Q: Do you think the Hart Trophy should be given to a player from a non-playoff team? I am torn on this one. Alex Ovechkin is having a great year, but if the Capitals miss the playoffs, his efforts still weren't enough to make much of a difference for his team. Conversely, Evgeni Malkin's performance this season elevated the performance of his entire team, which was suffering through injuries to key players. I can honestly say that while I think, in many ways, Ovechkin has had the better season of the two, Malkin's performance has made far more of an impact on his team. Isn't that what the Hart Trophy is really about?
Judd Fuoto, Oakton, Va.
MOLINARI: The criterion laid out by the league for the Hart says that it is to go "to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team." Pretty straightforward stuff. Not a syllable about leading candidates leading their teams to the playoffs, or anything of the sort. Some Penguins fans, in fact, might recall that their club of choice did not get into the playoffs in 1987-88, when Mario Lemieux won the first of his three Harts.
Whether the Capitals will qualify for postseason play remains to be seen, but they clearly wouldn't be competing for anything but a lottery pick at this point if not for Ovechkin. He's the first guy in a dozen winters to score 60 goals, and ranks among the game's most volatile offensive talents.
None of that detracts from Malkin's Hart credentials -- with nearly two weeks left in the regular season, he and Ovechkin have emerged as the top two contenders, with Ovechkin appearing to be slightly in front -- but just because the Penguins will be in the playoffs and Washington might sit them out should not be a deciding factor in the voting.
(And while Malkin and OVechkin seem pretty well estsblished as the front-runners at this point, guys like New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur, Calgary winger Jarome(cq) Iginla, Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and Atlanta winger Ilya Kovalchuk, among others, figure to turn up on a lot of ballots, too.)
Q: With all the gloom-and-doom from hockey analysts about the Pens not being able to sign all of their high-profile players next year due to cap restrictions, etc., is there any reasonable scenario under which the team could be kept intact?
Ray Smith, Orrstown, Pa.
MOLINARI: While it's far from certain that the Penguins will be able to hold onto all of the free agents they'd like to keep this summer, there also is no guarantee that they won't be able to.
The plain truth is, management still doesn't have a firm idea about what a lot of guys are likely to make on their next contracts, in large part because playoff performances could have a profound impact on many players' market value. If, for example, Marc-Andre Fleury (who will be a restricted free agent July 1) leads the Penguins on an extended run and, in the process, establishes that he's a goaltender with whom a team can contend for a Stanley Cup, his asking price figures to go up significantly. Same with Ryan Malone, if he's able to follow up a breakthrough regular season with a few productive rounds during the postseason -- especially when he'll be unrestricted this summer.
Even if the Penguins are willing to pay, say, Marian Hossa the kind of money he figures to command as an unrestricted free agent, the length of the contract he is seeking could be an issue. As a rule, general manager Ray Shero likes the salary-cap flexibility that comes with having players on shorter-term deals, while many players understandably crave the security that comes with a long-term deal.
The guess -- and it really is nothing more than that -- here, at this point, is that the Penguins will lose at least one prominent player to free agency during the off-season, but there still are too many variables (including precisely what the cap maximum for 2008-09 will be) to reach any meaningful conclusions.