The Art Ross race could swing a few voters when it comes to the Hart. And while scoring matters, the definition of the Hart dictates that a player’s value to his team should be the deciding factor.
If Sidney Crosby continues his current scoring pace, he’s set to end the year with 47 goals and 93 points, which could very well see him capture both the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer and Art Ross Trophy as its top point-getter. At that point, it may be a simple given that Crosby will have earned himself his third Hart Trophy.
But this season has brought with it no shortage of debate about the Hart, and even if Crosby wins the award with both scoring titles in tow, there will still be some pockets of fans who believe one of the other contenders was robbed.
Connor McDavid, for instance, has a shot at a similar point total, though he’s going to have played several more games than Crosby. Brad Marchand has been equally impressive, proving he’s not a one-dimensional pesky player and that his achievements the year prior were no mistake. Then there are the likes of Patrick Kane, Brent Burns, Devan Dubnyk and Sergei Bobrovsky, each of whom have turned in fantastic years. No matter who wins the Hart, there will be those who argue it was handed to the wrong player.
However, as we seemingly watch the scoring race to make our determination as to who should win the league’s MVP award, maybe what we should be debating is whether we’ve lost sight of what the award was meant to be over the past two decades.
Since its inception, the directive has been to award the Hart to the player who is judged to be most valuable to his own team. By very definition, that should mean that the player who’s making the biggest difference for his own club wins the award, not the one who has shown the greatest scoring ability. This isn’t to say aren’t any instances where the two are one and the same. There is some correlation there, and few would suggest a 40-point player is worthy of the Hart, nor would one suggest a fourth-line, heart-and-soul guy is really the MVP.
Take Joe Thornton’s performance with the San Jose Sharks in 2005-06. Debate his Hart win if you will, but there’s a reason Jonathan Cheechoo scored 56 goals and it’s not because he was the most natural goal scorer in the league that year. Thornton capturing the Art Ross probably put him over the top in voting, but he was worthy of the Hart even if he would have finished second in the scoring race. He made the Sharks’ offense what it was, and San Jose went from a below-.500 record pre-Thornton to the fifth-best record after his acquisition.
In recent years, though, it seems when a forward captures the Hart, he simply wins it because he’s either finished atop the scoring race or posted the most goals. Of the 15 Harts that have been handed to forwards over the past 20 seasons, 14 have been given to the player who either led the league in goals and/or points. In fact, the only instance of a forward winning the Hart without winning either scoring title over the past 20 years is Joe Sakic in 2001-02. Sakic did finish second in both goals and points, but he was also one of the top two-way forwards, voted as the runner-up for the Selke Trophy.
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We can see the top-scorer mentality taking hold this season, too. As the Art Ross battle wages on, potential Hart votes seem to go back and forth with each change in the scoring lead. Given what the Hart is supposed to represent, though, should the scoring race really matter all that much at this point in the campaign?
No one will deny that every shift Crosby takes the ice, he threatens to find the score sheet. He’s been dominant. But the Penguins have a star-studded lineup when healthy that includes Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and either Matt Murray or Marc-Andre Fleury in goal. Realistically, you could remove Crosby from the equation and still have a Penguins team that’s capable of competing for the Stanley Cup. In Boston, where Marchand is piecing together the best year of his career, he’s supported by Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug and Tuukka Rask. Marchand’s a big piece of the offense, but the Bruins would still have a nice looking roster without him in the mix.
So, are either Crosby or Marchand really the most valuable players to their team? The argument could be made for Crosby, obviously, but Marchand is a tougher one. If given a choice of one player, would the Bruins keep Marchand or Bergeron? The decision may be more difficult now than it has been previously, but most would likely still lean towards Bergeron, one of the best two-way pivots in the game.
It’s in this way the argument could also be made that a player such as Nikita Kucherov, who has been the greatest driving force behind the Lightning this season, should be in greater consideration for the Hart. If Tampa Bay squeaks in, it’s likely because of Kucherov’s play. The same goes for Vladimir Tarasenko, who has been leaps and bounds better than any other St. Louis Blue in 2016-17. Erik Karlsson has been the lifeblood of the Ottawa Senators for much of the season, as well. As far as value goes, you’d be hard pressed to find two defenseman who matter more to their respective teams right now than he and San Jose Sharks defender Burns. Heck, if the Los Angeles Kings made the post-season, it’d be hard to overlook Jeff Carter’s candidacy, too.
But if the Hart race is truly judged by the player who has been most valuable to his team, the award should be McDavid’s to lose.
The Oilers’ performance during the 2015-16 campaign without McDavid should be about all the evidence we need that it’s Edmonton’s 19-year-old phenom driving the bus. If he were to finish third, fourth or even fifth in scoring, he’s not suddenly less valuable than he would have been had he captured his first Art Ross, and his impact on the Oilers team is singular. It wouldn’t be unwarranted to wonder if the Oilers are a playoff team without McDavid, and Crosby might be the only other player who could replace McDavid one-for-one and have the same impact in Edmonton.
The Art Ross exists to reward the league’s top scorer and the Rocket serves its purpose as a nod to the top sniper, but the Hart should be and is a different beast. If one player is far and away the greatest in the league in any given campaign, by all means, reward him with the Hart. In a race as tight as this season’s, though, we shouldn’t lose sight of what the trophy is meant to represent.
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