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Toews emerges as top MVP choice; Blackhawks' young star is top two-way player

Jonathan Toews has won a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold.

Only 23, the Chicago Blackhawks captain even has a Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP on his shelf, staking his claim as one of the top young stars in the NHL.

All that's missing is the one piece of hardware that stamps him as the best in the game at any age: the Hart Trophy.

This could be the season Toews, the 6-foot-2, 208-pound forward, is recognized as the NHL MVP for his play in leading the Blackhawks to the top of the Western Conference entering Wednesday night's games. He's in the thick of the scoring race with 19 goals and 37 points and, even with a talented core that includes South Buffalo native Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, has emerged as the leading MVP candidate because of his two-way playmaking and game-changing scoring.

Toews is the mid-December front-runner for the NHL's top trophy because of his stellar play, but also because former winners such as Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Anaheim's Corey Perry have had their seasons derailed by injury, slump or a bad team.

Crosby, the 2006-07 winner, has played in only eight games and has been out since Dec. 5 because of a recurrence of concussion-like symptoms. Ovechkin followed Crosby and won the next two MVP awards, but has a pedestrian (for him) 23 points and the Capitals fired coach Bruce Boudreau after a slow start. Perry was the surprise winner last season as he surged to the goal title, scoring 19 times in his final 16 games. The Ducks have only nine wins this season, and a repeat bid from Perry is as unlikely as his team making the playoffs.

But a look around the league shows there are plenty of players who hope to overtake Toews and win the award at the end of the season. Among them are:

Phil Kessel, Toronto: How would the ex-Bruin have looked in a Boston uniform during last season's Stanley Cup run? The Maple Leafs don't care, and they're glad to have the right winger in the lineup. Kessel is tied for second in the NHL with 40 points, is second in goals with 20 and has formed the most potent 1-2 scoring punch in the league with Joffrey Lupul.

All that scoring hasn't lifted the Maple Leafs near the top of the East. That kind of finish may not help Kessel's bid. Kessel does hold the overall lead in fan balloting for the All-Star game. He told The Toronto Star teams are focused more on stopping him and his line as their production skyrockets. "We're trying to find ways around that," he said. "But it's been tougher than it was at the start of the season. They're playing us pretty tight and it makes it harder on us, it really does."

Sedin-Sedin, Vancouver: Take your pick between Henrik Sedin or his twin brother, Daniel, both starring for the Vancouver Canucks. Their high-octane offense has the Canucks only four points behind Chicago for the best team in the West.

Tim Thomas, Boston: He's already the best goalie in the league. With each shutout, Thomas is making his case to earn the honor as best player in the league. No goalie has won the Hart since Montreal's Jose Theodore in 2002. But Thomas has carried over his sizzling 16-win postseason that led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup into this year, where he's 16-5 with four shutouts and a sparkling 1.84 GAA.

Remember Boston's slow start? No? Well, neither does the rest of the NHL, as the Bruins have shot back to the top of the Eastern Conference with Thomas leading the way -- again.

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia: The NHL's breakout star of the season, Giroux was leading the league in points until he suffered a concussion two weeks ago after an accidental blow to the head by a teammate. Giroux hasn't played since -- though he's day to day and could return soon. The Flyers have played well without him -- and 2000 winner Chris Pronger, also sidelined with a concussion -- and could be out of the running if he misses another 10 games or so this season.

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