The easiest — and some might say laziest — thing to do when trying to come up with potential candidates for the Hart Trophy is to simply cut and paste the names from the top of the scoring list.
Nikita Kucherov. Evgeni Malkin. Connor McDavid.
Based on history, one of those players should be crowned MVP. And based on history, it probably won’t be McDavid — not with that giant asterisk attached to his name.
It’s not because of something nefarious. But in the minds of potential voters, his season is tainted. Call it guilt by association.
McDavid is ranked third in the Art Ross Trophy race with 84 points in 68 games. Since the All-Star break, he is tied for first in goals (18) and second in points (30). He’s having as good an offensive year as he did in 2017-18 when he finished with 100 points and won the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award.
The problem is that while McDavid is having another MVP season, his team is having a forgettable one.
The Edmonton Oilers are not a playoff team. As of Monday, they weren’t even close. For this reason — and pretty much this reason alone — McDavid won’t come close to winning an award that by definition is awarded annually to the “player judged most valuable to his team.”
The last player who won the Hart Trophy while playing on a losing team was Mario Lemieux in 1987-88. That season, the Pittsburgh Penguins finished one point out of a playoff spot. But Lemieux was still crowned MVP, mostly because he had a whopping 70 goals and 168 points in 77 games — 19 more points than Wayne Gretzky.
“I don’t think there was any question that he was the most dominant player that year,” said Sportsnet hockey analyst Craig Simpson, who started the 1987-88 season with the Penguins before getting traded to the Oilers after 21 games. “He had 70 goals at a time when Wayne was dominating the scoring race.”
“We knew we had the most dominant player in the league, we just didn’t have the parts around to support him,” said NHL TV analyst Bob Errey, who spent nine years as Lemieux’s teammate. “For him to be able to do that on a team that really didn’t have all the talent in the world, I think that might have actually helped him. He was far and away the best player.”
That hasn’t been the case with McDavid this year. He’s certainly been great and has dominated the nightly highlight reel. But he hasn’t separated himself from the pack like he did a year ago, when he finished 11 points ahead of Sidney Crosby in the scoring race.
As of Monday, McDavid trailed scoring leader Kucherov by four points and Malkin by three, but was also only three points ahead of Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux. Fifteen other players behind him were within 11 points.
With Lemieux, the gap between him and Gretzky was impossible to ignore.
“He was so great, but they were so bad,” said said TSN hockey analyst Dave Poulin, who during his playing career with the Philadelphia Flyers had the unenviable task of trying to shut down Lemieux. “We went through a stretch where we simply did not lose to Pittsburgh even with Mario. But don’t forget, we were allowed to win 8-6 in those days.”
Edmonton’s problem is similar: if McDavid doesn’t score, the team doesn’t win. Even when he does score, it’s often not enough. But it’s not just McDavid’s season that is being affected with his team’s place in the standings.
Colorado’s MacKinnon (81 points) and New Jersey’s Taylor Hall (74 points) are both capable of winning the Hart Trophy this season, as long as their respective teams qualify for the playoffs. The Devils currently have the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, while the Avalanche are one point ahead of the Kings for the second wild-card spot in the West.
Edmonton is 13th in the West and is 16 points out of a playoff spot. For McDavid, it looks worse because after reaching Game 7 of the second round last year, the Oilers had been pre-season favourites to win the Stanley Cup.
With MacKinnon and Hall, it’s the opposite. Both are playing for teams that were awful a year ago and were supposed to be even worse this year, especially with Colorado having traded away Matt Duchene in November. Instead, MacKinnon and Hall are the reasons for even this moderate level of success.
No one is lumping McDavid in with the Oilers’ failures. But it’s also difficult to separate him from it.
“For guys to be considered MVP material, you’d like your team to be in the mix and competitive,” Simpson said. “But if you watch the league, it’s hard to ignore that Connor has been the most entertaining and dominant this year.”
“Nobody is going to take away his greatness or anything like that,” Errey said of McDavid, “but I don’t think he’s in the conversation for MVP. I think of him as a top-three player in the league, but I don’t think of him as an MVP this season just because of their team and he’s the leader of their team and because they kind of failed this year, to be honest with you.”
In the process, the team failed McDavid as well.
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