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Encore! Encore!

Alex Ovechkin sure did have a nice 2007-08 season, but now that the hardware has headed back to Toronto and the player they will honor for the next year(s) has headed back to Russia, we can wholeheartedly turn our gaze to 2008-09 and ask, "What's next?" While the sky may not even be a high enough limit for Alex, a look back at how former Hart Trophy winners followed up their MVP seasons may provide a baseline for reasonable expectations.

The NHL has handed out the Hart 40 times in what most consider to be the sport's "modern era," that is, since the 1967 expansion. The average stats of the 37 non-goalie Hart winners over that span is 76.86 games played, 50.97 goals and 87.22 assists (75.89 if you don't include Wayne Gretzky's nine MVP seasons, during which he averaged 121.22 helpers). AO's award-winning season, of course, saw him play all 82 and rack up 65 goals and 47 assists along the way.

So what did the previous 36 winners do for Act II (and Act III in Bobby Orr's case and Acts III-VIII in Gretz's)? One-third of them scored more goals-per-game than in their Hart-winning season (and twice for Orr and four times for Gretzky these follow-up seasons earned another Hart), 15 of them had more assists-per-game (earning back-to-back Harts for Orr, Bobby Clarke and Gretzky six times), and one-third had more points per game (Orr, Clarke and Gretzky four times turned these increases into consecutive Harts).

On average, however, production decreased across the board (which is not surprising given that it's difficult to improve upon what is for many a career season). The average Hart winner has seen his games played drop by 7.86%, his goals-per-game falls by 9.43% and his assists-per-game declines by 5.45%.

Unlike Ovechkin, though, many of the previous Hart winners were already well into (or perhaps past) their prime playing years when they won the award. Only two other players since 1967-68 have won the Hart in their third years in the League, and both improved the following season - Gretzky won the award with a 55-goal/109-assist campaign and came back with 92 goals, 120 assists and this killer SI cover the next year (and a half-dozen more MVPs in a row); and Eric Lindros was the Hart winner in the strike-shortened 1994-95 season (which was really just the 1995 season), and bumped his per game and raw goal and assist totals up a bit the following season.

Drilling a little deeper on players winning the Hart early in their careers, Ovechkin was the 11th player since 1967-68 to win the award in his 22-year-old season (age as of February 1 of the given season) or earlier. Of the previous ten, seven had more goals-per-game the following year (only Bryan Trottier in 1978-79, Gretzky in 1981-82 - what, couldn't top 92? - and Sidney Crosby this past year did not) and seven had more assists-per-game in that second year (only Orr in 1970-71, Trottier in 1978-79 and Crosby in 2007-08 did not). All told, the average under-23 Hart winner followed up his big season with 8.31% more goals (9% more per game) and 5.54% more assists (6.6% more per game) in 1.22% fewer games, and six of the ten have increased their points-per-game.

So what should we expect from Ovechkin in 2008-09? Applying the 36-player averages, he regresses to 54 goals and 40 assists in 75 games (bump it up to 58 goals and 44 assists if Ovie plays his third-straight 82-game season). Taking just the averages from the 10-player 22-and-under subset (a smaller but likely more representative sample), we'd expect 69 goals and 49 assists in 81 games. I'd buy that. You?

One last note: ten times in the modern era (but not since the late '80s), a Hart Trophy winner's team won the following year's Stanley Cup, and we all know which hardware Alex Ovechkin would rather be posing with one year from now.