LAS VEGAS — Peter Chiarelli still can’t believe it.
Not even a finalist? Really?
The general manager of the Edmonton Oilers is on the phone from his summer home in Boston and we are talking about the Hart Memorial Trophy and how I voted for the league MVP award. I tell him I had Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon first on my ballot, followed closely by New Jersey’s Taylor Hall.
Edmonton’s Connor McDavid was my third pick.
In truth, I was being generous.
MacKinnon, Hall and Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar were named the three finalists for the Hart Trophy, which will be awarded at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas on Wednesday night. That means McDavid, who won the award last year, is definitely outside the top three. Few would be surprised if he lands outside the top five.
On the surface, it’s shocking that a player who led the league with 108 points — eight more than he scored a year ago when he won the league MVP award — wouldn’t be in the mix again. After all, McDavid had the best individual season of any player. From a pure talent standpoint, he might have surpassed Sidney Crosby as the best player in the world.
We are witnessing greatness. Like Wayne Gretzky, McDavid could have his name on the Hart Trophy every year for the next 10 years. And he would have his name on it this year … if the Oilers’ season hadn’t been such a dumpster fire.
That’s the only reason McDavid isn’t in the mix for the Hart. Whereas MacKinnon, Hall and Kopitar literally willed their teams into the playoffs, McDavid’s best had Edmonton finishing 12th in the Western Conference standings, 17 points out of a playoff spot.
“What’s the exact definition of the Hart Trophy?” Chiarelli asked of the award, which is defined as being for the player judged the most valuable to his team. “I couldn’t say it any better for what Connor was to our team. I don’t know where we’d be without him.”
That’s actually an easier argument to make with MacKinnon and Hall, who took teams that finished last in their respective conferences in 2016-17 into unlikely playoff berths.
What would the Oilers have been like without him? Well, as some have joked, the NHL might have stepped in and relegated the team to the American Hockey League.
The Oilers were coming off a year where they finished with the second-best record in the Pacific Division and then were a goal away from reaching the Western Conference final. Most had pencilled them in for the Stanley Cup final this season. So when they crashed, it was impossible not view McDavid’s production in a negative light — even if he was the lone bright spot in a miserable season.
“It wasn’t his fault, but he took the blame,” Chiarelli said. “The expectations were so great, and then we played poorly and he got caught up in that. The season he had got skewed.”
You can hear the remorse in Chiarelli’s voice as he talks about how the Oilers essentially wasted McDavid’s 108-point season. This is where Chiarelli deserves most of the blame. McDavid is the team’s captain, but no one is faulting him for all that went wrong.
McDavid, who went a month playing through a respiratory illness, was the reason Edmonton did not go 0-82. He not only led the league in scoring, but also finished first in even-strength goals. McDavid increased his goal production from 30 to 41 and had a plus-20 rating on a team that had a goal differential of minus-33.
McDavid did his part. The same cannot be said of Chiarelli, head coach Todd McLellan or many of the other players wearing Oilers jerseys.
“There is pressure as a GM to build a team,” said Chiarelli, who built the Boston Bruins into Stanley Cup champion in 2011. “But there’s more pressure when you have a player like Connor. You feel a responsibility with your players to make that team better by getting players. You have certain expectations with each individual player, but there’s a reciprocal relationship.
“He was the silver lining to our season. But you’re going to see an even better silver lining next year. He’ll be even better and we’ll be even better because of it.”
Next season isn’t really up to McDavid. As long as he is healthy, he should have no problem leading the league in points. But whether he is in the running for the Hart Trophy will depend on what Chiarelli does this summer.
The team needs to find a trading partner that will take Milan Lucic, who was paid $6 million but scored only 10 goals this season. The Oilers have to decide whether to re-sign or release restricted free agent Ryan Strome. The defence corps needs an upgrade and goalie Cam Talbot needs a safety net, or someone to push him for playing time. And regardless of what Ty Rattie did in 14 games, McDavid and the Oilers need a winger or two who can score. (Hello, James van Riemsdyk or James Neal?)
“I don’t now if a teaching moment is the right word, but it’s experience,” Chiarelli said of this season from hell. “You live, you learn and you get better. Connor will be better for how he preserved over this. It happened for Sid and it happened for (Alex Ovechkin). They learned from these kinds of things. The same goes for Connor. It’s a transformation.”
Taylor Hall, New Jersey Hall finished sixth in league scoring with 93 points and had a 26-game point streak, but his biggest accomplishment was getting a Devils team that had finished last in the East the year before into the playoffs.
Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kopitar, who is also a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the top defensive forward, could be the first player to win both awards in the same year since Detroit’s Sergei Fedorov did it in 1994.
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Few believed the Avalanche would make the playoffs when the season began. Even fewer thought it was a possibility after the team traded away Matt Duchene. But with MacKinnon leading the way with 97 points, Colorado had a 21-win improvement.
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