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Offense got him in the conversation, but can Kopitar’s two-way game guide him to the Hart?

Anze Kopitar's Hart Trophy candidacy has been overshadowed of late by the hard-charging Connor McDavid and the standout play of Nathan MacKinnon. The Kings captain should be at the forefront of the conversation, though, given his two-way play.

There’s a reason why Connor McDavid, whether he’s named most valuable player or not, has taken over the Hart Trophy discussion in recent weeks, and it has everything to do with offense. As McDavid charged into the Art Ross Trophy race and grabbed top spot from this season’s longtime scoring leader Nikita Kucherov, the Edmonton Oilers superstar’s campaign became impossible to ignore and his entry into the MVP conversation became inevitable.

McDavid isn’t the only player who has had his Hart case bolstered by offensive production, mind you. Kucherov drew the earliest mentions in the MVP based solely on his offensive dominance, particularly when he was a threat to win both the Art Ross and Rocket Richard Trophies. Nathan MacKinnon’s season has been exceptional, he boasts the league’s best points per game rate and he’s only 10 points back of McDavid despite playing nine fewer games. Taylor Hall fit into the same category, his 85 points in 71 games putting him top 10 in both points and per-game production. Then there were those who felt Evgeni Malkin’s second half tear was going to lead him to his second Hart in seven seasons.

Reason being, of course, is that there’s nothing easier to measure, nothing more tangible, than offensive contribution. It’s easy to look at, say, McDavid’s season and make the case that he’s the most valuable player because he has made such an impact on his team’s offense. The numbers indicate as much, plain as day. Likewise, the same could be said of Kucherov and MacKinnon and Hall and Malkin and anyone who has even been able to entertain the idea of winning with the Art Ross this season. And, truth be told, the same could be said of Anze Kopitar. 

Making a case for Kopitar, who has been excellent for the Los Angeles Kings this season, is quite possibly easiest on the basis of his offensive production because, again, it’s the most tangible and accepted measure of impact. For instance, we know that the Kings captain presently sits sixth on the NHL’s scoring table with 88 points. We know that his 34 goals put him into a tie for 11th in the league. We know that he has the 10th-best points per game rate, too. Those figures alone make Kopitar a solid Hart candidate.

That said, we can further puff up the Kings pivot’s case by looking at how much he has meant to his team’s offense. The most obvious indication of that is the chasm between he and his teammates: 33 points separate Kopitar and his next-highest scoring teammate, Dustin Brown, who has 55 points. That’s the third-largest gap between any team’s top scorer and their next-best teammate behind Hall’s 36-point edge over Nico Hischier and McDavid’s 34-point lead on Leon Draisaitl. But beyond that, there’s also the fact Kopitar has been the triggerman on 15.3 percent of the Kings’ goals this season, has contributed a primary point on 27.9 percent and factored into 39.6 percent when including secondary assists. Those totals rank 11th, fifth and fourth, respectively, and the latter two figures particularly give Kopitar’s case for Hart a serious shot in the arm.

The reality is, though, that Kopitar’s case isn’t all that much better than that of his Hart-contending counterparts by those measures. McDavid, for one, ranks third, first and first in the respective percentage-based categories listed above. MacKinnon has a primary point on more than 30 percent of the Avalanche’s offense despite missing eight games, while Malkin (28.3 percent) and Hall (27.7 percent) are right in the same space as Kopitar. And while all but McDavid from the aforementioned Hart candidates has factored in on a lower percentage of total goals when including secondary assists in the mix, MacKinnon, Hall, Malkin and Kucherov fall into the four spots directly behind Kopitar. There’s not much separation, either. 

So where, then, can Kopitar really stand out as a candidate? In the one area that few offensive players can match him: defensive play.

The Selke Trophy winner in 2015-16, Kopitar has been a defensive giant for the Kings once again this season, and he’s been so heavily relied upon that no other true Hart candidate could rightly be compared to him in that regard. As of Wednesday, Kopitar has skated the fourth-most 5-on-5 minutes of any player — he has the fifth-highest average even strength ice time — and has driven play effectively while starting a boatload of his shifts in the defensive zone. In fact, his 420 defensive zone starts are the 11th-most among all forwards, yet Kopitar has a 56.4 goals for percentage at five-a-side. That’s only slightly lower than the marks of MacKinnon, McDavid and Hall, but better than Malkin’s 52.5 percent.

Better than his 5-on-5 play, though, is the fact Kopitar has been inarguably the premier all-situations player in the league this season. Because beyond contributing 27 points on the power play and helping Los Angeles to one of the league’s more effective attacks with the man advantage, Kopitar has been a fixture on the Kings’ top-ranked penalty kill. He has skated nearly 172 minutes on the penalty kill this season, the 11th-most among all forwards, and you would have to go down the list to 99th to find the next-most shorthanded minutes by a Hart contender. That’s Blake Wheeler, who has skated 100 minutes on the kill for the Jets. Add in Kopitar’s other defensive numbers — he ranks 12th in blocks (62), 48th in takeaways (49), has the third-most faceoff wins (924) and 24th-best faceoff win percentage (54.3) — and he’s got a readymade Selke case on top of his Hart candidacy.

And don’t go thinking there isn’t precedent for defensive prowess aiding in a Hart case for a player who failed to lead the league in any of the major statistical categories. There most certainly is. During the 1993-94 campaign, Detroit Red Wings pivot Sergei Fedorov pieced together an outstanding season, but fell short of Pavel Bure and Brett Hull in the goal-scoring race, finished well outside the top-five in assists and lost the Art Ross to Wayne Gretzky by 10 points. But Fedorov’s play at both ends of the ice — coach Scott Bowman has gone on record saying Fedorov could have been an all-star rearguard — was brilliant. It’s not just that he was reliable defensively, either. He was still offensively potent when Detroit was on the penalty kill, leading the league with 11 shorthanded points. When the campaign concluded, Fedorov captured the Selke as well as the Hart, making him the first and only player in NHL history to do so. Granted, he finished third in goals and second in points, but Fedorov’s Hart class was arguably far less crowded and the separation far greater.

None of this is to mention, either, that Kopitar can get one additional edge on some of his other Hart contenders by guiding Los Angeles to the playoffs. According to SportsClubStats, the Kings wake up with an 83.7 percent chance of making the post-season. And while making the post-season isn’t going to put him ahead of Malkin or Kucherov in the Hart conversation, it is one chip Kopitar holds over McDavid and a significant one at that as the debate rages on about whether McDavid’s performance is really MVP-worthy given the Oilers’ abysmal season. It should also be noted, too, that both Hall’s Devils and MacKinnon’s Avalanche sit in the mid-60 percent range. 

If Los Angeles is playing come the post-season and New Jersey and Colorado are not, that, paired with his offensive numbers and defensive acumen, will give Kopitar’s Hart candidacy a boost, and there could be a chance that he joins Fedorov as the only players to pair MVP honors with the nod as the top defensive forward.

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