Which player is the most surprising newcomer to the Hart Trophy discussion?
Pierre LeBrun: For most of this season, the Hart Trophy derby was about three players: Brent Burns, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. Since then, Patrick Kane, Nicklas Backstrom, Brad Marchand and Nikita Kucherov have thrown their hat in the ring, and Marchand in particular is charging hard. On many nights, he carries a Boston Bruins team that isn't otherwise particularly deep.
But a guy who also deserves more discussion is Erik Karlsson. The Ottawa Senators continue to surprise everyone, and their two-time Norris Trophy winner is the main reason. I would argue that Karlsson's game has become more well-rounded this season under first-year Senators head coach Guy Boucher. A defenseman hasn't won the Hart Trophy since the St. Louis Blues' Chris Pronger did so in 2000. But we have two excellent blueline candidates this season in Burns and Karlsson.
Scott Burnside: Let's just say, with less than a month to go in the regular season, that the field of potential Hart Trophy candidates seems to be growing by the day. You have to look seriously at Kucherov. In the absence of captain Steven Stamkos -- and with Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman unloading key personnel Ben Bishop, Valtteri Filppula and Brian Boyle -- the fact that Kucherov and his team are tied for the second wild-card spot is one of the season's biggest (potential) comeback stories.
And the Lightning would be nowhere near a postseason berth without the work of their ace winger, Kucherov, who has points in nine of his past 11 games, with 10 goals and 10 assists over that span. His 69 points are among the league leaders, but it's his performance with the Lightning's season on the line, when he basically carried his teammates on his back, that has moved him onto the Hart Trophy radar in recent days.
Joe McDonald: I have to give Marchand the nod. He has overtaken Crosby for the lead in the league's scoring race, with 36 goals. Marchand is one reason Boston is on an impressive string of success, with a 12-3-0 record since firing coach Claude Julien and replacing him with assistant Bruce Cassidy.
Marchand is also the first Bruins player with consecutive 30-goal seasons since Glen Murray accomplished the feat in 2002-03 and 2003-04. Marchand has 11 goals and five assists for 16 points in his past 10 games -- and 26 goals and 18 assists for 44 points in his last 20 games. If Boston earns a postseason berth, Marchand should get serious consideration for the Hart. Maybe more players should work out with Crosby during the offseason, like Marchand did last summer.
Craig Custance: The most surprising addition would be Marchand, but I want to make sure that Karlsson gets his due too. For most of this season, Burns has been mentioned as the lone defenseman who was a Hart Trophy candidate --and he certainly deserved the attention. But now Karlsson is every bit the candidate Burns is, and the 26-year-old Swede probably should be at the top of the list when you really consider the wording of the award. He's still piling up points offensively but also leads the league in blocked shots. He and McDavid might mean more to their teams than any two players in the league. Nobody had the Senators penciled in as a division title contender, and Karlsson is the biggest reason they are one now.
Rob Vollman: The 30-year-old Presence statistic provides surprising insight into the Hart Trophy race. Introduced in 1986 by Karl-Eric Reif and Jeff Z. Klein, the Presence statistic calculates a player's offensive contributions relative to the team's overall strength. From that perspective, favorites such as Burns and McDavid are clearly the frontrunners, but players like Kucherov, Marchand and Jeff Carter could become darkhorse picks -- provided their respective teams make the playoffs. With all due respect to Mr. Crosby, he might still be the world's greatest player, but the award goes to the most valuable, and the Penguins would still be awesome without him. The Bruins without Marchand? Not so much.