Before the season started, ESPN's panel of hockey enthusiasts was asked to make predictions for all the major NHL awards. Five players were picked to win the Hart Trophy by the panel of 12, with Steve Levy's bold Henrik Zetterberg prediction actually looking quite possible. A total of 20 candidates were picked to win the four major awards -- the Hart, Norris, Vezina and Calder trophies. That left plenty of other players to emerge besides the favorites that included usual award contenders such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Zdeno Chara and Henrik Lundqvist.
This was the year for bold predictions, like Levy's. The short season provides the opportunity for a dark horse candidate to emerge this year and that's exactly what has happened one quarter of the way through the regular season.
So which of the surprise dark horses (which I'll define as someone not having been mentioned by the ESPN crew) have started strong enough to lay the foundation for a legitimate shot at a major award? Here are the best candidates:
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks: Every sign points to the Blackhawks being a completely legitimate Stanley Cup contender. They're the only team in hockey without a regulation loss and they've done it primarily on the road, having played at home only twice this season. Hart Trophy voters typically prefer picking a winner from a playoff team, especially a contender. Steven Stamkos finished second in the Hart vote last year on a non-playoff team but received only one first-place vote. So if the Blackhawks keep this pace, they'll become a prime candidate for those looking for a Hart-worthy season.
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