Connor McDavid’s league-leading point total goes up against Sidney Crosby’s league-best goal total and Sergei Bobrovsky’s all-world goaltending numbers in what stands to be a tight race for the Hart Trophy.
The past two seasons, the Hart Trophy conversation hasn’t really been all that much of a conversation at all. In 2015-16, Patrick Kane dominated the league scoring race and almost singlehandedly powered the Chicago Blackhawks’ offense en route to winning the Hart, while Carey Price’s stonewall performance in 2014-15 was enough to rightfully earn him the Hart, Vezina and Ted Lindsay Award. It was a goaltending performance for the ages.
This season, however, the winner isn’t as clear cut. In fact, it wouldn’t be all that shocking if the voting was as tight as ever. Unlike years past, there were so many players truly in the running for the hardware that winnowing the list to three finalists leaves out some players who had exceptional seasons.
Take Erik Karlsson, for example. The Senators defenseman was having an excellent two-way season for much of the campaign, but when Ottawa’s playoff footing started to slide mid-season, it was Karlsson who stepped up to ensure his club would be in the post-season. If there was a more effective defender in the entire second half of the season, he certainly wasn’t playing in the NHL.
And what about Brad Marchand? Say what you will for his transgressions, but his talent has become undeniable. After posting career highs in 2015-16, it was no guarantee that Marchand would reach the same scoring heights this past season. And it’s true. He didn’t reach the same heights. Rather, he exceeded them, scoring 39 goals and 85 points, both new personal bests, in a year where it seemed the Bruins’ offense had entirely dried up at times.
There are others, too. Nicklas Backstrom didn’t get the credit he deserved for posting an 86-point campaign, topping the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in scoring. Nikita Kucherov’s spectacular campaign was largely overlooked because the Tampa Bay Lightning, expected to be Stanley Cup contenders, failed to make the post-season. Kane even put his name in the conversation for the league scoring title once again, but if he didn’t finish top-five in Hart voting, it wouldn’t be all too surprising. And that means whoever does win the Hart will have won it in a year when competition was as tight as ever. So, who takes home league MVP honors?
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
McDavid missed out on the Calder Trophy in 2015-16, but only because he was forced to miss nearly half the campaign with a fractured clavicle. And even though he missed so much time, McDavid still managed to pull down 25 first-place votes for the award. That’s because when he was healthy, McDavid was the best rookie in the league. He was a true game-changing talent, the likes of which hasn’t entered the league since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin took their first NHL strides in 2005-06. The Oilers phenom displayed all the attributes of a dynamic scorer who is heading for bigger and better hardware in the near future, and he might not have to wait long to get the league’s most prestigious individual award.
His Case: If the Hart was based on production alone, McDavid would win it. Not only did he lead the league in scoring by 11 points and become the only player to hit the century mark this past season, McDavid was such a large part of the Oilers’ attack that it was mind-blowing. All told, McDavid factored in on slightly more than 41 percent of Edmonton’s total offense this season. McDavid’s ability to turn a game on its ear with his speed and skill with the puck helped propel the Oilers into the post-season for the first time in a decade, and he managed to do that in his first season wearing the ‘C’ in Edmonton.
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Crosby has seemingly done the impossible over the course of his career, which is to say the best player in the world has somehow gotten better even though he’s a dozen years into his NHL playing days. While some of his contemporaries are starting to slow at this point, Crosby finds new ways to impress with seemingly every passing season. When it was faceoffs where he struggled, Crosby improved that. When some said he passed first and didn’t shoot enough, he showed he had more than enough talent to be a top sniper. And if his defensive game was lacking, Crosby managed to strengthen that aspect of his game, so much so that he finished seventh in Selke Trophy voting in 2015-16. To see Crosby as a Hart Trophy finalist isn’t ever surprising. This is a near annual occurrence and with good reason.
His Case: Crosby has won the Rocket Richard before, but he had to share the hardware with Steven Stamkos in 2009-10. This season, he’s got it all to himself, and his 44 goals this season are more impressive given he reached the mark in 75 games. Up until the final games of the season, Crosby was also far and away the league’s most productive player. He finished the year with 89 points and 1.19 points per game. The only player who scored more, and more often, was McDavid. But Crosby’s ability to take over a game every time he touches the ice is what makes him such a strong candidate. The best player in the world isn’t ready to give up his title yet and he showed it this season.
Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets
Over the past two seasons, it would have been easier to find a Blue Jackets fan with questions about Bobrovsky’s game than one who believed the netminder was in line for a second Vezina and a shot at the Hart in the near future. Bobrovsky’s numbers had fallen off a cliff since his world class season in 2012-13. In 2015-16, his save percentage dropped to an ugly .908 and his 2.75 goals-against average was among the worst of any netminder to play at least 30 games. But Bobrovsky did a complete 180 this season and his turnaround in goal was the catalyst behind the best season in Blue Jackets franchise history.
His Case: Running down Bobrovsky’s numbers makes his case crystal clear. Bobrovsky started a whopping 63 games for the Blue Jackets, the fifth-most starts of any netminder, and was dynamite in nearly every single one. He won 41 games, posted a league-leading .931 SP and 2.06 GAA, had seven shutouts on the year and was the last line of defense for a young team that was in dire need of some steady goaltending in order to live up to their potential. His numbers at 5-on-5 were also among the best of any goaltender. In fact, of goaltenders who played at least 1,000 minutes at five-a-side, the only netminder who posted a better mark than Bobrovsky’s .939 SP was Ottawa’s Craig Anderson. Bobrovsky was a wall and deserving of his place among the Hart finalists.
The Winner: Crosby’s chances at winning the award are probably weakened, if only slightly, by the fact he’s scoring at such a rate on a team that’s chock full of stars. If you remove him from the equation, the Penguins are still a threat. As for Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets are nowhere near as good without him, but it’s hard to give him the nod when it’s so plainly evident that McDavid was the driving force behind the Oilers earning a playoff berth for the first time in what feels like forever. No player accounted for as much of his teams offense and no player made his team more of a threat to win every night than McDavid. He’s not just in the conversation for MVP this season, either. Some will make an argument he’s the best in the world right now. Adding a Hart to the Art Ross he’s already won certainly helps make the case that he’s on his way to challenging Crosby as the game’s best player.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.