 23; A: 48; Pts: 71; Plus/Minus: +10; PIM: 30.
While his numbers don't necessarily fit with the other high rollers in this group, the former Maine Black Bear signaled a new era for the Preds when he was a surprise free-agent signee in the summer of 2005.
There is a consummate, quiet professionalism about Kariya, a quality that has clearly added maturity to the young Nashville squad over the past two seasons as it has risen to the top rungs of the Western Conference. After seemingly losing his edge while playing for Colorado in the last season before the lockout, Kariya has returned to being a point-per-game performer in Tennessee.
He plays with the pace Nashville coach Barry Trotz craves, and he has played in every game this season; he is one of the reasons the Preds have become one of the NHL's best shootout clubs. Among players with 10 or more shootout attempts, he has the second-highest scoring percentage behind only Erik Christensen of Pittsburgh.
Vincent Lecavalier, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
• GP: 71; G: 46; A: 48; Pts: 94; Plus/Minus: Even; PIM: 42.
He's got a movie credit to his name, having played his grandfather's hero Jean Beliveau in the acclaimed film "The Rocket," and he soon may have the trophy named after Maurice "Rocket" Richard to adorn his mantle.
Lecavalier has put it all together this season, becoming the league's most dangerous sniper with 46 goals. Seen as more of a playmaker coming out of junior hockey, Lecavalier didn't register more than 170 shots in his first four seasons. Now, he's set to crack the 300-shot barrier for the second straight season. Even more impressive, he has the best shooting percentage of any player with 250 shots or more.
Lecavalier was one of the few North American players who went to Russia during the lockout and actually enjoyed the experience. Nowadays, he's the NHL's most productive road player, a player inclined to shine away from home.
Nicklas Lidstrom, D, Detroit Red Wings
• GP: 70; G: 12; A: 47; Pts: 59; Plus/Minus: +38; PIM: 42.
To some, losing veteran players such as Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman signaled that 2006-07 would be a transition season for the Red Wings. But Lidstrom's brilliance has ensured the Motowners have stayed at or near the top of the West. He has won four of the past five Norris Trophies awarded to the NHL's top defenseman and is the odds-on favorite to win it again.
The Hart? There are some who say the 36-year-old Lidstrom should've won it by now. Since joining the Wings in 1991, Lidstrom has never been a minus-player, accumulating a plus-336 over the course of his career.
Squeezed in between Pittsburgh's Sergei Gonchar and Montreal's Sheldon Souray on the NHL scoring list for defenseman, it is Lidstrom's league-leading plus-38, compared to Gonchar's minus-7 and Souray's minus-20, that statistically illustrates his unique talent.
Roberto Luongo, G, Vancouver Canucks
• GP: 65; Record: 39-20-5; GAA: 2.35; SV%: .920; SO: 3.
For now, last summer's deal that sent Luongo to the Canucks from the Panthers is set to go down as one of the most one-sided in NHL history. While Todd Bertuzzi played only seven games for the Panthers (back surgery) before being traded away to Detroit at the trade deadline, Luongo has been everything to the Canucks this season, justifying the club's decision to make him a $6 million goalie last summer despite the fact he'd never played a postseason game.
He has already set a Vancouver record for wins and is second only to Brodeur, a neighbor growing up in the Montreal suburb of St. Leonard, in minutes played this season. For a club that needed stability in the crease for the first time since Kirk McLean took the Canucks to within one game of the Stanley Cup in 1994, Luongo has been the answer.
Martin St. Louis, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning
• GP: 71; G: 39; A: 53; Pts: 92; Plus/Minus: +3; PIM: 22.
Here's all you need to know about the 2004 Hart Trophy winner. Even with Lecavalier piling up goals and headlines, St. Louis has still been able to again inject himself into the Hart conversation because of how strongly he's bounced back from an "off" season a year ago.
He leads the league in even-strength points (54) and shorthanded points (nine) and he's also tops in ice time per game for forwards, just ahead of his teammates, Lecavalier and Brad Richards.
The easy answer is to credit St. Louis with flourishing in the new NHL, but the old NHL seemed to suit him fine. Signed twice as a little-known free agent, originally by Calgary and then by Tampa, St. Louis has made a career after playing at Vermont, not being drafted or never being considered a player other clubs had to have when he was unemployed.
And the winner is ...
So who will come out on top when the NHL announces its trophy winners in June? There are 3½ weeks left to change a few votes among the members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association charged with this task. But it looks like a photo finish between Crosby and Brodeur with Lecavalier third, damaged slightly by the fact his teammate, St. Louis, will siphon away some of his support.
On performance alone, it's Brodeur by a hair. But when you calculate how much Crosby has delivered in star power, gate appeal and charisma while helping save the franchise in his city, expect the Penguins' wonder kid to walk away with the Hart.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
Damien Cox can name 10 of the NHL's most successful players this season, but who is the most valuable? He picks 10 finalists and one winner.