3 Hart Trophy Candidates to Watch This Weekend: Shesterkin, Matthews, McDavid

2021-22 Hart Trophy | Washington Capitals Garnet Hathaway fights Connor McDavid for positioning in front of the Edmonton Oilers' net at Capital One Arena in Washington D.C., Feb. 2, 2022 (Image: Brian Murphy, All-Pro Reels)
Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, fighting for net-front positioning with the Washington Capitals' Garnet Hathaway (Image: All-Pro Reels)

There’s plenty left to play for down the stretch in the NHL, with the league’s stars battling it out to win the 2021-22 Hart Trophy.

Awarded to the player most valuable to his team during the regular-season, the Hart Trophy is one of the NHL’s top individual accolades. It’s only comparable is the Conn Smythe Trophy, which is presented to the MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The race for the Hart Trophy has been especially fierce, with Alex Ovechkin’s hot start to the campaign throwing the competition wide open. Although the Russian is no longer considered the favourite to win the award, he remains a worthy longshot candidate after accomplishing the ninth 50-goal season of his career.

2021-22 Hart Trophy Contenders: Shesterkin, Matthews, McDavid

With the clock ticking down on the regular-season, this weekend’s schedule provides the perfect opportunity to watch three Hart Trophy candidates in action.

Igor Shesterkin, Netminder for the New York Rangers:

After a slightly iffy eight-game stretch, Igor Shesterkin has roared back into contention for the Hart Trophy.

The 26-year-old owns a .936 save percentage (SV%) heading into the final fortnight of the season, a league leading figure amongst goalies with at least 22 appearances this term. He also tops the NHL in goals-against average (2.01) and ranks sixth in shutouts (6).

Shesterkin’s influence isn’t limited to the crease either, his excellent passing has played a key role in in the New York Rangers’ rapid climb back into Stanley Cup contention.

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“The plays and breakout passes he makes are just spectacular,” said teammate Ryan Strome in late February. “He’s probably a better passer than 75-80 percent of our team, I think guys would openly admit that, too.”

With three shutouts through his last five outings, Shesterkin’s Hart Trophy credentials are formidable. He’s saved 44.7 goals above expected and holds a 36-11-4 record on the season. In other words, he’s caused opposition coaches and forwards plenty of headaches this season.

The Russian’s next opportunity to impress will arrive at 20:00 (GMT) on Saturday [23 April], when the Rangers travel to Boston to face the Bruins.

Tune into NHL TV to see if Shesterkin strengthens his claim for the 2021-22 Hart Trophy.

Auston Matthews, Centreman for the Toronto Maple Leafs:

According to The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn, “the race is over” for this year’s MVP award: Auston Matthews is the rightful winner.

Luszczyszyn’s argument, as always, is based on a combination of his advanced statistical model and the eye test. In other words, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ alternate captain ticks all the boxes.

Despite starting slowly, Matthews has scored a franchise-record 58 goals this season. He’s also picked up 44 assists for 102 points through 70 appearances. What’s more, the 24-year-old is a positive influence for the Leafs at both ends of the ice. He’s a 200-foot player in every sense.

However, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that his offensive production is boosted by sharing a line with Mitch Marner. “Where would Matthews be without the help of an elite playmaker by his side?” the theory goes.

Washington Capitals forward Nic Dowd chases down Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs at Capital One Arena in Washington D.C., Feb. 28, 2022. (Image: Brian Murphy, All-Pro Reels) - 2021-22 Hart Trophy
Washington Capitals forward Nic Dowd chases down 2021-22 Hart Trophy front-runner Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Image: Brian Murphy, All-Pro Reels)

According to Luszczyszyn, Matthews scores 1.86 goals-per-60 at five-on-five away from Marner, while earning a 61 per cent share of expected goals. In other words, the California-born, Arizona-raised forward is dominant with or without Toronto’s #16.

Sheldon Keefe’s Leafs have a pair of huge tests coming up this weekend, both streamable on NHL TV at midnight.

On Saturday, Toronto travel to Miami to face the Florida Panthers. They’ll go toe-to-toe against the Washington Capitals a day later.

Matthews could play a huge role this weekend. He’s been out of action for the last week, battling an undisclosed, day-to-day injury. His return to the line-up would mark the resumption of his Hart Trophy chase.

Connor McDavid, Centreman for the Edmonton Oilers:

Connor McDavid, the sport’s best player, is somewhat of an enigma seven years into his NHL career.

The Canadian’s record speaks for itself. He’s amassed 690 points (238 goals, 452 assists) through 484 games played, a generational point-scoring pace. However, the Edmonton Oilers are yet to enjoy playoff success with him on the roster, much to the 25-year-old’s frustration.

McDavid hasn’t slowed down this season: he has 116 points (43 goals, 73 assists) in 77 appearances. To be clear, the current Hart Trophy holder is in the frame to scope the prize in back-to-back seasons.

After featuring for Team North America in 2016, Connor McDavid could captain Team Canada at the 2024 World Cup of Hockey (Image: Brian Murphy, All-Pro Reels)
Connor McDavid is the third-favourite to win the 2021-22 Hart Trophy (Image: Brian Murphy, All-Pro Reels)

“I think guys are confident right now,” McDavid said after Edmonton’s 5-2 win over the Dallas Stars. “Up and down the line-up, guys feel good about their own game and feel good about our team game. There are a lot of good things happening right now and we have to keep at it.”

Jay Woodcroft, the Oilers’ recently appointed head coach, agreed.

“We’re building and improving and improving is fun,” he said. “Our team is trending in the right direction, but as I’ve said the last couple of days, I don’t think we’ve played to our full potential yet.”

On Sunday [24 April], McDavid’s 2021-22 Hart Trophy campaign will intensify. The Oilers face off against the Columbus Blue Jackets at 18:00 on NHL TV in what promises to be an exciting clash.

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