We asked several NHL.com writers to make their choices for the Hart. If their responses are representative of those voting for the award, it should be one of the closest races in recent memory.
Hall, 26, was sixth in the NHL with 93 points (39 goals, 54 assists) and helped the Devils reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2012. He is a first-time Hart Trophy finalist. No Devils player has won the award.
Kopitar, 30, tied for seventh with 92 points (35 goals, 57 assists) and helped the Kings reach the playoffs after missing last season. Also a finalist for the Selke Trophy, awarded to the forward judged to best excel in the defensive aspects of the game, Kopitar is a first-time finalist for the Hart Trophy. Wayne Gretzky (1989) is the only Kings player to win it.
MacKinnon, 22, was fifth in the NHL with 97 points (39 goals, 58 assists) in 74 games. His 12 game-winning goals tied Tampa Bay Lightning forward Brayden Point for the NHL lead and matched Joe Sakic (2000-01) for the most in a season by an Avalanche player. MacKinnon helped Colorado improve by 47 points in the standings, going from last in the League in 2016-17 to the second wild card from the Western Conference this season.
Here are the NHL.com staff picks:
Dan Rosen, senior writer
Kopitar had the most complete season of anybody in the League. That’s why he should win the Hart Trophy. He did it offensively scoring 31 more points than anyone on his team (Dustin Brown finished second with 61). Kopitar led all forwards in total ice time (1,810:58) and ice time per game (22:05). He had to face the toughest matchups with Jeff Carter, the Kings’ No. 2 center, sidelined for 55 games because of an injury. He did it defensively. Kopitar, a plus-21, started 45.98 percent of his 5-on-5 shifts in the defensive zone but finished with a 52.08 shot-attempts percentage (SAT). He won 54.1 percent of his face-offs (983 of 1,816). He averaged 2:10 of shorthanded ice time per game, most among the Kings’ forwards, on the best penalty kill in the League (85.0 percent). Kopitar was a huge reason the Kings reached the playoffs a season after they failed to qualify. Hall and MacKinnon are deserving candidates, but they weren’t as impactful in all three zones as Kopitar.
Tom Gulitti, staff writer
When NHL.com did its voting at the end of the regular season, I was torn between MacKinnon and Hall. I went with MacKinnon because he is a center, which has more responsibilities than a left wing, Hall’s position. Then, I thought maybe Dan was right and I should have voted for Kopitar. But I kept coming back to Hall. He was the engine that drove the Devils almost every game and the main reason they improved 27 points in the standings and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12. He had 41 more points than the second-highest scorer on New Jersey, Nico Hischier (52). That was largest differential between a team’s top two scorers in the NHL. Despite playing with torn ligaments in his left hand since late December (he had surgery after the season), Hall was remarkably dominant and consistent, scoring 38 points (18 goals, 20 assists) during a personal 26-game point streak between Jan. 2-March 6, setting a Devils record.
Dave Stubbs, columnist
After seasons of 38, 52 and 53 points, MacKinnon enjoyed a breakout season. He likely would have topped 100 points had he not missed eight games because of injury, and his 1.31 points per game ranked second in the NHL behind Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers (1.32). A dozen of his goals were game-winners for a team that rebounded from a 48-point season in 2016-17, last in the NHL, to its first playoff appearance since 2014. Any of the three finalists are deserving winners, but the remarkable resurgence of the Avalanche has MacKinnon’s fingerprints all over it. In one season, he quarterbacked his team as a much more complete player. The Hart goes to the player judged to be most valuable “to his team.” As MacKinnon went, so went the Avalanche.
Nick Cotsonika, columnist
Dan said it well. To bolster his argument, consider the 2016-17 season: Kopitar played three games for Slovenia in the Olympic qualifying tournament in Minsk, Belarus, and six for Europe in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 in Toronto. He started slowly for the Kings, then sustained a wrist injury and couldn’t shoot for three months, not that he told anyone. He averaged 20:46 of ice time and had strong possession numbers. But he wasn’t at his best, and neither were the Kings, who missed the playoffs. “He had a lot on his plate last year, and as a team we struggled,” Brown said. It was no coincidence then, and it was no coincidence this season when Kopitar was at his best and the Kings made the playoffs. He was the most valuable player to his team.
Shawn P. Roarke, Director of Editorial
Where would the Devils be without Hall? I’m not sure, but it is a safe bet it would not have been in the playoffs. Could the Kings have made the playoffs without Kopitar? It’s likely, especially with Jonathan Quick in goal and Drew Doughty, a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, on defense. How about the Avalanche without MacKinnon? That is harder to say, but MacKinnon did have forwards Mikko Rantanen (84 points) Gabriel Landeskog (62 points) to help him. Tyson Barrie, Colorado’s top defenseman, had 57 points. Hall had no such support. Two forwards on the Devils had more than 40 points; in addition to Hischier, Kyle Palmieri had 44. No. 1 goalie Cory Schneider was out from Jan. 25-Feb 27. During that 16-game stretch with their season on the line, Hall scored 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) in 15 games. He missed two games with a hand injury. The Devils lost each of those games, scoring two goals. They went 9-6-0 in the games in which Hall played.