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Hart Trophy Rankings: Star wingers give MVP race international flavor

Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Now that we're two months into this NHL season, the MVP race is a little more concrete. However, it's still pretty wide open.

Connor McDavid remains on the outside looking in despite producing two points per game since last month's edition of these rankings. He's back among the league's assists and points leaders, but it's still tough to include him in the upper echelon given the competition for this award. McDavid could certainly find himself back on the list next month if he keeps this up, though.

Sam Reinhart has outproduced his Florida Panthers teammates by a notable margin and helped keep them competitive with two key defensemen out of the lineup to start the campaign. He's also put himself on the fringes of the discussion, but he's shooting 27%, so that's bound to regress. Other candidates simply have stronger cases.

Meanwhile, Quinn Hughes was in the mix last month and is still piling up points. But as we documented in our most recent Norris Trophy rankings, his underlying numbers have taken a big dip lately.

Those three aren't among the top candidates at the moment. Instead, three of the top five this time around are gifted wingers hailing from outside North America. Here are our top MVP contenders at this juncture:

5. Jack Hughes

Derek Cain / Getty Images Sport / Getty
19 10 23 20:58 54.4

Last time, we noted Hughes' inclusion on future Hart lists might be in doubt given his injury. But the New Jersey Devils' superstar only missed five games, and he's been excellent at both ends of the ice since returning.

Hughes has four more assists and four more points than his closest teammate (Jesper Bratt). He ranks fifth in the league in goals above replacement and wins above replacement. He also sits atop the league in points per game while remaining in the top 10 in the hunt for the Art Ross Trophy.

Hughes notched five goals and 15 assists over the first 10 games of the season, and he's nearly matched that level of production since coming back. The 22-year-old has five tallies and eight helpers in the nine contests since then. That's included four and six, respectively, in his last five games, three of which were three-point efforts.

The bottom line is the American center has a more well-rounded game than McDavid right now, as his exemplary and superior WAR and GAR figures illustrate. That gives Hughes the edge.

4. Nikita Kucherov

Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images Sport / Getty
27 17 27 21:34 54.46

Yes, Kucherov leads the league in points, is tied for first in assists, and is just one goal behind the NHL's goals leader in 2023-24. And yes, he's well ahead of the four other Tampa Bay Lightning players who've produced around a point per game this season. Kucherov has five more goals, five more assists, and 14 more points than the closest Bolts skaters.

That's saying something considering the others include Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman. However, that depth may also work against Kucherov because he's gotten plenty of help, whereas some of the other candidates have had to shoulder more of the load themselves with a less productive supporting cast.

It also doesn't boost Kucherov's case that he's registered nearly half of his goals and exactly half of his points on the power play. Even if he ultimately wins the Art Ross, doing so with so much of his output achieved on the man advantage should hinder his MVP aspirations. That being said, he does deserve some recognition for his performance, especially at 30 years old and with all the miles on his odometer from the Bolts' many lengthy playoff runs.

3. Cale Makar

Michael Martin / National Hockey League / Getty
24 7 27 24:27 55.96

Makar's two-game injury absence prior to his return Thursday shouldn't hurt his Hart hopes. He leads all NHL blue-liners in points per game (1.42), sits among the league's absolute best skaters in total points, and is tied with Quinn Hughes and Kucherov for first in assists.

Of course, the Hart Trophy is about more than offensive production, and Makar is a legitimate contender because he's excelled defensively as well. The Avalanche have scored 12 goals and allowed just seven with Makar on the ice at five-on-five in 12 games since our last edition. They've scored 23 and allowed just 15 with Makar in those situations all season.

The 25-year-old's underlying numbers remain superb across the board, including a scoring chances for percentage of 55.26. Only Hughes has better WAR and GAR numbers among rearguards on the season, and Makar has outplayed his counterpart in terms of metrics lately.

Much like Kucherov, Makar has a star-studded supporting cast that includes perennial MVP candidate Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. As a defenseman, Makar understandably hasn't carved out a big production disparity relative to his teammates like other contenders. But the fact that he's just two points back of the team lead is impressive given who his running mates are and what position he plays.

2. David Pastrnak

Andrew Lahodynskyj / National Hockey League / Getty
25 14 22 19:32 53.14

Pastrnak is no longer leading this race, but he's firmly in second for several reasons. For one thing, the 27-year-old is still blowing away his teammates with eight more assists and 12 more points than any other Boston Bruins skater along with two more goals.

Secondly, the Bruins has been firing on all cylinders (Thursday's loss to the Buffalo Sabres notwithstanding) largely thanks to Pastrnak's elite play and despite losing numerous impact players in the offseason. The Bruins have either held or been close to holding the NHL's best record for most of 2023-24, even though many understandably expected them to lose a step following those departures.

The Czech dynamo's goal-scoring has cooled off to a degree recently, as he's collected four goals in the 12 games since our last edition after pouring in 10 over the first 13. But he's still making a major impact, with 12 assists in as many contests, five of which were multi-point outings.

Pastrnak's xGF and SCF percentages at five-on-five are still favorable, but not as eye-popping as those of the new front-runner.

1. Artemi Panarin

Bruce Bennett / Getty Images Sport / Getty
24 16 21 19:38 55.92

Panarin is far and away the biggest reason the New York Rangers have been jostling with the Bruins for the NHL's best record. The 32-year-old ranks among the league's absolute best in all three of the main offensive categories. He's done most of his damage at even strength, and his all-situations per-game goals and points rates would be career highs over a full season.

His shooting percentage (16.7) would be, too, so that may regress. But Panarin is absolutely thriving right now. More importantly, he's authoritatively outperforming his teammates. The Russian playmaker has a whopping 15 more points than the second-place Blueshirts skaters (Chris Kreider and Vincent Trocheck), and Panarin leads Kreider and the rest of the team in goals by two with the same number of games played as his potent counterpart.

Panarin isn't as sound defensively as some Hart contenders, but he's carried New York with his offensive dominance. Plus, his underlying numbers have been truly stellar, including a 57.33 SCF% at five-on-five. If the Rangers stay at or near the top of the NHL standings while Panarin continues to do this kind of heavy lifting, others will be hard-pressed to knock him out of the top spot.

(Analytics sources: Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey)

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