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Friday, March 20, 2009
Who is the MVP front-runner?

By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

Editor's note: Our weekly "Faceoff" features ESPN.com NHL writers Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Pierre LeBrun (based in Toronto), who duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!

Evgeni Malkin
Evgeni Malkin recently surpassed the 100-point plateau for the second consecutive season.
This week's topic: Who are the front-runners for the Hart Trophy and other major NHL awards?

Scott Burnside: Bonjour, mon ami. Le gateau est sur la table. That's French for "Hello, my friend. The cake is on the table." That's my lead-in to a discussion of some of the major trophies that will be awarded after the regular season. Seems like people are just noticing the guy in Pittsburgh, Evgeni Malkin, who has a 10-point lead over teammate Sidney Crosby before Thursday's action and a nine-point cushion over the guy I think many believe is a lock to win the Hart Trophy as MVP, Alexander Ovechkin. For my money, the vote is a no-brainer -- Malkin has been the main man behind the Penguins' revival in the second half of this season. Your thoughts?

Pierre LeBrun: Scotty, I must give you props, my friend, you were the first national media voice to single out Malkin for the Hart a few weeks ago, way before all the bandwagon jumpers of late. So, credit to you on that one. And listen, Malkin has a compelling case, no question. But here's where it's tricky for me. You and I are among the many members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association that vote on the Hart Trophy. The troubling part for me is I take that to heart. The award is for the Most Valuable Player to his team, not for the Most Outstanding Season. There's a clear distinction there.

If it were the latter, it would indeed be Malkin, in a cakewalk. I mean, who's having a better season than Malkin? But, to me, the actual award suggests the winner is that much more valuable to his team than the next-best player on his team. Are you actually going to tell me Malkin is that much more valuable to Pittsburgh than Sidney Crosby? No way. They're both equally amazing and important and superbly talented. But I ask you this, where would the New Jersey Devils be without Zach Parise this season given the absence of Martin Brodeur for most of the season?

Burnside: I love your unwavering support for the dark-horse Parise and he is certainly worthy of merit, especially when you consider the wording of the award's parameters. If taken at the letter of the law, then who could argue against Steve Mason, the Blue Jackets' phenomenal rookie netminder who leads the NHL with nine shutouts and is second in goals-against average? He is the single-most important factor in Columbus' looking to secure its first playoff berth.

I think people are still going to hold last season's grisly playoff performance in the Cup finals against Malkin. Similarly, I think there's a chance Ovechkin will earn the Hart because he plays with so much more emotion and, well, he's going to win the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals for the second straight season. It's an optics thing.

LeBrun: I know I won't vote for Mason because of my long-held belief that goalies should not win the Hart. They've got the Vezina Trophy, a prestigious award, and I hope Mason wins it along with the Calder. He doesn't need to stick his nose in the Hart voting.

As for Ovechkin, let me say this: If he doesn't win it again, he'll be disappointed, I'm sure, but it'll be a compliment to the Washington Capitals organization. Because, to me, it means people no longer view the Caps as a one-man team. It means Mike Green is a Norris Trophy candidate; it means Alexander Semin is a star sniper; it means Nicklas Backstrom is an elite No. 1 center; it means Brooks Laich is an underrated two-way player. Ovechkin won in a landslide last season because we as voters believed he was the overwhelming reason the Caps made the playoffs. He is still their best player, but he's got talent surrounding him.

Speaking of being surrounded by talent, what about Pavel Datsyuk for the Hart? His numbers are spectacular and that's hard to do on a balanced Wings team that doesn't need to overplay its stars.

Burnside: I agree Datsyuk is a rare talent, but I don't think he's got what it takes to be a Hart guy. And I think your prejudice against goalies is a bit misguided. I agree you shouldn't throw them into the Hart mix just for fun, but I also think, in rare cases, they deserve some love, and what Mason has done, as a rookie not expected to be part of the Blue Jackets' immediate plans to boot, is worthy of consideration.

How about a quick trip around some of the other awards? What about the Lady Byng? OK, just kidding. How about the Vezina? Interesting dynamics this season with Roberto Luongo and Brodeur out with injuries for long periods. Do you think it hurts Luongo's chances given how strongly the Vancouver Canucks are finishing the season? As for me, I'd like to see Tim Thomas get some love, but I'm afraid splitting time with Manny Fernandez will hurt his chances even though he leads the NHL in both save percentage and GAA.

Pekka Rinne
Through March 19, rookie Pekka Rinne has a 2.26 goals-against average and .922 save percentage for the Predators.

LeBrun: It's important to note the league's 30 GMs vote on the Vezina. They tend to highly value seniority and track record over a surprise individual season. So, while the writers had more MVP votes for Luongo over Brodeur two years ago (when Crosby won), the GMs that year still gave the Vezina to Brodeur over Luongo. Now, given that Brodeur is out of the mix this year, I think Luongo is the favorite because he's been the heir apparent and, like you said, has come back strong from injury and has had a huge second half. Mason and Thomas deserve to be in the mix, as well as Evgeni Nabokov and Miikka Kiprusoff, in my mind. But I bet Luongo wins it. How about the Calder? Mason seems like the runaway winner, but I know you've been touting another goalie, as well.

Burnside: As you wave the Parise flag, I have been trumpeting the work of Pekka Rinne, the big Finn whose numbers are very similar to those posted by Mason. Rinne is third in GAA, fifth in save percentage and has seven shutouts, second in the NHL behind Mason. He's also one of the main reasons, if not the only one, the Nashville Predators are still thinking playoffs. He hasn't had anywhere near the press Mason has, but should be on the final ballot for rookie of the year, if not getting a long look from Vezina voters. As for Kiprusoff, he has an outside chance at Brodeur's single-season record of 48 wins, but has been a bit up-and-down. Henrik Lundqvist should get a look because he's been the best thing about a very ordinary Rangers team.

How do you feel about coach of the year honors, which often end up being an award for making do with less as an NHL bench boss?

LeBrun: Not so fast, buster; I'm not done with the Calder. I think Mason and Rinne will be nominees, but let's give a shout out to Bobby Ryan, Drew Doughty and Zach Bogosian. Ryan has been outstanding since being called up, while Bogosian and Doughty are excelling as 18- and 19-year-old blueliners, unheard of in the NHL. But you asked about the Jack Adams Award. Like always, such a long list of worthy candidates: Claude Julien (Boston), Brent Sutter (New Jersey), Barry Trotz (Nashville), Ken Hitchcock (Columbus), Bruce Boudreau (Washington), Todd McLellan (San Jose), Joel Quenneville (Chicago). Of course, the one guy I'm sure that won't get nominated is probably the best coach in the league, Detroit's Mike Babcock. But, as you and I both agree, the award is always about exceeding expectations more than anything.

Burnside: Sorry pal, didn't mean to cut you off in mid-rant on the Calder. Good points on the other potential nominees. As for coach of the year, are you sure you couldn't have listed more probables? I think Sutter is a lock. One of the best teams in the NHL without the greatest goalie of all time for most of the season. Enough said.

How about the Norris to wrap things up? They might as well call this trophy "The Lidstrom" given Nicklas Lidstrom's domination for most of the last decade, but I think this is the year that run ends. My guess is Mike Green has impressed enough voters with his offensive genius (he leads all defensemen with 63 points, 15 more than Lidstrom, and is plus-24, which is meaningless, but I threw it in there anyway). Other candidates? Dan Boyle, and I like Nashville's Shea Weber, who has 19 goals and has been a big part of a Predators team that just won't quit.

LeBrun: Don't forget Zdeno Chara; he's been tremendous all season long and has been knocking at the Norris door for a few seasons. He's the best player on the Boston Bruins. But I agree Green's numbers may lead the way with the voters. More proof Ovechkin isn't the lone star on that team. You sure you don't want to talk about the Lady Byng? Maybe Sean Avery? OK, OK, enough for this week. Talk to you later, pal.

Burnside: My last thought on Chara. Wonder if the Bruins' late-season wobble will hurt his chances, even though I agree he's been a huge force on a team that's been very, very good from the start of the season. I think it's going to take longer than we have to get to the bottom of that tough, tough Lady Byng field. See ya.

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com. Both writers have taken themselves out of the running for the Lady Byng.