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Rewind: Senators, Canadiens would have owned Hart in pre-MVP years

Senators and Habs players dominated the NHL’s early years and would have taken home six MVP awards had the Hart Trophy been introduced earlier

The Hart Trophy was introduced in 1923-24, making it the NHL’s earliest individual award. When determining retroactive winners for newer awards, such as the Norris Trophy (first awarded in 1953-54) or the Vezina (awarded since 1926-27 but first voted on in 1981-82), detailed Hart voting records can provide important clues.

But since no award existed before the Hart, it is the most difficult retro trophy to determine. Therefore, it makes sense to name a winner and four finalists for the six pre-Hart seasons.

Further complicating matters is the fact that in its 94 years, the Hart Trophy has gone through numerous voting trend changes. At different times in history, it seemed to reflect the top players’ values to their specific teams, while at other times it reflected the most outstanding players. Early on, defensemen and goalies got their fair share of votes (or more), while today, almost all Hart support goes to the forwards. Team success seemed not to matter to voters through the 1950s, but today it matters greatly. An all-around or even defensive forward had a shot at the Hart in the old days, but no chance today. These top-five lists for each season were compiled with all of the above historical trends in mind.

1917-18
Georges Vezina, G, Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens were the NHL’s best team this season, offensively and defensively. But they were most impressive in their own end – more than a full goal per game better than second-place Toronto. Most of the credit for this dominance would have gone to Vezina, the Habs’ only netminder and the biggest name on the team when it came to stopping goals. Starters on defense were Joe Hall, a Hall of Famer who enjoyed his last great season at 36, and Bert Corbeau, an average player.

Runner-up: Joe Malone, LW, Montreal Canadiens
Malone led the NHL’s best offense and had the most goals and points in the league. Usually a center, he played left wing in this, the only season he had a teammate at center as good as Newsy Lalonde. While Lalonde and Ottawa’s Frank Nighbor were nearly as prolific as Malone when they played, Malone was healthy all season.

3rd: Cy Denneny, LW, Ottawa Senators
The Senators weren’t yet the dynasty they’d soon become, and faltered to a 9-13-0 record with team backbone Nighbor missing half the year. Denneny’s 48 points were second in the league, more than double his next-highest teammate.

4th: Reg Noble, C, Toronto Arenas
The hard-hitting Noble’s 39 points were third overall and led the Arenas by nine points.

5th: Joe Hall, D, Montreal Canadiens
The No. 1 defenseman on the league’s best defensive team, Hall played a large part in their dominant performance.

1918-19
Frank Nighbor, C, Ottawa Senators
‘The Pembroke Peach’ was the NHL’s first actual Hart Trophy winner in 1923-24, despite ranking ninth in NHL scoring (and fourth on his team). The reason? Defense. Nighbor was one of the most dominant defensive forwards in league history and the key to the Sens’ system that made them 1.39 goals per game better than second-place Montreal. Combine that with a second-place scoring finish, and he’s a likely Hart winner.

Runner-up: Newsy Lalonde, C, Montreal Canadiens
Lalonde led the NHL with 32 points, topping Nighbor by four. While not the defensive specialist Nighbor was, he was a dominant scorer in the NHA, NHL and WCHL for many years.

3rd: Clint Benedict, G, Ottawa Senators
Vezina is usually identified as the greatest goalie of this generation, but he was in his early to mid-30s in the NHL’s pre-Hart seasons, while Benedict was in his prime and played for what was usually the league’s best defensive team. This season his 2.85 goals-against average was 1.42 better than Vezina’s, and though ‘Praying Benny’ rarely got the credit for team dominance, he did his part.

4th: Harry Cameron, D, Ottawa/Toronto
Cameron was loaned to Ottawa by Toronto halfway through the season, and was his team’s most productive defenseman, by far, in both cities.

5th: Sprague Cleghorn, D, Ottawa Senators
Cleghorn led the Senators’ star-studded blueline with Eddie Gerard and Buck Boucher. While all were excellent defensively, Cleghorn provided the most production.

1919-20
Frank Nighbor, C, Ottawa Senators
Ottawa finished with a 19-5-0 record and 64 goals against. The other teams averaged 132 – more than twice as many. The key to this defensive dominance, once again, was Nighbor. He also led the Sens in points and was third in league scoring.

Runner-up: Clint Benedict, G, Ottawa Senators
Benedict benefitted from the NHL’s best defensive personnel and system, with a GAA that was 1.68 better than any other goalie in the league.

3rd: Sprague Cleghorn, D, Ottawa Senators
The best defenseman on the best defensive team, while also tying Cameron for most points by a D-man. Yes, Ottawa was so good this season, they’d have swept the Hart nominees.

4th: Joe Malone, C, Quebec Bulldogs
On one hand, Malone led the NHL with 49 points and figured in 54 percent of Quebec’s goals. On the other hand, a lot of good it did for a team that ended up dead last at 4-20-0.

5th: Newsy Lalonde, C, Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens captain had 47 points, second in the NHL and 21 more than the next-highest Hab.

1920-21
Newsy Lalonde, C, Montreal Canadiens
Lalonde finished behind Nighbor in the Retro Hart Trophy race in 1918-19 and 1919-20 because his few extra points didn’t outweigh Nighbor’s defensive contributions. But this season, Lalonde led the NHL with 43 points – 14 more than Nighbor and 22 more than any other Hab.

Runner-up: Frank Nighbor, C, Ottawa Senators
Ottawa slipped 10 points in the standings, but was still 14-10-0 with the league’s best defensive record, and Nighbor set the tone. His 29 points (fifth in the NHL) would likely not be enough to capture the Hart, but he was still highly valuable.

3rd: Eddie Gerard, D, Ottawa Senators
With Cleghorn gone, Gerard became the Sens’ second-most vital defensive player.

4th: Clint Benedict, G, Ottawa Senators
Had his usual strong stats, leading the NHL with 3.08 GAA.

5th: Joe Malone, C, Hamilton Tigers
Poor guy was on an island on the 6-18-0 Tigers with 47 points, twice as many as all but one teammate.

1921-22
Sprague Cleghorn, D, Montreal Canadiens
Cleghorn had a season for the ages, leading the Habs in points with 26 despite being a defenseman. This was a feat the NHL hadn’t yet seen, and wouldn’t see again until 1942, and then 1970. Cleghorn also led the NHL in penalty minutes with 80, twice as much as second-place Harry Mummery. It’s debatable whether all those PIMs were beneficial, but this was an era when violence and intimidation were more important than today.

Runner-up: Punch Broadbent, RW, Ottawa Senators
Broadbent was one of the most unlikely scoring champions ever. More of a secondary scorer who provided defensive responsibility and toughness, his prior best season was the 1914-15 NHA campaign in which he had 27 points, 17 fewer than the league leader, and he hadn’t approached that since. Then in 1921-22 he rattled off goals in 16 straight games en route to a scoring title.

3rd: Harry Cameron, D, Toronto St. Pats
As good a season as Cleghorn had on the Montreal blueline, Cameron was not to be ignored. While he wasn’t the St. Pats’ scoring leader, he finished fourth in the league with 35 points.

4th: Cy Denneny, LW, Ottawa Senators
Denneny had yet another outstanding offensive season, with 40 points, just five behind linemate Broadbent, helping the Senators to the best record.

5th: Babe Dye, RW, Toronto St. Pats
Slow-skating and one-dimensional, but outstanding at his one dimension. One of four times he led the NHL in goals.

1922-23
Georges Boucher, D, Ottawa Senators
Boucher, who had been steadily rising up the ranks the previous three seasons, reached his peak at 26. Always a steady defender, he became a key offensive player this season, leading NHL defensemen with 26 points, second on Ottawa. The Sens were only average offensively, but finished first because of their defensive strength, and Boucher’s maturation was a huge part of that.

Runner-up: Georges Vezina, G, Montreal Canadiens
After years of seeing younger rival Benedict post much better numbers (thanks in no small part to superior coaching and team defense), Vezina enjoyed success this year. No team was an offensive standout, but two stood out defensively: the Senators and Vezina’s Canadiens. Allowing only seven more goals than Benedict was a real achievement considering the difference in big-name defensive players on the two squads.

3rd: Babe Dye, RW, Toronto St. Pats
In a season with vanilla offense, Dye again led the NHL in goals, and this time took the league scoring title, too, by a seven-point margin.

4th: Clint Benedict, G, Ottawa Senators
Vezina’s performance was more impressive, but Benedict was still a standout goalie.

5th: Sprague Cleghorn, D, Montreal Canadiens
Whatever credit doesn’t go to Vezina for the Habs’ excellent defensive performance should go to their No. 1 defenseman and frequent MVP.

This story appears in the Season Preview 2018-19 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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