When Alex Ovechkin is on the ice, he’s playing at an MVP level.
Just in the last two weeks, the Washington Capitals star has scored in three consecutive games, registered a point in five straight and now leads the NHL in both goals and points.
But even when he’s not on the ice, his chances of winning the Hart Memorial Trophy are improving.
The path for “The Great 8” to claim the fourth MVP of his career could be clearing itself. Beyond the superstar’s league-leading scoring production, another factor that has developed over the last month could wipe out two of the biggest competitors standing between Ovechkin and the Hart Trophy. The Edmonton Oilers are collapsing, and going down with them could be the MVP hopes of stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
The Oilers are on a six-game losing streak and have won only two contests since Dec. 2. The downfall has taken them from one of the best teams in the Western Conference to seventh place in the Pacific Division and six points out of a wild card spot, as of Wednesday afternoon.
While McDavid and Draisaitl are considered two of the league’s top players no matter where the Oilers are in the standings, missing the playoffs is essentially a death knell for an NHL player’s MVP hopes. The award for the league’s most valuable player, as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, has been given out 97 times since 1924, and only three times has it gone to a player whose team missed the postseason.
If the Oilers (18-15-2) continue to flounder, it widens the field of players who can win the Hart Trophy and makes Ovechkin, especially with the way he’s playing now, a potential frontrunner.
At 36 years old, Ovechkin is wowing the NHL with not just his resurgence and one of the best campaigns for a player in his late 30s, but also with arguably one of his best seasons ever. He leads the league with 27 goals and 55 points, setting him on an 82-game pace for 55 scores and 112 points — the same point total he had when he won his first Hart Trophy in 2008.
His other two MVPs came in 2009 and 2013. If he wins another, he would join Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Eddie Shore as the only players to win more than three Hart trophies. In fact, he would become the first NHL player to win the award in three different decades.
Since McDavid broke out at 20 years old in 2016-17, the Hart Trophy has run through Edmonton — as long as the Oilers have made the playoffs. The trophy has gone to McDavid or Draisaitl in three of the past five years (2017, 2020 and 2021), with the other two being seasons in which Edmonton missed the postseason.
Until Ovechkin’s score in Tuesday’s victory over Winnipeg put him in the NHL lead in points and goals, McDavid and Draisaitl have mostly held the lead in those two categories. McDavid, widely considered the world’s best hockey player, is second with 53 points (19 goals and 34 assists), while Draisaitl is second with 54 points (26 goals and 28 helpers).
McDavid is still the betting favorite at +180 on DraftKings Sportsbook, but Ovechkin’s odds have risen from +775 in December to +350 on Wednesday, ahead of Draisaitl at +450.
Of course, Ovechkin, McDavid and Draisaitl aren’t the only players qualified to earn the honor. Toronto’s Auston Matthews, Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau and Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon are all having excellent seasons, and a stellar second half could propel any of them to the front of the pack.
In some sports, like Major League Baseball, whether or not a player’s team qualified for the postseason isn’t heavily weighted anymore. For example, in 2021, the top three candidates for both the American League and National League MVPs were from nonplayoff teams, including winners Shohei Ohtani (Angels) and Bryce Harper (Phillies).
But that’s not the case in the NHL. The last player to win the Hart Trophy from a nonplayoff team was Mario Lemieux in 1988 when the 22-year-old led the league with 168 points. He won the award despite the Pittsburgh Penguins missing the postseason by one point, snapping the eight-year stranglehold that Gretzky, who missed 16 games with an injury that season, had on the Hart Trophy.
The other two MVP winners from teams that missed the postseason both came in the 1950s, when the NHL had only six teams. In 1954, Chicago goaltender Al Rollins won the award despite the Blackhawks owning the league’s worst record, and five years later, winger Andy Bathgate earned the honor for a New York Rangers team that narrowly missed the four-team postseason.
Nearing the midway point of the season, Ovechkin and the other MVP candidates still have a long way to go before an MVP is named. Most important for Ovechkin’s Hart Trophy chances is that the Capitals (22-9-9) keep winning and he continues his torrid pace and remains healthy.
But it also wouldn’t hurt for McDavid and Draisaitl to essentially remove themselves from the discussion by missing the postseason.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Edmonton’s record. The Oilers are 18-15-2.