Should Connor McDavid be considered for the Hart Trophy despite the fact the Oilers will miss the post-season? He’s made arguably the best case for any non-playoff player in the past 30 years, but it might not be enough.
With five weeks remaining in the regular season, the Hart Trophy race is one of the most crowded in recent memory. Ask a dozen people and you could very well get a dozen answers as to who should take home the league's MVP award.
In one corner, you have the league leaders, such as Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Nikita Kucherov, Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin and resurgent Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux. Even Alex Ovechkin, whose 40 goals account for one-fifth of the Washington Capitals’ offense, could garner some votes. Others believe the strongest case can be made by the do-everything workhorses such as Winnipeg Jets leader Blake Wheeler, Los Angeles Kings star Anze Kopitar and Boston Bruins two-way dynamo Patrice Bergeron. And one also finds no shortage of support for the New Jersey Devils’ Taylor Hall, the Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau or Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon, though these bids may be predicated on whether their team makes it to the post-season.
But there's one other player who falls into a category of his own: the lone hope on a team destined for disappointment. Because while this isn't the way the Edmonton Oilers foresaw their season going, one can only imagine how bad things would actually be if it wasn’t for the defending Hart winner, Connor McDavid.
Of course, it isn’t exactly surprising McDavid has been brilliant. He’s been among the best players in the league since the moment he stepped foot on NHL ice. His rookie campaign saw him finish third in points per game with 1.07 across 45 outings. His sophomore season was one in which he became the only player to reach the 100-point plateau. And this year, his third in the NHL, McDavid has continued his dominance. He’s sixth in the league in points per game, sits fifth in the league in points and has only gotten better as the season has worn on. Since Jan. 1, McDavid is the third-highest scoring player in the league, racking up 16 goals and 35 points in 27 games while averaging nearly 22 minutes per outing. And off the scoring lead by a double-digit total in early-February, McDavid has registered 15 goals and 26 point in his last 17 games alone to elevate his season totals to 30 goals and 80 points, moving him within five points of league leader Kucherov.
Base totals barely scratch the surface of McDavid’s offensive excellence or his importance to the Oilers, however. A clearer picture of his worth can be determined by calculating how much offense he has really provided to Edmonton this season. And frankly, the numbers are staggering. Of the 184 goals the Oilers have scored this season, McDavid’s 30 tallies account for 16.3 percent of the team’s total. That’s the fifth-highest mark in the league behind Ovechkin, Malkin, Tyler Seguin and Eric Staal, whose percentages range from 20 to 16.9 percent. When it comes to factoring in on Edmonton’s overall offense, though, McDavid is the league leader. He is a hair shy of registering a point on 43 percent of the Oilers’ total offense this season — 2.5 percent better than the second-place Giroux — and McDavid has a primary point, be it the goal or first assist, on 31 percent of Edmonton’s 184 goals. MacKinnon has the next-best mark at 30.4 percent.
What makes McDavid’s numbers all the more impressive, though, is that he's the only player in the league's top 20 scorers whose team is realistically not even in the wild-card race. Even Mathew Barzal, John Tavares and Josh Bailey have some hope of propelling the New York Islanders into the playoffs. But the Oilers, despite McDavid nearly pacing the league in scoring once again, are a mere nine points out of the league basement with only four teams between Edmonton and top odds in the draft lottery. And there’s the rub.
If Edmonton was headed for the playoffs, or even just in the race, McDavid’s totals would be likely be more than enough to make him a Hart favorite. That raises the question of the importance of the playoffs in an MVP season. By definition of the award, which states that it is to be awarded to the player most valuable to his team, the playoffs aren't a factor. The reality, however, is that making the post-season is almost always a determining factor in who wins the Hart.
But if there is any hope for McDavid’s Hart candidacy, it comes in the form of Mario Lemieux’s 1987-88 Hart victory. In the post-expansion era, Lemieux is the only player to win the award on a non-playoff team. And like McDavid and the Oilers, Lemieux was nearly the sole source of offense on the Penguins that season as he finished the campaign by scoring 21.9 percent of Pittsburgh’s goals and registering at least one point on 52.7 percent of the Penguins’ total offense. Given the difference in era, it would be fair to say the two have similarly incredible percentages of the total offense. That said, Lemieux did have one other aspect working in his favor: his 70 goals were 14 more than the next-best goal scorer and his 168 points were 19 more than Wayne Gretzky. There's very little chance McDavid leads the league in goals and it’s unlikely he wins the Art Ross by anything more than a few points, if he even wins it at all.
If there was ever a case for a player to join Lemieux as a Hart winner despite an early summer, though, McDavid has done everything in his power to make it.
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