With all due respect to Miikka Kiprusoff, Daniel Alfredsson and some of the other names mentioned in the Hart Trophy race, the main debate has come down to two players.
Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton.
Who most deserves to be named league MVP? Which player will the hockey writers choose? ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek and ESPN.com's Paul Grant make their case.
Meanwhile, if you want to cast your vote, you can have your say on all the NHL awards by clicking here.
THE CASE FOR JAGR
If I were going to base my MVP vote on the final week of the season, I might be inclined to cast my ballot for Sharks center Joe Thornton. He finished a great campaign with a strong surge, overtaking Rangers right wing Jaromir Jagr for the league scoring title. But I'm not basing my vote on a handful of games; instead, I'm weighing the entire 82-game season. Because of that, I'm voting for Jagr.
The Rangers came into this season as a major underdog. Sports Illustrated thought so much of them, they picked them to finish last in the league. ESPN The Magazine didn't think they were the worst team but figured they were pretty darn close.
Jagr set the tempo for his club in training camp, boldly predicting his team would beat the odds and qualify for the playoffs. He posted the ugly predictions to the back of his stall at Madison Square Garden, using them as a motivator for himself and his teammates.
Jagr turned down an opportunity to wear the captain's "C." He thought a North American player would be better suited for that job in New York. Still, he didn't shy away from taking a position of leadership both on and off the ice. His teammates were quick to follow his lead. In the season opener, Jagr made an immediate statement with a three-point performance, leading the Rangers to a come-from-behind 5-4 win in Philadelphia.
The smilin' Czech didn't take his foot off the gas for the entire season. Jagr, who played in all 82 games despite a couple of nagging injuries, never went more than two consecutive games without registering a goal or an assist (and that happened just once). Jagr never seemed to wilt despite carrying the weight off the club's offense on his shoulders. In all the club's big games, he made an impact; he was dynamic. Even in the Rangers' season-ending 5-1 loss to the Senators, Jagr was pushing to make things happen.
In the end, the numbers were impressive. Jagr finished with 123 points, just two behind Thornton. He netted 54 goals, just two behind surprising league leader Jonathan Cheechoo, who is Thornton's teammate. Jagr also dished out 69 assists, placing him in a tie for third place on the league list. He accomplished all of this while being hounded by each opponent's best defensive players.
But for Jagr, this season was about more than just offensive numbers. This season, Jagr was a superstar in full. He was superlative on the ice and embraced being a leader off it. He worked to be more of a two-way player, and it showed as he finished among the league leaders with a plus-34 rating. His work ethic drew rave reviews from his coaches, teammates and opponents.
This season, Jagr did just about everything one player could do to deliver his team to the postseason for the first time since 1997. For all of that, Jagr deserves the Hart Trophy.
-- E.J. Hradek
THE CASE FOR THORNTON
It's not even close. The only reason we're debating this is because Joe Thornton works on the West Coast; if he were still playing on the East Coast and having the season he's having, he'd be the runaway winner of the Hart.
Let's look at the facts.
After the trade that moved him from Boston to San Jose, the Sharks went 36-15-7. Thornton scored 20 goals and had 72 assists for 92 points -- in 58 games! Wait, there's more. Thornton has pushed the Sharks up the tough Western Conference ladder from last place to the point where they are now a favored playoff team, even though they don't have home-ice advantage.
Think about that for a second.
While you're mulling that over, I'll tell you why Jaromir Jagr is not the 2005-06 Hart winner: If it weren't for the amazing season slugged out by rookie stopper Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers would have had to squeeze into the playoffs. Jagr has been the top player before on teams that didn't make the playoffs (goodbye, Washington!). Where were his MVP votes then?
You can say he didn't have the same quality of a supporting cast around him -- a point I would concede, and it further supports my argument, thank you. Jagr is good this season because the players around him are better. The MVP, after all, is supposed to be the player his team would lose without. Face it, with or without Jagr, the Rangers are still in the playoffs.
Take Thornton out of the Sharks' lineup, on the other hand, and you're looking at a team that's out of the playoffs. The comparison is easy to make, simply because the Sharks weren't contenders before the trade. This isn't theoretical, it's obvious.
In his first six games with the Sharks, Thornton had three goals and 11 assists, rolling an oh-fer-10 team onto a six-game winning streak, the momentum of which carried through the season. That's what I call instant results.
More stats: Before Thornton's relocation west, Jonathan Cheechoo was an interesting character from Canada's Far North. After Thornton's arrival, Cheechoo scored 49 goals -- including his first five career hat tricks -- and became the leading goal scorer in the NHL.
Who would've predicted that before the season? Cheechoo's goals total is directly connected to Thornton's arrival, and the team's increased offense is directly linked to its rapid climb up the standings.
Without Thornton, that doesn't happen. It doesn't get much clearer than that.
Call the Bruins, ask for Jeremy Jacobs, laugh into the phone and hang up. Thornton is the league's MVP.
-- Paul Grant
Experts' awards picks | Awards history