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Hawks suddenly have 2 MVP candidates in Toews, Kane

Hawks Jonathan Toews (left) Patrick Kane are indispensible impact players. | ThearW. Henderson~Getty Images

Hawks Jonathan Toews (left) and Patrick Kane are indispensible impact players. | Thearon W. Henderson~Getty Images

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Updated: May 15, 2013 7:06AM



Sometimes when Brandon Saad looks to his right and sees the things Jonathan Toews does — the way he protects the puck, the way he fends off defenders, the way he mucks in the corners, the way he creates chances out of thin air — he has to catch himself to make sure he’s not just standing idly by in wonderment.

‘‘Being a player and being able to play with him, you notice just how good he really is,’’ Saad said. ‘‘If you’re just looking on the Internet, you’re not going to see him as a top guy. But he is definitely one of the top players in the league.’’

Sometimes when Corey Crawford looks up and sees the things Patrick Kane does — the way he darts through traffic, the way he doles out scoring chances for his linemates, the way he dazzles and dangles, the way he baffles and befuddles goaltenders — he thinks to himself how grateful he is to only have to face the guy in practice.

‘‘He can change the game at any time,’’ Crawford said. ‘‘Not a lot of guys can do that.’’

Toews and Kane — or Kane and Toews, if you prefer — are two of the best players in the NHL. Nobody disputes that. The question is whether either can lay claim to being the most valuable player in the NHL. With Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby out for the rest of the regular season after taking a puck to the jaw, the Hart Trophy is suddenly up for grabs.

And Kane and Toews — or Toews and Kane, if you’d rather — are very much in the discussion.

The trick is defining ‘‘valuable.’’ While the award often is stats-driven, it’s supposed to go to the most indispensable player in the league — the guy who makes a decent team a great team, the guy without whom a team likely would crumble. But measuring that impact is an inexact science.

Eddie Olczyk, who has seen the league’s best on a regular basis as the color analyst for CSN Chicago and for NBC’s national broadcasts, says no player has meant more to his team than Montreal Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov — finally healthy after two injury-plagued seasons — but that Markov has no chance to win the award because of his pedestrian statistics.

‘‘You talk about what is an MVP,’’ Olczyk said. ‘‘Look at the impact he’s made on that team on the back end and see how they have played so well. The impact he’s had on that team is as great as any other player on a particular team in the league.’’

Oddly enough, Crosby’s candidacy might actually be helped by that framing of the argument, given how the Penguins — who were on a 15-game win streak when he was injured — lost their first two games without him by a combined score of 10-2. But the fact that he’s likely to miss exactly one-quarter of the season allows others into the conversation.

There’s Alex Ovechkin, whose recent scoring binge has the Washington Capitals back in the Southeast Division lead after a dreadful start. There’s John Tavares, who has the lowly New York Islanders contending for a playoff spot with a strong finishing kick. And then there’s the Hawks’ dynamic duo, who have both the stats and the intangibles to back up their respective candidacies.

Kane, the Western Conference’s leading scorer, has 20 goals and 26 assists and has been the steadiest producer on the league’s best team. His newfound commitment to defense has helped on and off the ice, serving as an example for younger players. He has been the highest-profile player on the NHL’s top team all season and has been running a steady second in most Hart watches.

‘‘You hear about it here and there, but I don’t think it’s at the point where it’s something I’m starting to think about or it’s a huge reality yet,’’ Kane said. ‘‘You’re honored to hear your name in a discussion like that, but I’m just trying to get better and better as a player. At the end of the season, if I’m there, great.’’

Toews has 20 goals and 21 assists with a plus-24 rating and the second-highest faceoff percentage in the league (61.0) and has been on fire lately, with 25 points in his last 20 games, including seven multipoint games and the clutch game-tying goal with less than three minutes to play Friday night against the Detroit Red Wings. He has helped develop Saad into a Calder Trophy candidate and has performed well even as linemate Marian Hossa has been out with various injuries.

Then there’s everything else Toews does for the team — the leadership, the defense, the hard work that statistics don’t reflect.

‘‘When you start getting to the end of the year, all those points and wins and impact starts to snowball,’’ Olczyk said. ‘‘People start recognizing, ‘Gee, he’s had a heck of a year.’ If you can finish off strong, you can be the cymbals player in the orchestra — you don’t know he’s there until he slams his hands together at the end of the song. Then you realize how important he is to make music.’’

Of course, having two viable MVP candidates on a team begs the question — if you’re not clearly the MVP of your team, how can you be the MVP of the whole league? The two could split the vote, allowing someone else — including Crosby — to walk away with the Hart.

Toews, in typical Toews fashion, shrugged off the individual recognition but identified the bigger point the discussion makes: Things are going awfully well for the Hawks this season.

‘‘I don’t know who’s really talking about it,’’ Toews said. ‘‘But it’s nice to have a guy on your team — or two, whatever it is — that are in those talks.”

Saad took an even bigger-picture perspective on it, shaking his head at the thought that both Kane and Toews — or Toews and Kane, if you like — are both just 24 years old.

‘‘They’re both still young,’’ Saad said. ‘‘It’s pretty scary.’’



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