If you were making a short list of candidates for the Hart Trophy this season, given to the most valuable player in the NHL as chosen by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, it would probably have four names - Sidney Crosby, Braden Holtby, Patrick Kane and Jamie Benn.
Sidney Crosby would likely win the trophy every year if the NHL had its druthers, and he has made a strong case in the latter half of this season. He is somewhat of an all-situation player with fairly light penalty kill usage, and he takes relatively even zone starts. But can voters overlook that Crosby played so poorly at beginning of the season that he, along with his Pittsburgh Penguins teammates, got his coach fired?
Braden Holtby is putting up astounding win totals in goal - he may very well get to 50 wins as an individual - but his save percentage and goals against average are simply very good, not amazing. It's not a true Chris Osgood situation, where a fairly average goalie is propped up by a team of All-Stars, but Holtby is a very good goalie on an excellent offensive team, and the strength of the Washington Capitals unit probably makes his win total look better than his individual play would suggest. In terms of individual goalie stat lines, there's a fine argument that he hasn't been the best goalie in his conference (behind Ben Bishop and his 2.00 GAA, 0.929 save percentage), let alone the best player in the league.
Then there is the elephant in the room, Patrick Kane. Kane has outpaced every player in the league in the points department, reaching 100 after a rout of the Boston Bruins on Sunday, and is second in goals. He is the most explosive offensive player in the league this season, but he is also one-dimensional, receiving extremely favorable zone starts with the Chicago Blackhawks (to the tune of 20-plus percent in 5-v-5 play) and virtually no time on the penalty kill. He is the best in the league at what he does, but that extends to only half of what wins hockey games.
Which brings us to Jamie Benn, by far the most well rounded of the likely candidates. Benn plays all special teams situations for the Dallas Stars and is one of the most dangerous shorthanded players in the league, as well as a trusted penalty killer even when he's not scoring. He is the pointy tip on the spear of the NHL's most dangerous offense and is a person the Stars put on the ice whether they need a goal late or are protecting a one-goal lead.
That shorthanded usage likely drives Benn's offense down as he gets slightly less favorable ice time compared to the other options (he receives 29 percent of the Stars 5 v 5 time on ice while Crosby and Kane average about 32 percent on their respective teams), but it also makes him, to steal from baseball parlance, the only true five-tool player of the bunch.
And that all-around contribution, combined with his team's resurgence on the back of his play, is what makes him such a strong candidate. Benn may not have the sparkling point totals of Kane, the hype of Crosby or the eye-popping wins of Holtby, but he makes a difference for his team in the most situations. He is third in the league in goals and second in points while being an all-around player rather than used a specialist.
The knock against Benn, at least earlier this season among national media, was he played on an offensively dynamic team and alongside fellow All-Star Tyler Seguin.
There is definitely truth to the idea that Benn and Seguin bring out the best in each other, and the Stars are the league's highest scoring team by a fair margin. However, Benn has been productive both with and without Seguin (particularly in the long stretch since Seguin was lost with an Achilles tendon laceration), and Benn creates the offensively dynamic style more than he is a beneficiary of it. His unique combination of size, strength, puckhandling ability and a lethal release set the stage for everything the Stars do in the offensive zone, and his timely hitting and solid reads define their defensive zone and transition play.
Let's go back to the beginning of the season, when Jonathan Quick wrote about elite snipers for The Players Tribune. He hit the combo button and took Seguin and Benn together (as he took Kane alongside Jonathan Toews in a previous article), but the paragraph on Benn alone is perhaps the best summary of what makes him so dangerous.
"Jamie Benn is basically the ultimate hockey player. My teammate Drew Doughty is one of the best defensemen in the world, so I’ll take his word above anyone when it comes to players, and he’s always saying how tough it is to play against Benn. He can do everything at a high level, but I think he also buys a lot of space for himself on the ice because he’s tough as nails. Benn will hit you. He will fight you. He’s not afraid of anyone. Sometimes the game plan against star players is to rough them up and see if they can take it. With Benn, forget it."
Benn's play drives the Stars offense, defense and special teams. His biggest enemy is almost always not the other team's game plan but his own frustration when the inevitable sports luck starts working against him. When he is flying high with confidence, no player in the world is a more complete package.
And that's been the story of Benn's season. On a pair of surgically repaired hips, he proved that the Art Ross Trophy season was no fluke and led his team toward a shot at the Western Conference's best record, a spot nearly no one had them in at the beginning of the season.
With four strong candidates, there's every possibility Benn could fall just short of being a finalist. That would be a shame given the caliber of his season and the way he's led his team from out of the playoffs to among the best in the West.