By the time the Hart Memorial Trophy is handed out at the NHL Awards ceremony on June 20, Steven Stamkos and his Tampa Bay Lightning teammates will have had a few months of golf under their belts.
However, just because Stamkos and his teammates are about to go on an extended vacation as a result of missing the playoffs, that doesn't mean Tampa Bay's star player should be excluded when it comes time to give out the NHL's most valuable player award.
In the NHL, where 16 of the 30 teams make the playoffs, it's almost impossible for a player from a non-postseason club to win the Hart. Yet, with the way Stamkos has racked up goals for the Lightning this season, he's making it difficult to ignore him in the MVP race.
As he closes in on what could be a 60-goal season, Stamkos has crossed the point in which his individual success outweighs his club's poor performance on the ice.
Stamkos, who is just 22 years of age, has 58 goals in 79 games this year and is about to claim his second Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL's leading goal- scorer. He has 10 more tallies than the league's No. 2 goal-scorer -- Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins -- and 18 more than New York Rangers winger Marian Gaborik, who is third in the league with 40 goals.
As the only player to cross 100 points to date, Malkin is still the heavy favorite to win the Hart Trophy, and he should be. Malkin carried Pittsburgh to a playoff spot while it played much of the season without superstar captain Sidney Crosby. The Russian sniper also helped the Pens make a valiant run at the top seed in the East, although that race against the New York Rangers is about to end.
While it's hard to see Stamkos winning the Hart Trophy, it's becoming even more difficult to see how the star centerman could not be one of the three finalists for the award.
Besides Malkin, Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and Philadelphia forward Claude Giroux also are considered to be in the mix for the award. Meanwhile, in the West, there doesn't seem to be a single player screaming out to be included among the finalists.
While Stamkos shouldn't need to reach 60 goals to be included among the Hart finalists, getting to that lofty plateau certainly wouldn't hurt. If Stamkos can post two more goals he'll be the first NHL player to record 60 goals in a season since Alex Ovechkin had 65 tallies for Washington in 2007-08. Ovechkin himself was the first player to reach 60 since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr both did it for Pittsburgh during the 1995-96 campaign.
The main question voters need to ask themselves when considering Stamkos for the Hart is how bad would the Lightning be this year if it wasn't for their star player?
Whether you blame it on the team's defense or on shabby goaltending, Tampa is the worst defensive team in the league this season, surrendering an NHL-worst 267 goals in 79 games, or an average of 3.38 tallies per contest.
Yet, while the Bolts have struggled mightily to stop the opposition from scoring, Stamkos has been able to prop-up Tampa's offense, accounting for nearly 26 percent of his team's 224 goals (8th in the NHL) this season. He also has over twice as many goals as Martin St. Louis, who is second on the Lightning with 24 goals.
The sheer number of goals Stamkos has put up this season made Tampa a better team, but No. 91 also delivered in the quality department. He leads the league with 12 game-winning goals and his five overtime winners are a new NHL record for one season. So, while Stamkos' efforts were not enough to make Tampa a playoff team, he likely prevented them from being one of the worst teams in the league.
An example of how Stamkos can will his team to victory on any given night came Monday against the playoff-hungry Washington Capitals. With the postseason out of reach for his own club, Stamkos played a big role in potentially spoiling the Capitals' playoff chances.
Stamkos posted two goals and an assist against a Washington team that came to Tampa looking for a couple of easy points to use in their race for the eighth seed in the East. His 57th goal of the year came with just 63 seconds left in regulation and proved to be the game-winner. Stamkos added just his second empty-net tally of the season in the closing seconds, forcing the Capitals to leave town with zero points after the 4-2 defeat.
If that's what Stamkos was able to do against a desperate team like the Caps, just think what could be in store for his final three games when the Lightning visit Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg -- a trio of teams that also will miss out on the playoffs this season.
While it would be nice for the 22-year-old Stamkos to be acknowledged for his terrific individual season with a Hart finalist nod, being included on the short list for the league's MVP will do little to help his club heading into next season. Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman is in his just his second year calling the shots, but even after the team made it within one win of the Stanley Cup Finals last spring, he clearly has his work cut out to make Tampa a perennial contender.
The good news for Stevie Y. is that it's hard to think of a better player to build a franchise around than Stamkos.