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Hart Trophy Rankings: Hughes family well represented early in MVP race

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We're less than a month into this NHL season, but two big developments have already affected the hunt for the Hart Trophy.

For one thing, the Edmonton Oilers are off to a terrible start - which undoubtedly jeopardizes Connor McDavid's candidacy. One might say the most valuable player is just that, regardless of how his team performs, but reaching the postseason has become an unwritten prerequisite. And when a team is this bad, it becomes that much harder to disagree with those who believe the Hart winner needs to be on a playoff team - or at least a moderately competitive squad.

The other significant storyline is Jack Hughes' status. The New Jersey Devils forward remains week-to-week after sustaining a reported shoulder injury last Friday. On the bright side, his ailment doesn't appear too serious. His pre-injury dominance needs to be highlighted here, along with the stellar play of one of his brothers.

Here are our top five MVP contenders in the very early going of this 2023-24 campaign.

5. Artemi Panarin

Jared Silber / National Hockey League / Getty
13 8 14 18:49 54.1

Panarin has been on a tear ever since opening night, riding a 13-game point streak. The Russian playmaker has eight multi-point efforts - six of which have come in his last seven games. One thing that always works in a Hart contender's favor is having large disparities between himself and his teammates in offensive production. Panarin has six more assists and 10 more points than the closest New York Rangers skaters.

The Blueshirts have been playing without elite defenseman Adam Fox recently due to an injury, not to mention that Igor Shesterkin, Filip Chytil, and Barclay Goodrow have also been banged up.

Aside from Chris Kreider's nine goals (six of which came on the power play), the "Bread Man" has done most of the offensive heavy lifting for the injury-riddled Rangers. Panarin's defensive play hasn't been as strong, but he's still giving New York plenty of value.

4. Quinn Hughes

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty
13 5 16 23:46 51.97

The suddenly thriving Vancouver Canucks have gotten big contributions from several players, including league points leader Elias Pettersson, goaltender Thatcher Demko, and ever-reliable forward J.T. Miller. But Quinn Hughes hasn't just been the Canucks' most valuable player; he's been one of the most important and impactful skaters in the league thus far in 2023-24.

Vancouver's Hughes is our current Norris Trophy favorite, and he should be in the Hart conversation, too. Defensemen aren't often considered in the MVP race, but Quinn shouldn't be ignored just because of his position. Unlike Pettersson, he has a favorable xGF% ("Petey" has an unflattering rate of 45.94%). He's also on par with his Swedish teammate in WAR (just 0.2 off the league lead) and close to him in GAR while sitting near the top of the NHL in the category.

The pair have eerily mirrored each other at or near the top of league leaderboards in numerous statistical categories in the campaign, but Quinn has logged more ice time because he's a defenseman. Petterson deserves some credit for doing it while playing less, but Quinn excelling like he has while skating for nearly 24 minutes per game conveys how much more valuable the rearguard has been.

3. Auston Matthews

Michael Chisholm / National Hockey League / Getty
13 13 6 21:33 52.29

Matthews has scored goals in bunches, with three hat tricks in his first 11 games and a two-tally effort Monday night. He's the league leader in goals this season, and the American center sits atop the NHL in individual expected goals while ranking second in ixG per 60 minutes. That's all impressive, but as was the case when he claimed this hardware two seasons ago, he's doing more than just putting the puck in the net.

The Toronto Maple Leafs sniper owns the NHL's second-most wins above replacement so far. That's a good indicator of all-around proficiency, and though we're working with a small sample size at this point in the campaign, Matthews certainly appears primed to replicate his well-rounded 2021-22 MVP form.

Matthews is also shouldering a heavier workload than usual to begin the season, ranking seventh among the league's forwards in average ice time. His current ATOI is tied with the career-best he established in the abbreviated 2021 campaign.

The Leafs sit near the bottom of the league in xGF%, and they've been a borderline playoff team in the early going after many assumed they'd cruise to the Atlantic Division title. William Nylander's 13-game point streak out of the gate has undoubtedly helped, but Matthews' unparalleled scoring and reliable defensive play are the biggest reasons Toronto isn't lower in the standings.

2. Jack Hughes

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty
10 5 15 20:02 54.76

It's unclear when the younger of the two more experienced Hughes brothers (and the elder of the two Hughes brothers on the New Jersey Devils) will return from his injury. Whether he'll be included on the next edition of this list in a month is also in doubt. But one thing can be said with certainty: Jack Hughes belongs in this edition in recognition of everything he accomplished over the vast majority of the campaign's first month.

Jack produced at an incredible clip before he left the game against the St. Louis Blues on Nov. 3. The 22-year-old still leads the NHL in points per game. He's collected three goals and nine assists on the power play but has posted exemplary underlying numbers at five-on-five. For example, New Jersey controlled 62.82% of the scoring chances with Jack on the ice in those situations.

The Devils' brightest star is still in the top 20 in WAR and GAR (both cumulative stats as opposed to averages) despite playing fewer games than the others at the top in those departments.

Jack may have deserved to be the leading candidate here if he was still in the lineup and dominating; he's only missed two games so far. Unfortunately, it doesn't make sense for an injured player to be the front-runner, and the ailment will also affect his candidacy going forward, especially if he's out for several weeks.

1. David Pastrnak

Maddie Meyer / Getty Images Sport / Getty
13 10 10 19:22 52.84

While the Maple Leafs have underwhelmed to a degree, the Boston Bruins are shockingly back on top of the division by a wide margin despite losing Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci to retirement and Tyler Bertuzzi and Dmitry Orlov in free agency. Both of Boston's goaltenders have been excellent, but Pastrnak has been the biggest reason the Bruins remain a juggernaut at 11-1-1.

The Czech winger has four more goals and seven more points than his closest teammate, Brad Marchand. Remember last season when Pastrnak led the NHL in even-strength goals and ranked second in even-strength points by one? Matthews is thriving in those categories in 2023-24, but Pastrnak is tied for second in the former and third in the latter.

Pastrnak is far from a one-dimensional player, sitting among the NHL's best in WAR and GAR with favorable underlying numbers across the board. Pastrnak isn't logging over 20 minutes of ice time per night like some of his counterparts on this list, but he's certainly making the most of his shifts. Last season's Hart runner-up is right back in the hunt and is a worthy front-runner for the time being.

(Analytics sources: Natural Stat Trick, Evolving-Hockey)

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