I am about to break columnist protocol. We are supposed to forcefully argue one side of a position and persuade the reader with logic and facts and the odd joke and maybe even a choice anecdote. My side of (given issue) is the only correct side! (Spectacular explosion.)
But on the matter of Connor McDavid and the Hart Trophy, a confession: I can kind of see both sides here.
(Cut to a scene of me putting my laptop and credentials on my editor’s desk, then walking out of the office. The door slams, and one side of the blinds on the adjacent window falls down awkwardly.)
As the learned reader is probably aware, this is a particularly weird year for the National Hockey League’s Most Valuable Player award, where there is no clear favourite and it is expected to be the closest vote in many seasons. But the reason that it is an odd debate, and one where I’m not convinced there’s an obviously correct call, is because the dispute mostly comes down to a subjective opinion of what you think “valuable” means. Is it the best player in the league? The best player on a good team? The player who contributed the most on a surprising team?
Muddying the waters further is that voters have gone with players in all of the above categories before.
If you are fine with the Hart simply recognizing the best player, then McDavid should win in a walk. He has taken control of the scoring race with 103 points, which only confirms what everyone knew about him when he arrived two-plus seasons ago: He’s a transcendent talent, so good that he will score in bunches regardless of the quality of the team around him.
But that’s also the problem. With apologies to Montreal, his Edmonton Oilers are easily the biggest disappointment in the NHL this season, a team that looked for all the world like it had finally arrived and then promptly went straight into a ditch. Entering Tuesday night the Oilers had more points than only six teams. There is nothing specific in the wording of the Hart Trophy requirements that demands it must go to someone on a playoff team, but that’s usually the case with MVP awards, and not just in hockey. It’s subjective, but the feeling persists: to be the most valuable player in the league, that value should at least translate into a minimum of team success. Whatever bar you want to set for that minimum of success, the Oilers have slid under it.
But by the great-player-on-good-team metric, there’s no obvious candidate there, either.
Nikita Kucherov in Tampa Bay and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh are two-three in the scoring race behind McDavid, at 97 and 96 points, but they have similar cases: great players on loaded teams, with the MVP talk lessened somewhat by the fact that neither is the biggest star on his team. Claude Giroux in Philadelphia and Anze Kopitar in Los Angeles are also among the scoring leaders, and maybe they end up with extra Hart votes because their rosters aren’t as stacked as those in Tampa and Pittsburgh.
Further in that vein are Nathan McKinnon in Colorado and Taylor Hall in New Jersey, clearly the best players on teams that have performed unexpectedly well, even if both have yet to lock down playoff spots. Some other names will fill out ballots: Blake Wheeler, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Brad Marchand, various Maple Leafs. But it’s hard to see any from that group gaining enough votes to pass all the others.
I suspect that among the hockey writers given a Hart vote, there will be many for whom the choice will have to come from a playoff team. The Oilers won 18 games in the first half of the season, then lost the next three. They were out of the playoff race in early January, even with McDavid blasting around on his rocket skates and giving opposing goalies the flop sweats. I’ve seen some argue that a Hart winner on a non-playoff team has to be dominant, like when Mario Lemieux was lapping the field on bad Penguins teams.
I’m just not sure McDavid’s lack of dominance can be waved away. This is an era in which hockey players are increasingly evaluated at five-on-five, allowing for the fact that special teams time can skew points for and against dramatically. And at even strength, McDavid has 85 points this season, more than 20 points ahead of Kopitar, who is in second place with 64 even-strength points. McDavid is also first in even-strength goals at 35, four more than Vegas’ William Karlsson and five more than Kucherov and Ovechkin.
Where the league’s other leading scorers have netted well over 30 power-play points, McDavid has just 18. He’s just 57th in the NHL in power-play ice time, a product of Edmonton’s inability to draw penalties because Edmonton is, as already noted, not good.
If one of the players on a playoff team had separated himself from the pack, this would all be much simpler. But I keep coming back to McDavid. He has points on 46 per cent of Edmonton’s goals, miles ahead of the rate of Kucherov (34 per cent) and Malkin (36 per cent). No one doubts that he’s the best player in the NHL. For the MVP award, that should be enough.
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