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Corey Perry's value to Ducks is undeniable

4/6/2011

We must confess we haven't had all that much luck with our Hart Trophy ballot the last couple of years.

It's not like I forgot to vote or got Crosby confused with Comrie (no offense, Mike). Just didn't quite get into the right groove when it came to picking the league's MVP.

Last year, I thought Henrik Sedin's preponderance of assists made him less worthy than Alex Ovechkin, who missed 10 games and still scored 50 goals and finished tied for second with Sidney Crosby with 109 points. In hindsight, I should have voted for Crosby, who did it all with Evgeni Malkin having an off season.

The year before, I voted for Malkin, who won his first scoring title, but Ovechkin and his league-best 56 goals carried the day.

This season, though, I feel like I have more clarity on the issue.

It doesn't mean I'm confident I'm going to vote for the eventual winner, it's just that I feel I'm going to be plagued by fewer second thoughts when it's all said and done.

Part of it is I went back to the award itself and really tried to distill its raison d'etre. The wording is simple, really: The Hart is supposed to go to the player "adjudged to be the most valuable to his team."

It's not for the player having the best season.

If that was the case, it would be easy to pencil in Vancouver's Daniel Sedin, who is on his way to winning his first scoring title.

No, when I put digital pen to digital ballot and make Anaheim Ducks' red-hot winger Corey Perry my Hart Trophy pick, I will do so believing that I've voted in the true spirit of the award.

Here's the funny thing.

Not sure I would have had Perry anywhere on the top 10 of my preseason Hart picks.

Linemate Ryan Getzlaf? Somewhere in the mix.

But Perry?

The kid could score goals, sure. And he was sometimes a little abrasive. But what else?

Think back to the Olympics.

Perry had a nice tournament with four goals and an assist. He scored what would have been the winner in the gold-medal game if Zach Parise hadn't tied it in the last minute. But if you had to list your "go-to" guys on that Canadian team, where would Perry have been? Exactly.

Not an indictment of his skills but just a different perception than guys like Jonathan Toews, Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Crosby and, well, you get the idea.

So here we are with the Ducks a hair away from claiming a surprise playoff berth.

They are considered one of the most dangerous teams in the NHL right now.

And you know how they got here? On Perry's shoulders.

Most valuable to his team? Oh yeah.

With Getzlaf missing a quarter of the season with injury and the team's No. 1 netminder Jonas Hiller missing for most of the last third of the season, Perry has been unparalleled. He leads all NHLers in goals (22) and points (42) since the All-Star break and is en route to his first Rocket Richard Trophy with 47 goals. He leads the league in third-period goals and is tied for second with 10 game-winners.

Perry is second among all forwards in average ice time, so he's not just pulling down power-play time to pad his stats.

He leads the league in road goals (28).

In his last 13 games Perry has scored 16 times and added nine assists and is plus-11. Of those 16 goals, half have come in the third period or overtime. The Ducks record during that stretch is 9-4-0.

Coach Randy Carlyle told reporters this week that he doesn't think there's a player currently providing those kinds of clutch performances anywhere in the NHL.

"I don't know if there's a player playing better or to a higher level in the league," he said.

The stats illustrate a story that is, for us, pivotal to the Hart question.

Most valuable to his team means leading, and what other kind of leadership is there than by example?

"He's demonstrated a tremendous amount of leadership since the beginning of this year and I think he's accepted that. And I've always stated that he's a guy you can always ask more of because he's prepared and he's willing and he's always thinking that he can always bring more to the table than he's just brought," Carlyle said.

We had a chance to chat with Perry this week.

As you might imagine, he's not overly enamored with talking about the Hart Trophy with the team still focused on trying to secure a playoff berth.

On a recent day off, he said he walked away from the game entirely, spending time with family down at Laguna Beach.

He did check the scores late Monday and was pleased to see that San Jose had hammered Los Angeles.

"It's definitely hard to relax when you know there are other teams right around you," Perry said.

Perry's emergence as a leader -- and by extension his emergence as a Hart Trophy candidate -- is really a natural evolution.

He came into the NHL a first-round pick and spent some time learning to be a pro in the AHL. He played a role as a sophomore player when the Ducks won the Cup in 2007, watching guys like Chris Pronger and Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer on and off the ice, chipping in 15 points in 21 postseason games.

Now, with Niedermayer and Pronger gone, when there is time to say something, Perry has no qualms about speaking up.

"If something needs to be said, I don't hesitate saying it. I just start talking," Perry said.

Talking only serves a purpose if it's backed up on the ice and that's something that hasn't been an issue this season.

"Randy and the coaching staff put a lot of pressure on us to go out and produce," Perry said matter-of-factly.

"We're depended on every night to go out and produce as a line."

That part has been no problem. As for the talk about the Hart, well, that's something that's become an almost daily thing for Perry.

In fact, he can't recall the first time anyone asked him about the award.

"It's kind of all blended together," he said.