When Mario Lemieux stopped Wayne Gretzky’s run of consecutive Hart Trophies at eight 20 years ago, there was no moral indignation, no raucous debate on the merits of awarding the most prestigious individual award to a non-playoff participant.
In fact, even the man whose streak was interrupted tipped his hat to Lemieux and was so certain he would come away empty handed he made alternate holiday plans for that night with his bride-to-be Janet Jones.
Twenty years later, those who would deny Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals the MVP award if his team doesn’t make the playoffs should also be lobbying for a recount on Lemieux, for Andy Bathgate to be stripped of the award in 1958-59 and for Al Rollins to have his name scratched out from the 1953-54 plaque.
And you don’t have to look even that far back for a precedent. In 2002, Jarome Iginla finished second to Jose Theodore in the closest voting in Hart history, ostensibly because the Calgary Flames missed the playoffs. Looking back, it was a huge blunder and a perfect example of the perils of basing individual success solely on team accomplishments.
Lemieux, Bathgate and Rollins are the only three players in NHL history who have won the Hart Trophy on non-playoff teams.
They’re also all worthy Hall of Famers. And if they were found deserving of the honors – and they were – why not Ovechkin?
Bathgate and Rollins won the award in seasons when 67 percent of the league’s teams made the playoffs and Lemieux was MVP when 76.2 percent of teams qualified for the post-season.
(Rollins was an interesting case. He was the goalie for the Chicago Black Hawks, who were terrible and finished dead last that season. He won just 12 games, but five of them were shutouts.)
So now that just 53.3 percent of the league makes the playoffs, should we simply ignore the other 46.7 percent? Think about it. Using that logic, almost half the league would automatically be ignored.
If a player whose team doesn’t make the playoffs shouldn’t even be considered for the Hart, then how logical is it to award the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP to a player whose team didn’t win the Stanley Cup?
That’s absurd, particularly when it comes to the case of Ovechkin, a deserving serious Hart candidate if ever there were one. This is not Ted Kennedy in 1955 receiving the award ostensibly as a retirement present. Ovechkin has been MVP worthy regardless of how you define the award.
The debate over whether Ovechkin deserves to be considered for the Hart Trophy cuts to the very heart of how the MVP bauble has been interpreted over the years.
In the NHL’s official definition the Hart is awarded to “the player who is adjudged to be most valuable to his team,” but let’s face it, it has evolved into the award for the best player in the league.
By either definition, Ovechkin deserves his due.
Is there anyone in the hockey world who would not consider Ovechkin one of the best players on the planet? And if so, why should he be penalized just because he plays on a bad team?
And those who believe it should go to the true MVP would have a near-impossible time arguing the Capitals wouldn’t be playing for a lottery pick this season if not for Ovechkin.
(“Then he’s actually hurting them,” THN colleague Mike Brophy said during a recent meeting when our staff was discussing the subject. Good point, Broph.)
The fact is Ovechkin has put together a phenomenal season and the Capitals missing or making the post-season by the thinnest of margins shouldn’t make a bit of difference.
Ovechkin leads the league in scoring and all he was doing was scoring big goals.
The most important goals in hockey are the first one of the game, one that puts your team ahead, one that pulls your team into a tie and a game-winner.
Ovechkin has a combined total of 51 of those, including shootout goals. That leads the league by a comfortable margin and with a combined total of 90 points on those goals, he trails only Joe Thornton (106) and Pavel Datsyuk (100) in that department.
The only difference is, by virtue of the strength of their teams, Thornton and Datsyuk get a lot more opportunities to score those kinds of goals than Ovechkin does.
With 109 points on 231 total goals for the Capitals, Ovechkin has contributed to 47.2 percent of Washington’s offensive output this season.
His 62 goals represent 26.8 percent of the Caps’ goals. Both marks are best in the NHL this season.
Compare that to Lemieux in 1988, who scored 21.9 percent of Pittsburgh’s goals and had a hand in 52.7 percent of them. When Bathgate took MVP honors in 1959, he scored 19.9 percent of the New York Rangers’ goals and contributed on 43.8 percent.
Better yet, compare it to anyone in the NHL this season. You’ll find no player has been more of a factor in his team’s offensive output than Ovechkin.
All of which makes Ovechkin a viable candidate for the Hart Trophy this season, if not a shoo-in for the award.
In a season where there is no shortage of candidates for the MVP, perhaps Ovechkin won’t win the award even if the Capitals are playing important games next week.
But to refuse to even consider him if his team doesn’t make the playoffs is just plain silly.
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