NHL Awards: Under-the-radar Hart Trophy candidates

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Nikita Kucherov has received most of the mainstream buzz when it comes to the 2017-18 Hart Trophy discussion and rightfully so. The Lightning forward has led the league in points for most of the season and he’s currently third in goals behind fellow Russians Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, who are also obvious candidates to be named league MVP.

Kucherov’s teammate, Steven Stamkos, was in the conversation for a while too, but that talk seems to have died down a little bit. Everyone seemed to be jumping on the Nathan MacKinnon bandwagon before he got injured, but missing eight games has put a damper on the hype train.

Even last year’s winner, Connor McDavid, has put together a solid season, but with the Oilers out of the playoffs there isn’t really much hope for him to take home the award for a second year in a row.

But there are still some quality candidates that haven’t received as much press this season. It’s important to remember that the Hart Trophy isn’t necessarily given to the best player. It’s “given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team”.

Here are some under-the-radar candidates that aren’t getting enough buzz:

Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils

The Hall-for-MVP talk started building over the weekend after the Devils forward picked up a point in his 18th consecutive game. No one picked the Devils to make the playoffs this season, so the fact that they’re currently in a Wild Card spot in pretty impressive. Hall isn’t the only reason they’re in a playoff position, but there’s no way they’re in this position without him. The 26-year-old has 24 goals and 62 points in 54 games this season. New Jersey has a 1-3-1 record with Hall out of the lineup this season.

Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets

Despite losing Mark Scheifele for over six weeks, the Jets managed to stay afloat for a few reasons. One of them is the way their captain played while Scheifele was on the shelf. Wheeler was forced to move to center for a little while and he definitely didn’t look out of place. In the 16 games that Scheifele missed, the Jets went 11-2-3 and Wheeler accumulated 16 points during that stretch. The 31-year-old is up to 67 points in 59 games this season.

Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

Let’s be totally clear, if the Kings don’t make the playoffs Kopitar can’t be considered a serious candidate. As of right now, Los Angeles is two points out of the final Wild Card spot in the West. Regardless of whether or not they make the postseason, no one can deny that Kopitar’s been a two-way beast for them in 2017-18. After posting just 52 points in 76 games last season, the Kings captain already has 63 points in 59 games, which puts him on pace to pick up 88. It’s clear that playing under new head coach John Stevens has done the 30-year-old a lot of good.

Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers

Many people have already counted the Panthers out of the playoff race because they’re six points back of the final Wild Card spot, but what people fail to realize is that Florida (sort of) controls their own destiny. They have four games in hand on the last playoff team, Carolina. The major reason why they’re still in striking distance is because of Barkov, who has really emerged as an NHL superstar. He’s often compared to Kopitar, and it’s easy to see why. They’re both big centers that can contribute offensively while playing sound hockey in their own end. Barkov has amassed 54 points in 55 games so far. If the Panthers get in, he needs to be a major part of the Hart Trophy discussion. In the one game he missed this season, Florida got obliterated 7-3 by Colorado.

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

Yes, you could easily put Patrice Bergeron in this slot, but he’s been getting a lot of love throughout the NHL. Rask, who got off to a rocky start, has been lights out for the Bruins. Since Nov. 29, he’s lost just two games in regulation. Sure, the Bruins are clearly more than a one-man team, but we have to give Rask some love. He overcame adversity at the start of the year, and he’s arguably been the best goalie in the league for the last three months.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.