Hockey writers are going to have some tough decisions this year when it comes to voting on the NHL awards. However, no decision is going to be tougher than picking the Hart Trophy winner for 2010.

Every year there are several worthwhile candidates, but most seasons there is a clear favorite who separates himself from the rest of the pack to clearly establish himself as the most valuable player to his team. 2010 is a whole different animal though.

This year there are four choices that could conceivably capture the title, and few would bat an eye if any one of them walked away from this spring’s NHL awards with the hardware.

Alexander Ovechkin

Ovechkin is the two-time defending Hart Trophy champion and at the midway point of the season most were picking him to make it a three-peat. He has had another dominant season, and has been among the league leaders in goals, points and plus-minus all season long. He also assumed the mantle of captain and has flourished in a leadership role. However, apart from his massive hit on Jaromir Jagr, Ovechkin had a relatively poor Olympics, and Team Russia’s failure at the games in Vancouver seems to have given Ovie a bit of a hangover ever since he returned to Washington.

He went into the Olympics with a healthy lead in the scoring race, and most were ready to hand him the Art Ross Trophy at that point. However, since he has returned he has seen Henrik Sedin erase the point spread between them, and it is now Ovechkin who is looking up, trailing Sedin by 3 points.

Even if he doesn’t win the scoring race Ovechkin still has a great shot at a 3rd consecutive Hart. His league-leading +43 rating, his league-leading points-per-game average, his leadership, and his punishing physical play will earn him plenty of votes in this year’s race. However, the fact that he gets to play with such stars as Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Alexander Semin on a nightly basis might weigh against him when the final votes are tallied.

Sidney Crosby

The 2009-10 season has been yet another compelling chapter in the ongoing debate about who is the best player in the game today. Crosby’s trophy case isn’t quite on par with Ovechkin’s personal hardware collection, but when he became the youngest player to captain his team to a Stanley Cup last spring he sure livened up the debate again.

This year, Crosby has completely reinvented his game, driving the net more, and shooting consistently rather than trying to look for a trailing player to dish the puck to. The result has been nothing short of spectacular. Crosby’s lack of scoring touch has often been pointed to as a weakness in his game in the past, but his naysayers are eating a large helping of crow right now. With 47 goals he is currently sitting first in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy, and with several games still to play should have no problem reaching the magical 50 goal plateau for the first time in his career.

At this point it doesn’t look like Crosby can get his mitts on the Art Ross – he currently trails Henrik Sedin by 10 points – but he should finish in the top 3 in league scoring. With Evgeni Malkin having an off year Crosby’s offense has been of paramount importance to his team, and he has delivered consistently throughout the year, despite the fact that he has had to battle against the league’s toughest defensive forwards. As of now the Pittsburgh Penguins are currently sitting in first in the tough Atlantic division, and Crosby is the main reason for that. Remember, the Hart goes to the player deemed to be most valuable to his team, so despite Ovechkin’s and Sedin’s statistical edge I believe he is very much in the mix to capture the 2010 Hart Trophy.

Henrik Sedin

For years this Swedish star, along with twin brother Daniel Sedin, has been maligned by the press and fans alike for his inability to take his game to the next level and become one of the game’s true elite. Though he had been remarkably consistent over the course of his career he hadn’t been able to produce at better than a point a game clip.

All that changed with the start of the 2009-10 season. With the ink barely dry on a rich new contract, Henrik Sedin wasted no time showing his critics he was ready to assume the mantle of NHL superstar. Through the bulk of the season he has sat either first or second in league scoring. Even when brother Daniel went down with injury, Henrik kept producing with barely a blip, and over the season he, Daniel and Alex Burrows have arguably been the best line in the NHL.

At the time of this writing Sedin currently leads the NHL with 104 points, and with the way he has been putting points on the board lately (and the way Ovechkin has not) there is a very good chance he’ll make me eat my words – I wrote that Sedin had blown his shot at the Art Ross prior to the Olympic break – and become the first player in Vancouver Canucks history to win the NHL scoring title.

Add in a healthy +36 rating, and the fact that Sedin leads the league in assists by a wide margin and you’ve got some compelling arguments to hand Henrik Sedin the Hart Trophy. In my mind, this guy deserves it. Vancouver is a bona fide Stanley Cup contender with him in the lineup. Without him, I think they’d have their hands full making the playoffs. If he can stave off Ovechkin and win the scoring title he may just be able to add first Canuck to win the Hart Trophy as well.

Ryan Miller

Though some argue that goaltenders don’t belong in the Hart Race – that the Vezina should be enough for them – I think in special cases an exception should be made. Yes, if the definition of the Hart Trophy is adhered to – most valuable to his team – a goaltender should win the award every season. Obviously that is not the case, so other considerations come into play. However, if a goalie has such a dominant season that is abundantly clear that his team would be in dire straits without him, then a goalie should be considered. Miller’s Buffalo Sabres already saw that happen twice in the 90s when Dominik Hasek captured back to back Hart Trophies during the peak of his incredible career. Granted, Miller hasn’t quite been the brick wall that Hasek was, but he has been hands down the best goalie in the league this season, and is the sole reason Buffalo is not only in a playoff spot, but has a healthy lead in their division, putting them in the number 3 spot in the Eastern Conference. Yes, it would be a bit of a surprise if Miller took home the hardware, but don’t be shocked if he gets his fair share of votes along the way.

There you have it, the top 4 Hart Trophy favorites for the 2009-10 season. There are arguably more candidates, including another two goaltenders in Craig Anderson and Ilya Bryzgalov, but the vast majority of the first place votes will be split between these four guys. It will be very interesting to see which of them finishes on top this time around.