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Hockey Connor McDavid’s individual brilliance won’t be enough for the Hart

It was hockey's version of an elimination derby.

The two greatest disappointments of the 2017-18 NHL season met Thursday evening in Ottawa, the visiting Edmonton Oilers having been officially eliminated from postseason play the night before, the Senators officially eliminated this night as the Oilers crushed them 6-2 in a game with about as much passion as a recorded telephone message.

There was, however, one intriguing exception.

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Connor McDavid, barely two months past his 21st birthday and already established as hockey's player of the moment, had a remarkable evening, finishing with four points on two goals and two assists.

This took him to within a single point of the NHL scoring lead with 94 points on 36 goals and 58 assists, behind Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Kucherov kept his lead courtesy of a single assist he picked up in the Lightning's 7-6 victory over the New York Islanders.

Given that McDavid has eight games remaining and has been on an impressive hot streak – 39 points in 28 games since New Year's Day – it may well be that, for the second year in a row, the young Edmonton star wins the Art Ross Trophy as the league's top scorer.

And therein lies the rub.

A year ago, when then 20-year-old McDavid became the only NHLer to reach 100 points – a number he may well exceed this year – he claimed not only the Ross but also the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player.

It's not likely to happen again, even if a fair argument can be made that, at the moment, he's the most valuable player in the world, let alone the NHL or the Edmonton Oilers.

One year ago, the youngster led the Oilers into the playoffs with a 103-point total thanks to an impressive 47-26-9 record. It put Edmonton into postseason play for the first time since 2006, an agonizing 11-year drought. They won their opening round against the San Jose Sharks in six games before being eliminated by the Anaheim Ducks in seven.

This year, even greater things were expected.

The Senators entered the season with great expectations of their own, after coming within an overtime goal of reaching last spring's Stanley Cup final. The team that beat them in overtime, the Pittsburgh Penguins, went on to claim their second-straight championship.

Both teams mysteriously imploded in 2017-18, the Oilers falling to 12th in the Western Conference and well short of any challenge for a wild card spot. The Ottawa collapse was even more dramatic, as they slipped to 15th in the Eastern Conference, ahead of only the lowly Buffalo Sabres.

Ottawa's finest player, Erik Karlsson – who missed Thursday's game while he and wife Melinda continue to grieve the loss of their stillborn child – had a slow start to his season following foot surgery, yet remains among the league's highest-scoring defencemen. He will not, however, win a third Norris Trophy as the league's best at that position because his team, overall, has been wretched defensively.

In McDavid's case, the Hart is believed to be beyond his grasp for rather similar reasons: you might be the best there is at your position, but hockey is a team sport, and that team's performance is part of your measure, as well.

The league's MVP trophy was donated by Dr. David Hart and first awarded in 1924 to an original Ottawa Senator, Frank Nighbor. Since then, it has been awarded 92 times to 56 different players – but only once in the modern era to a player whose team failed to make the playoffs.

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That was in 1987-88, when Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins won the award, but the circumstances were not the same.

McDavid may well challenge for the scoring lead, but there was no challenge to Lemieux. His 70 goals were 14 ahead of the next top scorer and his total of 168 points exceeded Wayne Gretzky's superb year by 19.

More importantly, Lemieux was seen as the key factor in the rise of the Penguins. They missed the playoffs by a single win and would reach the postseason a year later. Soon after, Lemieux would lead his team to Stanley Cups in 1990-91 and 1991-92.

McDavid may one day captain his Edmonton team to a Stanley Cup or two or three, but at the moment, the Oilers are seen as a team on a downward spiral, suffering from bad trades (Taylor Hall to New Jersey Devils, Jordan Eberle to the New York Islanders) and a lack of depth.

"Obviously not where we want to be," a disappointed McDavid said before the Ottawa game.

Hall, in fact, is likely to get more Hart Trophy votes than McDavid. There is a long list of worthy candidates, including Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon, Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, Tampa's Nikita Kucherov, Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne, Winnipeg's Blake Wheeler and Philadelphia's Claude Giroux.

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Thursday night in Ottawa, however, McDavid once again proved that he's the sport's most dominant player. He scored two beautiful goals and set up two others on perfect passes.

"He was in command," said Oilers head coach Todd McLellan. "He was MVP of the Super Bowl at the quarterback position the way he controlled the game."

He was indeed, but just not MVP of the NHL. Not this year.

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