We’re three-quarters of the way through the season, the home stretch is looming, and the cream is rising to the top. At this point in the season is where you see the elite players begin to separate from the pack and assert themselves as legitimate Hart Trophy candidates. Gone are the Anze Kopitars, Patrick Marleaus, and Marian Gaboriks, while the Ovechkins and Crosbys remain. That’s not intended to be a slight against those players, but that’s just the reality of the situation. First things first: this is going to be a piece rife with opinion, so I don’t want people to think I believe what I say here is gospel, even though I will likely say something to that effect several times. Honestly, we all know that winning a Stanley Cup is the #1 priority, but you can only talk about needing a physical defenseman, or another center so much, so let’s not continue beating that horse to death. A third straight Hart Trophy for Ovechkin is historic, and places him in the company of some of hockey’s all-time greats, so it’s worth talking about. With that being said, let’s take a look at the tale of the tape of who I believe the top 3 contenders for the award (in no particular order):
Games played: 54
Points Per Game: 1.65
Goals Versus Threshold (read this link to know what I’m talking about): 25.6
Ovechkin started the year like a house on fire (notching three straight three point games to kick off the season), and he never seemed to let up. He was on pace for career highs in goals, assists, and points (yeah, no kiddin’) before taking an injury, and missing 2 games due to suspension. In all, Ovechkin sat for 8 tilts, but never seemed to miss a step, scoring on his first shot back from injury/suspension. Despite spotting the league 8 games, Ovechkin sits atop the points leaderboard with 89 (9 more than 2nd place Henrik Sedin), while maintaining a Points Per Game average (1.65) that is the highest the league has seen since Mario Lemieux’s 1995-1996 campaign. His +/- rating is tops in the NHL at 43, with Mr. Nasty Jeff Schultz coming in second at 37. So far, it has been an absolutely dominating season from #8, and if not for the vacation he was forced to take in November, there was a solid chance he would have set career highs in virtually every statistical category. Currently, the Capitals sit atop the NHL with 90 points.
Games Played: 52
SV %: .930
Goals Versus Threshold: 29.1
Miller is the reason why the Buffalo Sabres sat as high as second in the Eastern Conference for a good percentage of the season. He spent a significant portion of the year north of a .940 SV%, with a sub-2 Goals Against Average. He hasn’t been as sharp in the past several weeks, which has caused his SV% to drop to .930, but he’s still been the best goaltender in the league for the season, and is getting a lot of buzz.
Games Played: 61
Points Per Game: 1.28
Goals Versus Threshold: 21.3
Crosby did not start the season very well, as he was just around 1 point per game for the first quarter or so. Since then he’s been scoring at an elite rate, including a stretch that saw him score 18 goals in 18 games leading up to the Olympic Break. He’s currently 3rd in points, behind Sedin and Ovechkin, but will likely surpass the former following the Olympic Break. Crosby broke his previous career-high of 39 goals, and seems to be in a good position to post his first 50-goal year.
So who should the winner be? Well, first things first- the Hart Memorial Trophy is awarded to the player “adjudged most valuable to their team” in the NHL. There’s that damn V word again- “valuable”. No other word in sports causes such a shit-storm when it comes to awarding hardware at the end of a season. How is “most valuable” to be evaluated? And how does “to their team” change things? If we’re going with a strictly mathematical approach then a goaltender should win the award literally every year, because the impact of a goaltender is so much greater than that of any individual skater. If you head over to www.behindthenet.ca and check out their GVT rankings (you did read that link I posted…right?) it shouldn’t come as a surprise that out of the top 10 most valuable players according to that catch-all statistic, seven are goaltenders, while the first skater checks in at #4 (wanna take a guess at who that is?). For these reasons I have decided that if I were given a vote, I would not vote for a goaltender over the top skater, unless they put up a historically great season. Goalies have the Vezina, much like the MLB where pitchers have the Cy Young to win, and virtually never win MVP awards. Ryan Miller’s season is not historically great, and it could be argued that Vokoun’s season is just as good. In light of that he gets tossed.
So now it comes down to Crosby and Ovechkin, the two remaining skaters. In keeping with the traditions of the award, which of these two should be “adjudged to be the most valuable to their team”? Well, again this brings up a lot of questions. How is “valuable” compared between skaters? Crosby supporters will argue that he has been more important to the Penguins’ offense than Ovechkin has been to the Capitals’ (based on % of goals contributed to) and, after all, isn’t that what the award says? Well, if that’s the case then shouldn’t Gaborik take the trophy home? He’s contributed to an even larger percentage of the Rangers’ goals than Ovechkin or Crosby have to their respective teams, so why not him? A common response to that is because the Rangers aren’t a playoff team, and that changes everything. Oh. So the trophy should go to the most valuable player on a playoff team then? Well, Ovechkin has put up the best numbers virtually across the board, and plays for the team with the most points in the NHL so there you have it, right? “Well no, his team is loaded with stars, and his team was still pretty good without him so he shouldn’t get it.” Ignore for a second that Crosby also plays with a bona fide superstar (who he shares 40% of his points with), and plays for the defending Cup champions who were picked by virtually everyone to be the best team in the NHL coming into the season, and we get yet another qualifier that further muddles the argument. Ok, so it seems that in order to win the Hart you should be an elite player, on a good (playoff) team, but not a team that’s so good that the “they’d still be decent without him” argument could be used by drunks in a Pittsburgh sports bar.
The spirit of the award is so completely arbitrary that everyone jumps through semantic hoops to justify why their favorite player really is more “valuable”. It’s stupid sports writers racking their brains on the correct interpretation of that word that results in Jimmy F’ing Rollins winning the MVP trophy over someone like Albert Pujols, or why Joe Thornton won the Hart over Jagr in 2005-2006. My opinion is this: outside of extreme cases, the Hart Trophy should simply go to the best player that season, no questions asked. If you follow that rule, then the likelihood of making a decision that will make people in the future go “what the fuck were they thinking?” drops precipitously. For that reason, at this point in time, the only possible answer for the “who should get the Hart?” is Alex Ovechkin. The funny thing is, out of ALL of the arguments I’ve heard for other players deserving the Hart trophy, not a single one of them was “X has simply been the best player in the NHL”. I literally don’t think I’ve heard that argument made for Miller, Crosby, or Sedin (the odd-man out) so far. That should show us something. Ovechkin has dominated the league in a way that hasn’t been seen since Mario Lemieux was still skating. He has missed close to 10 games, but leads the league in points by a solid margin, is tied for the league lead in goals and +/-, and has lead the Washington Capitals to first place in the NHL. Yes, there are 20 games left in the Capitals season, but I have a hard time believing anyone will overtake Ovechkin as the odds-on favorite to win the Hart Trophy.