The first half is complete and the All-Star break is approaching, and while parity has largely been the theme of the 2023-24 NHL season so far, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been superlatives.
There’s been Nikita Kucherov showing he’s back in top form for the not-done-yet Tampa Bay Lightning. And Nathan MacKinnon putting together his best Hart Trophy case yet for the Colorado Avalanche. Even the bottom-of-the-standings teams have had someone to be excited about, from the Chicago Blackhawks’ Connor Bedard to the Anaheim Ducks’ Radko Gudas.
The Athletic has already taken a look at the best surprises and worst disappointments across the league so far. This week, we asked our NHL staff for the player who provided the very best for each team on a nightly basis.
Here’s who our writers picked.
Radko Gudas: Frank Vatrano has a team-leading 21 goals, along with his first-ever All-Star Game selection. Rookies Leo Carlsson and Pavel Mintyukov have each had moments that show they could become big performers. But going off the board a bit here, we’ll pick with the heavy-bearded 33-year-old defenseman with a penchant for big hits. Gudas signed a three-year deal with Anaheim as a free agent and has already become a leading force on the blue line. He has the best advanced metrics of any defender on the team, is a plus-16 rating on a team with numerous minus players and has chipped in six goals to already tie his career high. Most of all, Gudas has given the Ducks a tougher identity that’s been missing for some time. — Eric Stephens
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Connor Ingram: Ingram began the year as Karel Vejmelka’s backup but has effectively wrestled the starter’s job away with night-in, night-out excellence. He’s been the goalie of record for 17 of the team’s 23 wins, as the Coyotes unexpectedly remain in the hunt for a wild-card playoff spot. His five shutouts in 31 appearances, 29 of them starts, were tied for the league lead through Thursday – and his save percentage (.916) and goals-against average (2.59) are significantly better than Vejmelka’s. Honorable mention goes to Sean Durzi, who’s been an excellent addition on the blue line, but Ingram’s overall play makes him the clear-cut choice. — Eric Duhatschek
David Pastrnak: He’s done everything: score, pass, average his highest amount of ice time. And he’s doing all of this with Charlie Coyle, Pavel Zacha and Morgan Geekie as his primary centers. They’re good, but they’re not Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci, Pastrnak’s previous pivots. Even with every opponent’s highest defensive attention, Pastrnak drives the team’s offense. — Fluto Shinzawa
Rasmus Dahlin: Casey Mittelstadt leads the team in points (40), so he has a case for being the team’s MVP. But Dahlin, the team’s lone All-Star, gets the nod for me. He has 13 goals and 38 points and has shown he’s capable of carrying the team at times, even in a down year. — Matthew Fairburn
Jacob Markström: Yes, Yegor Sharangovich and Blake Coleman have been better than advertised and are among the team leaders in goals and points. MacKenzie Weegar is near the top of the league’s leaderboard in goals by a defenseman (12) while playing more than 22 minutes per game. But the Flames aren’t within striking distance of a wild-card spot without Markström rebounding from a poor 2022-23 campaign. — Julian McKenzie
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Sebastian Aho: Aho is having his best statistical season, with 54 points in 44 games — a 97-point pace that would be the team’s second-best point-producing season since relocation to North Carolina and the sixth-best in franchise history. He’s the top weapon on Carolina’s third-ranked power play and a key part of the Hurricanes’ fourth-ranked penalty kill. In his eighth season, the 26-year-old has taken his game to another level. — Cory Lavalette
Connor Bedard: You could get cute here and say goaltender Petr Mrázek, who has done an admirable job keeping the Blackhawks competitive most nights behind a porous defense, or Jason Dickinson, who’s having a career offensive season without sacrificing the defensive prowess that made him an NHL regular. But come on, injured or not, it’s Bedard. The No. 1 pick is out now with a fractured jaw, but when he was healthy, he was far and away Chicago’s best player, with 15 goals and 18 assists in 39 games. Without him, the Blackhawks offense has vanished, scoring two or fewer goals (usually fewer) in eight of their past nine games. Bedard is still at least a month away, but he can’t get back soon enough for Chicago. — Mark Lazerus
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Nathan MacKinnon: When the best player on the team — and one of the best in the world — is having a career season, it makes answering this question pretty easy. With 30 goals and 82 points through Thursday, MacKinnon is on pace to shatter his career highs in both. His pace through the neutral zone backs off defenders to create room for teammates, and his playmaking in the offensive zone is as good as it’s ever been. The Avalanche had outscored the opposition 115-55 with MacKinnon on the ice through Thursday in all situations, per Natural Stat Trick. That’s obviously aided by the power play but is still an incredible figure. — Jesse Granger
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Boone Jenner: What does it say that Jenner could miss six weeks with a broken jaw and still be considered the team’s MVP? With 13 goals, he is still one off the club lead (Kirill Marchenko, 14), He was playing more minutes than any other forward (19:19) per game, playing in all situations, and taking almost all of the important face-offs. As the NHL trade deadline nears, expect to hear Jenner’s name mentioned as a target for playoff-bound clubs. — Aaron Portzline
Matt Duchene: Roope Hintz has been phenomenal and could easily earn this nod as well, but Duchene deserves credit for the wide-ranging impact his addition has had. He’s been instrumental in getting the most out of Tyler Seguin and Mason Marchment, coming together to form a formidable top-six line for a team that already had the pieces for its top line in Hintz and Jason Robertson, along with Joe Pavelski and Wyatt Johnston as the third. Duchene has had a stellar individual season and has been a great locker-room presence and leader. — Saad Yousuf
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Alex Lyon: Detroit’s best player has once again been Dylan Larkin, but the Red Wings’ season was at risk of going off the rails before Lyon was thrust into the net in late December. Since then, both he and the Red Wings have been hot, with Lyon now ranking among the league leaders in save percentage and Detroit right back in the playoff mix. Maybe it’s controversial to give this nod to a player who has been in less than half of his team’s games, but that’s the kind of impact Lyon has had on this Detroit season. — Max Bultman
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Connor McDavid: There are a few possibilities. Zach Hyman leads the team in goals. Evan Bouchard is a point-per-game player on defense. Stuart Skinner has been dominant in net for weeks. But the obvious answer is the right one, even if it’s boring. McDavid remains the Oilers’ top scorer and unequivocal leader. Their turnaround in the second half of November coincided with his return to form after a slow start. The NHL’s best player is Edmonton’s most valuable one, too. — Daniel Nugent-Bowman
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Sam Reinhart: Here’s a fun stat about Reinhart: Since Dec. 1, he alone has more power-play goals (11 through Thursday) than his old team in Buffalo (10). The dude is on fire, and he’s finding the net at a rate (35 goals in 47 games) that’s making Auston Matthews less of a shoo-in for the Rocket Richard. The Panthers might be stacked, but they’ve needed Reinhart’s greatness, particularly during Matthew Tkachuk’s early cold streak. He’s a pending unrestricted free agent, too. — Sean Gentille
Adrian Kempe: Because he has been so consistent for so long, Anze Kopitar continues to be leaned on heavily by the Kings as their leader at both ends of the ice. Perhaps the 36-year-old gets leaned on too much. But his 27-year-old linemate has joined him as an all-situations player who seems to get better every year. Kempe hasn’t gone more than two games without a point and had 12 multi-point efforts through Thursday. He hasn’t had the highs of 2022-23, when he had two hat tricks, including a four-goal effort against Pittsburgh, but he’s found his way onto the scoresheet in 30 of the Kings’ 45 contests heading into Friday matchup with the Avalanche. While Kempe likely won’t match his 41 goals from a year ago, he’s got a great shot at hitting a new high in points for the third straight season. — Eric Stephens
Brock Faber: It’s tempting to go Joel Eriksson Ek here as he hit the 20-goal mark for a third consecutive season by Game 47, but where would the Wild be without the 21-year-old Faber? Jared Spurgeon has missed 32 games and is done for the year. Jonas Brodin missed 17 earlier this season. Stepping up to fill the void, Faber is leading all NHL rookies in ice time (24:44 a game), leads all rookie defensemen in scoring (28 points) and is running the team’s No. 1 power play despite never even being a power-play guy at University of Minnesota. He has got a long career ahead of him. — Michael Russo
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Nick Suzuki: Suzuki is putting up the best defensive numbers of his career and is on pace for 70 points on a team that has trouble scoring. He quarterbacks the power play, kills penalties and is a positive influence on the team’s game at five-on-five when he is on the ice. He is doing it all for the Canadiens this season. — Arpon Basu
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Filip Forsberg: Ryan O’Reilly has a case for all he has brought, tangibly and intangibly, to the No. 1 center role, and Roman Josi always has a case. But Forsberg, despite cooling off a bit of late, is on pace for the second 40-goal season of his career. The top line, with Gus Nyquist as the third piece, is carrying this team offensively. — Joe Rexrode
Jesper Bratt: Jack Hughes has been the team’s most prolific player when on the ice and has a case for team MVP, but he has missed more than a dozen games to injury. Bratt has played in all 45 and has scored at more than a point-per-game pace. He’s second to Tyler Toffoli on the team in goals and has strong underlying numbers. The Athletic’s Net Rating model puts him at a plus-13, and the team has an expected-goals rate above 58 percent with him on the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick. Only Ondrej Palat has a better xGF percentage. This would be Hughes’ award if not for injuries, but given his missed games, I’ll give Bratt the midseason MVP nod. — Peter Baugh
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Noah Dobson: In his fifth season, Dobson has ascended to the ranks of the elite NHL defensemen not just being the third-leading scorer among defensemen this season but also playing basically every other shift, especially during a long stretch when the Islanders were missing mainstays Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. Only Drew Doughty has played more minutes this season in the entire league and Dobson’s on-ice metrics are pretty decent given how awful the Isles have been in giving up shots and scoring chances. — Arthur Staple
Artemi Panarin: Top 10 in the league in points and goals. Just three goals off his previous career best heading into Friday night’s game against the Golden Knights. Incredible consistency since the start of the season — he was kept off the score sheet just eight times in the first 47 Rangers games. Panarin has been the offense’s engine in a season when goaltending hasn’t been the savior yet. All hail the Bread Man. — Arthur Staple
Claude Giroux: It’s been an extremely disappointing first half for Ottawa, laced with inconsistency and sloppiness. But Giroux has managed to be the model of consistency, even against that backdrop. At 36 years old, Giroux has produced at nearly a point-per-game clip for Ottawa this season while averaging 20 minutes of ice time per night. His longest point drought only lasted three games this season, a testament to his consistency. — Ian Mendes
Travis Konecny: On a team that relies on scoring by committee, Konecny has an outside chance at a 40-goal season with a strong second half. He’s cooled off a bit, but he’s still the Flyers’ leader both in goals (22) and points (42). Further, the Flyers’ lone All-Star representative has proven to be an important penalty killer. Konecny is tied for the league lead with five short-handed goals and has been an important cog in the Flyers’ second-ranked penalty kill even when he’s not creating scoring chances on the other end. — Kevin Kurz
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Sidney Crosby: The Penguins were seven points behind the Red Wings for the second wild-card spot heading into Friday night’s game against the Panthers. They’d be a lot farther back if not for Crosby, who is on pace for his second 50-goal season in his 19th NHL campaign. If the Penguins make the playoffs, he should win the Hart Trophy. He was third in the league in even-strength goals through Thursday and had won almost 80 more faceoffs than the league’s No. 2 in that category. The Penguins were 4-5-2 when he didn’t score and 11-6-2 when he produces a goal. He’s not what he was at his peak. But he’s never been this complete of a player. — Rob Rossi
Tomas Hertl: With captain Logan Couture unable to play the first half of the season and other struggling Sharks leaving the lineup at different times, Hertl has been a beacon of light in a dark year for the club. The 30-year-old power center leads San Jose with 15 goals and 34 points while being asked to handle more than ever, as evidenced by his average of 20:59 time on ice, topping the Sharks’ forwards. On top of that, Hertl has embraced the leadership void that Couture’s lengthy absence created. — Eric Stephens
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Joey Daccord: Daccord has been critical in salvaging what was trending toward a setback campaign for the Kraken in their third year of existence. From when he took over as Seattle’s No. 1 option in the blue paint on Dec. 9 through Thursday, he had a .939 save percentage — tied with Conner Hellebuyck for first in the NHL among goalies with at least eight starts in that span (Daccord had 18, Hellebuyck 15) — while leading all NHL netminders in goals saved above average, per Natural Stat Trick, by a wide margin. Daccord has been playing at a Vezina level for nearly two months, which has kept the torch burning on Seattle’s hopes of snagging the final available playoff spot in the West. — Thomas Drance
Robert Thomas: Robert Thomas has taken the next step toward becoming an NHL star. He was leading the Blues in goals, assists and points through Thursday, and despite defending opponents’ top lines every game, he had the second-highest expected goal share on the team, per Natural Stat Trick. There’s no question he’s living up to his new eight-year, $65 million contract. Goaltender Jordan Binnington is also in the MVP conversation, ranking 13th in the league in goals saved above expected through Thursday, according to MoneyPuck. — Jeremy Rutherford
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Nikita Kucherov, duh: Kucherov is not just the Lightning’s MVP but should also be in contention for the Hart Trophy, regardless of the Lightning’s playoff standing. With 83 points, which leads the league heading into Friday night action, he’s made his mark on the Lightning’s scoring, earning a point on at least half of the team’s goals. At five-on-five, he has the best impact on the Lightning’s expected and actual goal generation. That all contributes to an average game score of 1.51, which ranks in the league’s top 10. — Shayna Goldman
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Auston Matthews: Only a week or so ago, I gave this honor to William Nylander, by a hair, over Matthews. The argument was that Nylander had been the more reliable player from the start of the season over a slow-starting (by his ridiculous standards) Matthews. Nylander was undoubtedly team MVP in October and November. But now, with a few more games of evidence, Matthews gets the nod, also by a hair. He’s unquestionably been the Leafs’ best and most reliable all-around contributor in December and January, scoring a goal per game, literally. He’s almost at a goal per game for the season. It’s a close race, with Morgan Rielly not far behind in third. — Jonas Siegel
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Quinn Hughes: The superstar Canucks defender has become the captain of this team, and even on a team with five All-Stars is their standout individual skater. He has added a shooting element to his game and has already exceeded his career high in goals by five. He’s on pace to flirt with 100 points. His two-way results are so dominant, Vancouver has outscored their opponents two to one with him on the ice at even strength, and with the way Hughes controls games with the puck on his stick, he’s full value for driving that on-ice goal differential. — Thomas Drance
Jack Eichel: After elevating his 200-foot game during the playoff run last summer, Eichel has carried that type of play into the 2023-24 regular season. He was leading the Golden Knights in goals (19) and points (44) when he was knocked out of the lineup with a lower-body injury in mid-January (he’s since been passed by Mark Stone). Eichel drives offense at even strength, is the most dangerous weapon on the power play and has now become one of Vegas’ best penalty killers. — Jesse Granger
Charlie Lindgren: Recent play aside — they’re 5-9-1 with just 34 goals in their past 15 games — the Caps, somehow, are still within spitting distance of a wild-card spot. They can thank Lindgren’s play, particularly early in the season, for that. In his 20 games, the Caps have banked 21 points, which is more than they deserved. Lindgren is sixth league-wide in goals saved above expected, per MoneyPuck, a sign of just how much he’s bailed out his teammates. — Sean Gentille
Connor Hellebuyck: I hesitate to name Hellebuyck MVP, lest people interpret the Jets’ success to be the story of an elite goalie carrying his team. Hellebuyck is lifting the team, to be sure, turning Winnipeg’s quality defensive performance into the best goals-against numbers in the league, but his is not the only standout performance. Mark Scheifele and Josh Morrissey are the best players at their respective positions, while Adam Lowry’s captaincy has been exemplary and Nikolaj Ehlers’ impact on the top line deserves praise. But Hellebuyck isn’t just the best player at his position on the team; he may be the best goaltender in the world this season, leading the NHL in save percentage (among starters) and goals saved above expected (GSAx). It’s him. — Murat Ates
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(Top photos of Brock Faber, Auston Matthews and Quinn Hughes: Nick Wosika, Steven Bisig and Bob Frid / USA Today)