Who’s the first-quarter MVP?

Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are having MVP seasons. But which one deserves it most? 

Who is your first-quarter MVP? Defend your choice!

Greg Wyshynski: Like any MVP debate, let’s begin with a definition of terms, or at the very least my terms. You can’t win the MVP if your team is not in a playoff seed, because otherwise the regular season is an 82-game exercise in nihilism. And your MVP case is much stronger if your lead performance is clearly above that of your co-stars — we’re talking on an Eric Bana in “Troy” level — and if your team’s success can be logically and analytically traced to your value as a player.

So, that established: I can’t give my vote to the Corey Crawford, who has been arguably the best goalie in the league in the first quarter, considering how Chicago Blackhawks have played in front of him.

I’m not giving my vote to Steven Stamkos or Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning, not only because it’s impossible to delineate the cause-and-effect of their dynamic duality, but because the Lightning are an incredibly great team at this moment, from the crease outward. Nor will I give it to Jonathan Quick, because Anze Kopitar is just as worthy for the Los Angeles Kings. Nor can I give it to the Winnipeg JetsBlake Wheeler (23 points), for what will I tell Mark Scheifele (21 points) or Connor Hellebuyck (8-1-2, with a .926 save percentage)? Nor Jaden Schwartz over Vladimir Tarasenko on the St. Louis Blues. Nor can I give it to John Tavares of the New York Islanders, because honestly that Matthew Barzal-Jordan Eberle line has been just as valuable. So who’s my MVP pick? Eh, I’d like to hear what you have to say first, Emily.

Emily Kaplan: Happy to agree on the definition. However my nod goes to someone you called out as unworthy per the terms: Steven Stamkos. And my runner-up would be his teammate, Nikita Kucherov. Hear me out.

The Lightning have been the class of the NHL this season, unleashing a dominance that’s downright scary. In Toronto this weekend, Dave Andreychuk (who is a business exec with the Lightning) pointed out that on the first two games of their recent road swing, Tampa Bay “played two teams just not ready to compete against them.” Those two teams? The Kings and San Jose Sharks — both veteran squads. With a gaudy plus-25 goal differential, the Lightning are 14-2-2. So how can I single out one player? The goaltending has been solid (Andrei Vasilevskiy has a .930 save percentage), the penalty kill is strong (84.1 percent, ninth in the league) and there are two elite scorers in Stamkos, who leads the league with 31 points, and Kucherov, who leads the league with 16 goals. But if there’s an X-factor to this team, it’s Stamkos. Tampa faltered last season, and the stumble coincided when Stamkos got injured. And I’m not just picking Stamkos over Kucherov simply for that. Rather, if you watch a Lightning game, you see just what a presence the captain has on the entire offense, every time he’s on the ice. And most of the time, he’s on the ice with Kucherov, and he’s making him better. Stamkos is the most involved on the most scoring chances for the best line on the best team in the league. And that is why, a quarter into the season, he is your MVP. Now tell me why I’m wrong.

Greg Wyshynski: There are no wrong answers here Emily, just “not right” ones, which would be your Stamkos pick. Look, I love the guy. I wrote about him earlier this season. It would warm my heart to see him win the Hart for the first time in his career, knowing how many league MVP trophies have been robbed from him due to injuries.

Of course, one could argue our own rigid criteria, and that of the voters, robbed Kucherov of a chance at the Hart last season with 40 goals, because the Lightning failed to qualify for the playoffs. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Kucherov has more goals (56) than anyone in the last season and change, and has a higher points per game average (1.25) in that span than Connor McDavid (1.20). And he did most of that without Stamkos next to him. So like you said: They’re both really valuable, even if I think the Lightning as a whole are pretty darn good beyond the top line this season.

When thinking about an MVP, I prefer a solo act. Someone like Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but his absence from the lineup limited his body of work. Someone like Logan Couture of the Sharks, who has nearly a fourth of his team’s goals (43) with 10 this season. But he’s gone eight games without a point this season, and another plank in my MVP platform is consistency.

Which is why, with due respect to Misters Stamkos and Kucherov on the Lightning, my Hart Trophy pick at this point is Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames. Johnny Hockey has 24 points in 17 games, tied for third in the NHL with Schwartz. That’s a 1.41 points per game average. Again, consistency is the key: There have been only three games where he hasn’t recorded at least a point. He has eight more points than the Flames’ second-highest scorer (Sean Monahan) and has the fourth-best Corsi percentage on the team (54.91) among forwards.

The Flames are a good possession team with a middling offense (2.88) and a middling defense (2.94) with a middling team save percentage (.910). I know goalie Mike Smith got a lot of early love for the Flames’ success this season, and rightfully so given his shot volume, but I give Gaudreau a ton of credit for their 10-7-1 start. The Flames have scored 49 goals this season, and Gaudreau has a point on 24 of them. He’s my MVP thus far.

Emily Kaplan: All right, it’s clear we’re both in the Stamkos and Lightning fan club. Without gushing about Stamkos for another couple hundred words, I’ll reiterate this: I don’t think he should be punished for his team’s success. To be honest, I regret agreeing upon the criteria so quickly. I don’t know if a player has to be head and shoulders above the rest of the cast, especially if the entire cast is so talented. Greg, we’re both from the great state of New Jersey, so let me try an example that we both can appreciate: “The Sopranos.” Edie Falco and Lorraine Bracco were both tremendous in the show. We’ll use 2001 as the test year. They’re both nominated for outstanding lead actress in a drama series at the Emmys and, of course, only one of them can win. Dr. Melfi is Kucherov. Carmella is Stamkos. Fair or unfair to the second best talent on the team, the MVP award is simply about picking the best of the best.

But if we’re talking about solo acts, Johnny Hockey is not a bad pick at all. And I think there’s actually still hope for Matthews to win MVP, given his “upper-body injury” doesn’t linger. (He’s been out of the lineup since Nov. 6 but should return soon). Of course, the Maple Leafs would also have to work through their monthlong funk. But Matthews is still leading the team with 10 goals and 19 assists. Remember he finished last season 10th in the league with shot attempts per 60 minutes. So Matthews, as long as a) the Leafs begin winning again b) you keep ripping the shots and c) you keep toe-dragging to make defenders look silly … the award could be yours!

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