The NHL's All-Star break gives hockey fans the opportunity to take a look back at the season so far and hypothesize on what may happen in the second half.
So far, we've seen some surprises - both good (the surging Dallas Stars) and bad (the reeling Ottawa Senators).
We've seen the St. Louis Blues scooped twice on waiver wire signings and a player refusing to report to a team that was willing to pay him half a million dollars to play hockey.
We've seen Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau teach the world new and profane ways to berate his team on cable television and the use of frozen breakfast pastries as a sign of protest in Toronto.
In a season that has already been notable for several reasons both on and off the ice, how do you pick the Most Valuable Player?
While there has been no shortage of individual acts of heroism, none has stood out so far more than Sidney Crosby's 25-game point streak. Crosby's extended run put some real distance between himself and the rest of the pack in the scoring race and virtually lock up the Hart Trophy by Christmas.
But not so fast.
The Crosby for Hart campaign may have gone off the tracks on New Year's Day following a blindside hit to the head by the Washington's David Steckel at the Winter Classic. A few days later, Crosby would be driven into the boards by Tampa Bay Lightning defender Victor Hedman resulting in his first concussion. Canada's Olympic hero has yet to return to the ice, allowing Steven Stamkos to pass him in the scoring race.
While it's unlikely that Crosby would have maintained the two points per game pace he was on during the streak, it's clear that he took another leap in an already remarkable career.
Assuming he stayed healthy, it's safe to predict he would continue to hold the scoring lead, putting him in the pole position to secure his second Hart Trophy in just his sixth season. Should he return following the All-Star break, he remains on pace for 116 points while setting a career high in goals with 56. Now the pace he was on prior to the injury had him flirting with the 150-point plateau, something no player has achieved since former landlord Mario Lemieux had 161 points in 1995-96. That feat would certainly be enough to allow engravers to get the jump on the proceedings prior to the NHL's annual awards ceremony in Las Vegas.
Case closed, right?
Well, hold on a minute.
The case against Crosby for Hart is the fact that the Penguins have hardly struggled in his absence; they are 5-3-1 since he last played on Jan. 5. Making the feat even more impressive is that they've done a great job keeping their heads above water with not just Crosby on the sidelines, but also with Evgeni Malkin nursing a knee injury and sinus ailment. Despite having $18 million worth of All-Stars in the press box, the Pens continue to roll on and remain within striking distance of the Atlantic Division title. Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is that the Penguins are simply a strong, well coached hockey team that knows how to win with or without the league's star attractions in their lineup.
So if not Crosby for Hart, then who?
The obvious choice is of course Stamkos. In just his third NHL season, the Lightning's top Bolt leads the league in goals with 38 and points with 67. He's on pace for career highs across the board and may have stolen the 'most electrifying player in the game' mantle away from Alex Ovechkin.
Powered by Stamkos, the Lightning are in the driver's seat in the Southeast Division and are on track to make their return to the post-season for the first time since 2007.
Working against 'Little Stevie Wonder' (with apologies to Stamkos' boss Steve Yzerman) is the fact that he's hardly a one man show. Former Hart Trophy winner Martin St-Louis is certainly doing his fair share of the heavy lifting in Tampa and is just six points behind Stamkos in the scoring race. Vincent Lecavalier may not be the same dominant, point per game player he was a few short years ago, but remains a dangerous scorer who can ignite at any time. The Bolts are also getting solid contributions from players like Ryan Malone, Steve Downie and Ted Purcell. The recent acquisition of netminder Dwayne Roloson also gives them a reliable every day keeper, something they did not have under the combo of Dan Ellis and Mike Smith. If the Hart Trophy is annually awarded to the player to be judged as most valuable to his team, it would be difficult to automatically hand it over to Stamkos.
To find a player who's unquestionably been his team's catalyst, look no further than Boston where Tim Thomas has been doing it all for the Northeast Division-leading Bruins.
A former Vezina trophy winner, the 36-year-old entered the season as the league's highest paid backup after sophomore Tuukka Rask claimed the starter's job last season. Instead of sulking, Thomas worked on his game and when the opportunity presented itself, he seized it.
Since re-establishing himself as the No. 1 man between the pipes, Thomas has been absolutely stellar - posting a 24-5-6 record to go along with a phenomenal .945 save percentage and a miniscule 1.81 goals-against average. To put that in perspective, during his best ever statistical season - 1997-98 when he captured the Vezina, Lester B. Pearson and Hart trophies - Dominik Hasek sported a 1.87 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage.
Unfortunately for Thomas, Hasek's Hart was an anomaly. Case in point - since the NHL expanded from the Original Six in 1967, only two goaltenders have ever won the Hart trophy; Hasek and Jose Theodore. While voters have more recently given consideration to goaltenders who enjoy a particularly spectacular season (Ryan Miller was nominated last season), by and large it appears as though the voters prefer to award the trophy to a skater since goaltenders have their own award. While Thomas certainly deserves a great deal of consideration for the award, odds are that it will end up in the hands of someone who puts the puck in the net as opposed to keeping it out.
Last season, Henrik Sedin became the first player in Vancouver Canucks history to earn the Hart Trophy after leading the NHL in scoring and the Canucks to the Northwest Division crown (doing so for an extended stretch without brother Daniel who missed 18 games with a broken foot). With the Canucks sitting on top of the Western Conference, the possibility certainly exists that the Hart will spend its second straight year in Vancouver. Perhaps not in the trophy cabinet of who you think.
Henrik is enjoying another fantastic season with 61 points and is one spot behind brother Daniel (64 points), but to a man the Canucks would say the driving force behind their success so far has been Ryan Kesler.
The 26-year-old enjoyed a breakout campaign last year that saw him set career bests in goals, assists and points while picking up an Olympic silver medal along the way. And Kesler is considered one of the best two-way threats in the game today, which voters recognized as he was selected as a finalist for the Selke Trophy.
Instead of settling in as the best second-line centre in the league, Kesler has raised his game this season. He's tied for third in goals with 27 and is on pace for 44 this season, which would nearly double his career best. He shares the league lead with six game-winning goals and is once again among the NHL's best in the faceoff dot.
While the Sedin factor has inevitably helped Kesler become the player that he is today, it may well work against him when the final votes are tallied. With three solid MVP candidates on the team, it's quite possible that the vote could well be split between the trio as voters have a difficult time attempting to decide who the most valuable Canuck actually is.
An additional wrinkle is the fact that since expansion, no U.S.-born player - save for U.S. sniper Brett Hull who was born in Belleville, Ontario - has ever captured the NHL's top honour.
If we continue along the lines of well deserving, but likely overlooked candidates, how about Dustin Byfuglien of the Atlanta Thrashers?
Many pundits considered Thrashers' GM Rick Dudley and head coach Craig Ramsey crazy for moving Big Buff back from forward to his original position on the blueline. After all, he was on the verge of becoming one of the top power forwards in the league who could stand in front of the net and take punishment to score goals. But obviously, there's a reason why Dudley and Ramsey are running an NHL franchise and the pundits are writing about it, because everybody should stick to their strengths.
Byfuglien has been a god-send for the Thrashers and leads all defencemen with 16 goals. He has helped bring confidence and swagger to a young team in desperate need of an identity and has the Thrashers thinking playoffs for the first time in a long time.
Unfortunately, it appears that Byfuglien has cooled somewhat after a spectacular start. He has been held scoreless for the past 10 games and has lost the blueline scoring lead to the Phoenix Coyotes' Keith Yandle. It appears as though Byfuglien's shot at the Hart remains remote at best.
Speaking of Yandle, he too deserves some recognition for what he's doing in the desert. Few players in the league have been playing at as high of level as Yandle since the calendar turned to 2011. He shares the scoring lead with Patrice Bergeron for most points in the month of January with 17 and has helped the Coyotes vault all the way to the sixth spot in the tightly bunched Western Conference.
Sadly for Yandle, playing in Glendale means that many fans haven't seen what he's been able to achieve. In terms of those voting for the award it may well be a case of out of sight, out of mind.
Another factor to consider is that defencemen rarely capture the Hart. Much like goaltenders are forced to settle for the Vezina, most top blueliners' sights are set on the Norris trophy. Yandle will likely have to battle it out with Byfuglien for the league's top blueline honours.
One final name to throw out here and it's another defenceman.
While there is no shortage of hardware in Detroit Red Wings' captain Nicklas Lidstrom's trophy cabinet, the one award that has been out of his reach during his illustrious career is the Hart Trophy.
Following a somewhat middling season by his own lofty standards last year, the thought was that Lidstrom would play one more year before riding off into the sunset. Plans may well have changed as the ageless wonder is on pace for one of the best seasons of his distinguished career.
He sits third in the defensive scoring race and has his Red Wings comfortably in first place in the Central Divison. His achievements are even more impressive when you realize that he has done so on a team that has been decimated by injuries. Brian Rafalski missed 10 games with a knee injury, Pavel Datsyuk has just been activated from injured reserve after missing 16 games with a broken hand and leading goal scorer Dan Cleary has not played a game in the New Year thanks to a broken ankle.
Unfortunately for Lidstrom, like most of his career, he is often overlooked due to his lack of flash to go along with his consistently strong play. Simply put, most hockey fans expect Lidstrom to be among the defensive leaders in points and ice-time and to perform at an All-World level at all times. While Lidstrom may be on pace for one of his best ever seasons at the age of 40, most fans consider it business as usual. Perhaps we will come to the realization once he finally chooses to hang up the blades just how special that he truly was and that he was the best defenceman not named Orr to ever play the game.
It's clear that there is no lack of candidates for the NHL's top honour, but who's the most deserving?
Our question for you in the latest edition of Netcrashing is the following: 'Who is your choice for the Hart Trophy?'
Let your opinions be known in our 'Your Call' feature below.