Last year, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid made the Hart Trophy debate very thorny. This year, he has company.
Chicago’s Patrick Kane has been terrific for the Blackhawks, who on paper, looked like one of the worst teams in the NHL heading into the season. But lo and behold, the Hawks were actually pretty scrappy and thanks to a bounty of points from Kane, Chicago was still in the playoff race until basically this weekend.
True, the Hawks are still technically alive, but it’s looking less likely that they will slip into that top eight in the Western Conference. Joining them in that category are the Oilers.
So, great: we gotta have this debate again about who deserves the Hart Trophy – and now we gotta do for two marquee players.
Before we get to Kane and McDavid, let us acknowledge that Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov is the obvious front-runner for the Hart Trophy, given the fact his 120 points and counting lead the league by a wide margin. Most major NHL awards are voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA) and the Hart is one of them. If you hadn’t noticed, us hockey writers can be rather argumentative, so nothing is straight-forward in these matters.
There is an argument that Kucherov plays for the best team in the NHL and is ably supported by other stars such as Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman, thus lessening his MVP credentials. To me, it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question: Is Kucherov so good because he plays for Tampa, or is Tampa so good because of Kucherov? Personally, I believe Kucherov is really, really good and to me, he’s the Hart Trophy front-runner.
But there’s something to be said about the value one has to his franchise and last season’s Hart race was the distillation of that idea. Taylor Hall carried an underdog New Jersey Devils squad into a surprise playoff berth, as did Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado. To that end, Hall won the Hart, while MacKinnon finished second in voting. McDavid, who had more points than either player, finished fifth in voting while propping up a dispirited Edmonton team as much as he could.
While Kucherov is running away with the scoring crown, the next two men in the standings are McDavid and Kane. With McDavid, the argument is the same as last year: he is far and away the best player on a team that simply doesn’t have the talent to keep up with him – it’s basically him and Leon Draisaitl. Without McDavid, the Oilers would be the worst team in the NHL and it probably isn’t very close. By not awarding him the Hart, you are essentially punishing him for being born in the wrong year and being drafted by an organization that can’t put it together.
Kane is interesting because he’s not exactly alone in Chicago, but the Hawks still needed his contributions greatly. Starting netminder Corey Crawford missing 33 games due to concussions, while the defense was not great (nor was it expected to be). The offense has been paced by Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat and eventually, trade acquisition Dylan Strome.
Kane has been the biggest driver, however. He’s been in on 41.4 percent of Chicago’s goals, which is better than Kucherov on Tampa (40.6), but not as impressive as McDavid with Edmonton (51.4). As the games have gotten more crucial in Chicago, coach Jeremy Colliton has relied on Kane even more: in the past four contests (including a home-and-home against Colorado, a team Chicago was chasing in the standings), the veteran right winger was averaging nearly 24 minutes of ice time per night. Now, two of those games went into overtime, but it’s still noteworthy how much responsibility Kane was given.
And with Chicago mathematically still alive, I can’t imagine Colliton is going to curb Kane’s duties very much in the next two weeks.
But if the Hawks do miss the playoffs, why should we care about Kane’s numbers? To put it bluntly, an NHL season without playoffs has no value, so how can a player on that team be the league’s most valuable?
So, what happens if the Blackhawks pull off a miracle and end up in the playoffs? Does that incredible feat push Kane past Kucherov, or is the Tampa Bay star’s excellence just too impossible to ignore?
For me, Kucherov has been the NHL’s obvious MVP this season. But my decision will be a lot easier if the Hawks and Oilers miss the playoffs – and it will be especially easier if neither team finishes ninth in the West.