Chris Pronger is the last defenseman to win league MVP honors, and that was back in 2000. Since then these five defensemen came closest to cracking the Hart Trophy puzzle.
Brent Burns is on fire. The Sharks’ defenseman is enjoying one of the best goal-scoring seasons by a blueliner in recent memory while leading his team to first place in the Pacific. He’s emerged as the runaway favorite for the Norris Trophy. And now, he’s even starting to get some Hart Trophy buzz.
He almost certainly won’t win – this year’s MVP vote has been shaping up as the first of many Sidney Crosby vs. Connor McDavid referendums. Barring an injury or something entirely unexpected, that won’t change. It’s Crosby vs. McDavid, and everyone else is gunning for third place.
But third place would still be a historic achievement for Burns. A defenseman hasn’t been a serious Hart Trophy candidate since 2000, when Chris Pronger won. For whatever reason, blueliners just don’t get much respect from Hart voters. Pronger remains the only defenseman to win MVP honors since Bobby Orr in the early 70s, and nobody since 2000 has even finished as a finalist.
That’s kind of weird when you think about it. Ask any NHL GM about how to build a championship contender, and they’ll rave about the importance of a blueline stud. But when it comes to naming the league’s most valuable player, the entire position ends up being an afterthought at best.
So even if Burns won’t win, just being in the conversation is impressive. As we watch his record-breaking season unfold, let’s look back at the five defensemen who came closest to cracking the Hart Trophy puzzle in the years since Pronger took the trophy home.
(All award vote data via hockey-reference.com.)
No surprise here. Lidstrom was the runner-up to Pronger for the Norris Trophy as best defenseman in 2000, then dominated the voting for that award for most of the next decade, winning seven times.
What’s somewhat surprising is that Lidstrom never came especially close to contending for a Hart Trophy, and he was only the top vote-getter among blueliners four times. In two of his Norris-winning years (2003 and 2011), MVP voters showed more love to someone else at the position. And one time, in 2002, nobody cast so much as a single Hart ballot for any defensemen at all.
Lidstrom’s closest call to finalist status came in 2008, when he finished fourth. It wasn’t an especially near miss – Lidstrom finished well back of Evgeni Malkin and Jarome Iginla, neither of whom were close to threatening Alex Ovechkin’s near-unanimous win. But Lidstrom did receive two first-place votes, tied for the most since Pronger’s 25, and that fourth-place finish remains the only time since Pronger’s win that a defenseman has even finished in the top five.
Karlsson has been the top vote-getting blueliner three times, trailing only Lidstrom in the post-Pronger era. That includes both of his Norris-winning seasons in 2012 and 2015. It also includes last year, when he finished ahead of Drew Doughty in Hart voting despite finishing behind him in a contentious Norris race.
That said, the Senators’ star has never come all that close to the Hart Trophy conversation. He’s never finished higher than eighth in the balloting, and he’s yet to receive a first-place vote. That’s despite owning the best offensive season by a defenseman since 2000 in terms of points scored, and three of the top seven. That could be a bad sign for Burns. Hart voters don’t seem all that swayed by gaudy offensive numbers from the blueline after all.
Apart from Lidstrom and Karlsson, Chara is the only other defenseman since 2000 to top the position in Hart voting more than once. He managed it twice, in 2009 and 2011. That 2009 season was also notable for Chara joining Lidstrom as the only defenseman in the era to get multiple first place votes, he had two.
But much like Karlsson, Chara never really came close to MVP honors. He only finished eighth in 2009, and was all the way back at 12th in 2011. Still, he received at least one Hart vote somewhere on a ballot in seven of eight seasons beginning in 2004. That’s not much to get excited about, but at least somebody somewhere was writing his name down. As far as the era’s blueliner’s go, that seems to be about all you can ask for.
While Niedermayer is now widely recognized as one of the best defensemen of his era, the truth is that for most of his career in New Jersey he played in the shadow of Scott Stevens. Heading into 2003-04, he’d only had one season in which he’d finished in the top ten in Norris voting, and that had come six years earlier.
But during that 2003-04 season, the normally indestructible Stevens suffered a concussion and missed half the year. That allowed Niedermayer to step into the spotlight, and he responded with a Norris-winning campaign that saw him dominate the vote. It would be the first of three straight first-team all-star seasons for Niedermayer, establishing his Hall of Fame credentials.
And through all of that, he still finished just ninth in Hart voting, one spot back of the legendary Marty Turco. It marked the only time in his career that he was the highest defenseman in MVP voting.
If your first memories of MacInnis are of him blasting holes through terrified goaltenders with his patented slapshot for the Calgary Flames in the 1980s, you may have forgotten that he was still going strong when Pronger was winning his Hart at the turn of the millennium. In fact, the two were teammates at the time, with MacInnis winning his only Norris Trophy the year before at the age of 35.
He very nearly won another in 2002-03. At 39 years old, MacInnis finished second to Lidstrom in that year’s Norris voting. But he edged out Lidstrom in MVP voting, finishing sixth. It was the highest of his three top-ten Hart finishes, and was also his last. MacInnis played just three games in the following season before suffering a career-ending eye injury.
Those five names comprise the entire list of defensemen since Pronger to lead the position in Hart voting while also finishing in the overall top ten. If you’re wondering, three more players have led all blueliners while finishing outside the top ten – P.K. Subban (13th in 2013), Mike Green (14th in 2010) and Duncan Keith (15th in 2014).
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.