Get ready for another debate about the importance of the playoffs.
On Sunday, the NHL announced that the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov and Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid have been voted as the top-three for the Hart Trophy, presented annually "to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.” As it has been in recent years, though, how to measure such value is going to be argued to such a length that you might consider making like Vincent van Gogh and slicing off your ear, at which point you’ll surely realize earplugs would have been more effective.
The reason for that, of course, has little to do with Crosby's or Kucherov’s candidacy. The former led his team in scoring and propelled Pittsburgh to the post-season. The latter won the Art Ross Trophy and set a post-lockout era record for single-season scoring. McDavid, however, failed to get his team within so much as a whiff of the playoffs despite his personal offensive successes, and therein lies the problem. Some believe a player's performance during the regular season is rendered moot if his team doesn't make the playoffs. Others are of the mind that value, particularly in a team sport that hardly allows for a single skater to influence the overall performance of an organization, cannot be weighted on a playoffs-or-bust scale.
On which side of the debate you fall is for you and you alone to determine. But with that said, we present to you the Hart cases for Crosby, Kucherov and McDavid:
THE CASE FOR CROSBY
In the past, and by that we mean the early years of his career, Crosby was a perennial Hart candidate whose candidacy largely centered on his offensive ability. From his rookie season on through to his 2013-14 Hart victory, Crosby was, when healthy, among the league’s top scorers, winning the Art Ross twice, the Rocket Richard Trophy once and earning the Ted Lindsay/Lester B. Pearson Award three times. It has been five years, however, since Crosby’s last Hart victory, and though he’s added another Rocket, two Conn Smythe Trophies, two Stanley Cups and finished second in MVP voting twice, the spot on his mantle reserved for a third Hart hasn’t been filled.
Offensively, his case to change that is cut and dried. His 35 goals and 100 points were among the best totals of any player, marks that saw Crosby tie for 22nd and fifth, respectively. He also led the Penguins in scoring by a wide margin, as he finished 18 points clear of Pittsburgh’s next-highest scorer, Phil Kessel, who ended the season with 82 points. By doing so, Crosby powered the Penguins’ offense, especially through some difficult times earlier in the campaign and helped keep the NHL's longest active streak of post-season appearances alive.
Unlike those early years, though, offense isn’t the primary reason Crosby finds himself in the Hart conversation, and what likely cemented Crosby’s place in the top-three in voting was his two-way play, as the Penguins captain turned in a season that was worth Selke Trophy consideration. Some will even assert that Crosby’s absence from the top-three in voting for the defensive forward award was one of the biggest snubs of awards season. He finished with the best 5-on-5 goals for percentage, 65.6, of any 1,000-minute player in the NHL, possessing among the best scoring chance and high-danger rates of any skater at 5-on-5, not to mention possession rates that were leaps and bounds ahead of those of his teammates.
The value Crosby provided at both ends of the ice was unparalleled this season, even by those who finished atop the Selke race. He was the most impactful two-way player in the NHL.
THE CASE FOR KUCHEROV
No one could catch Kucherov in the Art Ross race. As outlined in our breakdown of the top-three in Lindsay voting, Kucherov worked his way to the top of the scoring race shortly after the holiday break – Dec. 27, to be exact – and didn’t relinquish first place for the remainder of the season. All told, he topped the scoring race for nearly 55 percent of the campaign, and he did so without a single hiccup once he moved to the head of the pack. He led the league in scoring with 128 points, the most of any player in the entire post-lockout era, and paired his overall scoring success with 41 goals, which tied for the sixth-most in the NHL.
Contextualization of his output gives him the best shot at winning, though, as Kucherov paced the most lethal attack the league has seen in the current era and was a centerpiece on one of the greatest regular season teams in NHL history. Tampa Bay led the NHL with 319 goals, the most of any team since the 1995-95 season, and the Lightning’s 62 wins matched the record for most in a single season, finishing even with the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings. (Coincidentally, neither team won the Stanley Cup.)
One has to reach to find knocks against Kucherov, too. For example, it could be said that his offense was undoubtedly boosted by playing on a team that was so offensively overwhelming. He spent the majority of his ice time with Brayden Point, who scored 41 goals and 92 points this season. Kucherov also saw a lot of minutes with Steven Stamkos, who scored 45 goals and 98 points this season. And given Kucherov led the league in non-primary points – he had 34 secondary assists – there was some inflation of his point total, and he actually finished second in primary scoring behind McDavid. The other argument would be that Kucherov’s five-a-side scoring was only modestly better than others. He finished with 69 points at 5-on-5, only three better than Kane, five better than McDavid and eight better than Crosby. And when scoring is limited to primary points, Kucherov’s 50 tie for fourth with Crosby, with the Bolts star staring up at Kane (51), McDavid (52) and Mitch Marner (52).
THE CASE FOR McDAVID
No player had a greater offensive impact on his team this season than McDavid, and the numbers back it up. Beginning with his base statistics, the Oilers captain finished tied for sixth in the NHL with 41 goals and ended the campaign second in scoring with 116 points. His 33 power play points tied for 12th in the NHL, he had another two shorthanded points and only Kessel scored more game-winning goals than McDavid, whose nine tied for second with Brad Marchand and Gabriel Landeskog. Furthermore, McDavid’s 22:50 ice time average was tops among all forwards, which highlights how heavily Edmonton leaned on their superstar.
But as with his case for the Lindsay, the best argument for McDavid to win the Hart comes by way of a look at the percentage of the Oilers’ offense that came from No. 97, because it’s quite frankly jarring.
Of the 229 goals the Oilers scored this season, McDavid’s 41-tally campaign means he was the triggerman for 17.9 percent of Edmonton's goals, which ranks fourth among all players. Furthermore, McDavid had a point on 50.7 percent of the Oilers’ goals this season, which gives him the greatest share of points-to-team goals of any player in the league, nearly five percent clear of teammate Leon Draisaitl, who finished second, and nine percent higher than Patrick Kane, who finished third. If that’s not enough, though, it should be said that McDavid led the league with 98 primary points. He was a one-man attack, and when you exclude secondary points, McDavid was either the one scoring or directly setting up 42.8 of Edmonton’s goals this season. That’s not only tops in the NHL, it's an absolutely absurd level of individual contribution.
It’s the case against McDavid that will get more press leading up to the awards ceremony, though. Despite his offensive output, the Oilers finished 11 points out of the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference, and the crowd that weights a post-season appearance heavily will likely have McDavid far enough down their ballot that he could be primed for a third-place finish in voting.
WHO WAS SNUBBED?
Patrick Kane was mentioned three times in the outlining of the cases for the top-three vote-getters, yet he did not finish in the top-three in voting. In all likelihood, voters made a choice when filling out their ballots that cost Kane his spot, and that choice was between the Chicago Blackhawks’ superstar and McDavid’s otherworldly performance. Who should have earned that final spot – assuming McDavid finishes third behind Crosby and Kucherov, who led their outfits to the post-season – is up for debate. McDavid had the individual output and team-based percentages, but Kane was up there in each category and helped Chicago stay in the playoff race until late in the season and the Blackhawks even snuck into a wild-card position briefly. It’s of little consequence, however. Neither McDavid or Kane is winning.
One can’t help but wonder how much consideration Nathan MacKinnon received, as well. His recent playoff performance puts him in the spotlight, so maybe recency bias is creeping in for what is ultimately a regular season award, but MacKinnon was spectacular for the Avalanche, who needed every ounce of his talent to squeak into the post-season. MacKinnon was awesome down the stretch, too, scoring 11 goals and 22 points in his final 21 games. And when it was really crunch time, MacKinnon churned out four goals and eight points in Colorado’s final seven games.
Finally – and knowing full well there are arguments for others to land on this list – how about some love for Mark Giordano? It’s been nearly 20 years since Chris Pronger won the Hart, his win in 1999-00 the most recent by a defenseman, but it feels like Calgary Flames captain Giordano should be up there in Hart voting. Say what you will for Johnny Gaudreau or Sean Monahan or even Elias Lindholm, Giordano was the best blueliner in the NHL this season on a team that was among the best play-driving outfits, finished with the ninth-best goals-against total, second-best goals-for total and second-most points in the league.
Honorable mentions include Gaudreau, Point, Ryan O’Reilly, Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop. There’s a case for dozens of players, truly.
The Hart is Kucherov’s to lose. He has finished sixth and eighth in voting in the past two seasons, respectively, but his offensive output on a historically dominant team should put him ahead of the rest. The voting breakdown for this one will be especially interesting, however.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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