Last season's vote for the Hart Trophy was as close as mathematically possible with Jose Theodore of Montreal and Jarome Iginla of Calgary each finishing with 434 points and Theodore being named the league's most valuable player only because he received 26 first-place votes to Iginla's 23.

While this year's balloting could hardly be closer, the decision still could be tougher for members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association because, instead of two people vying for the top spot this season, you could have five.

There are five legitimate candidates: Vancouver's Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi, Colorado's Peter Forsberg, Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom and New Jersey's Martin Brodeur.

The winner of the Hart Trophy is "the player who is adjudged to be the most valuable to his team," but he is usually also the best player in the league. Writers try to weigh the performance of the athlete vs. those of his contemporaries as well as the performance of the athlete vs. his teammates.

That scale typically reflects outstanding achievement and value to a team.

Start with Bertuzzi and Naslund, and there's a problem right away. You could easily give a player of the year award to either, with the edge probably going to Naslund, the quiet captain who gives the Canucks their personality. Naslund has a very good chance to win the point-scoring race and finish with the most goals.

However, his importance to the team is tied directly to Bertuzzi and fellow linemate Brendan Morrison. As goes one, so go the others. Thus, the "most valuable" part of the formula falls short.

The next obvious choice has to be Forsberg. He's chasing Naslund for the scoring title and has already run away with the assist title. What's more, he was tied for the league lead with teammate Milan Hejduk with plus-47 entering the weekend. He is the favorite to win the Hart.

But it would be short-sighted to look past Lidstrom and Brodeur. Lidstrom is simply the best player on one of the best teams in hockey. He is one of the top three in defenseman scoring, and his plus-43 is 20 better than any teammate.

That's impressive, but it's still not the MVP performance. That title has to go to Brodeur, who strapped the goal-starved Devils on his back. With no Devil scoring more than 60 points, Brodeur was the focus of every game.

Brodeur had nine shutouts. What's more, he allowed a team with a new coach and fragile chemistry time to find itself.

And that describes everything necessary to win the Hart Trophy.

Other Envelopes, Please

* Norris Trophy (top defenseman): Lidstrom. He has wonderful teammates, but insiders will tell you he is hands-down the team's MVP. His patience and calm spread throughout the team, and how he has a plus-minus in the 40s while his teammates are in the teens is nothing short of amazing.

* Calder Trophy (rookie): Barret Jackman, St. Louis. Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg will receive plenty of push for his offensive exploits, but Jackman was at times the Blues' best defenseman this season at age 21.

* Adams Award (coach): Jacques Lemaire, Minnesota. Lemaire won on a moderate budget in New Jersey, and now he has won on a minuscule budget in Minnesota. In this age of bought NHL superstars, that's saying something.

* Vezina Trophy (goalie): Brodeur. With Marty Turco playing so well, however, Brodeur's accomplishments are slightly bigger. The Devils are an aging team battling chemistry and scoring issues. Brodeur pulled them through and has them in good shape for the playoffs.

* Selke Trophy (defensive forward): Jere Lehtinen, Dallas. If you want to understand how good Lehtinen is, ask Dave Tippett or Bill Guerin or Jason Arnott or Scott Young. It's one thing to play against the guy four or five times a season, it's another to watch him every shift for an 82-game season. People who have seen Lehtinen for the first time can't stop saying good things about him. He is rarely out of position, and he almost always covers for his linemates. Tippett has pretty much used Lehtinen as a sparkplug for any line that is struggling.

* Lady Byng (gentlemanly play): Naslund. The Lady Byng honors sportsmanship, gentlemanly play and a high standard of achievement. Naslund personifies those traits and then some. The Canucks captain never backs down from physical play but also never instigates. The Canucks are more in control because of Naslund's soft touch.

Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, here stifling Bobby Holik, is a clear front-runner for the prestigious Vezina Trophy.