The Hart Trophy, or the NHL’s Most Valuable Player, is awarded to the player who is judged most valuable to his team. Now, this wording creates a bit of a misunderstanding. Does this mean that it should go to whatever player would have the most significant impact if they were removed from their team and swapped with a replacement-level player? Or is it simply the best player in the league in any given year? Well, it can’t just be that, because it’s against the rules to award it to a player on a team that doesn’t make the playoffs. So is it looking at who’s the best player on the best team in the league?
To me, it’s the first one. Which player is irreplaceable? Who would have the most detrimental negative impact if they were removed from a team, and in contrast, who could have the biggest positive impact on a bad team if they were added to the roster? Of course, the people who vote in these things don’t tend to see it that way, and the Hart is usually just awarded to the best player in the league that year.
Anyways, based on what’s happened through the first three-quarters of the season, here are my picks for the NHL’s Most Valuable Player.
5. Jamie Benn/Tyler Seguin
The Dallas Stars have enjoyed a breakout season thanks largely to the performance of Jamie Benn, the 2014-15 season’s Art Ross Trophy winner. Last year, pretty amazingly, Benn received virtually zero love for the Hart Trophy despite leading the league in scoring. I mean, yeah, obviously he wasn’t going to win, but seeing him below Rick Nash and just ahead of Jiri Hudler in terms of MVP voting was a little odd. That was probably a symptom of the Stars being a pretty bad team that scored a lot of goals, and as we know, voters don’t like casting their ballots on players who play for teams that didn’t make the playoffs. That won’t be a problem this year for Benn, as the Stars are virtually assured a playoff position with a few weeks left in the regular season. This year, the problem is that even though he’s scoring at an elite pace of 1.09 points-per-game, there’s somebody else out there who’s dwarfing his production.
Actually, I felt guilty writing all of this praise about Jamie Benn and not mentioning Tyler Seguin, because those two kinda go hand-on-hand. So I’ll just lump the two of them together as No. 5, because they both deserve props for Dallas’ rejuvenation, they’re towards the top of the league in scoring, and I’m sure they’ll both get some Hart Trophy attention and ultimately come up well short of winning. Seguin has slightly better possession numbers than Benn does, but Benn starts more shifts in the defensive zone than Seguin does. Regardless, they’re a damn good one-two punch on the Stars and I personally wouldn’t worry about which one is more individually valuable than the other.
4. Cory Schneider
Despite sitting dead last in the league in goals for per hour, the New Jersey Devils were right in the heat of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference for a while. You can say that it was because the East isn’t very good, that they were getting some really good luck, or you can credit the spectacular play of Cory Schneider. Schneider is one of very few shining stars in New Jersey this season, boasting a 0.923 save percentage and 11.64 goals saved above average. Of course, there are goalies with better numbers than him, but I don’t think any of them singlehandedly bring as much value to their team as Schneider does. Is that perfect reasoning? No. There aren’t many players who are as valuable to their team as Cory Schneider is, especially considering the fact that the Devils are one of the better teams out there in terms of goals against despite owning the second-worst possession numbers.
3. Braden Holtby
Braden Holtby is a part of a big chunk of qualified goalies that own a save percentage somewhere between 0.920 and 0.930. So what makes him special? Wins. Whether we like it or not, Holtby is only seven wins shy of tying Martin Brodeur’s record for wins in a season with 48 set back in 2006-07. Of course, a big part of this is the circumstance he’s been placed in, and wins aren’t a good way to measure the ability of a goalie. But if he does manage to set that record, he’s going to receive a tremendous amount of love from voters for the Hart Trophy.
Would it be valid? Meh. Holtby has had a fantastic year, and while the Capitals aren’t an elite defensive team that makes his life so easy that they might as well have a shooter tutor in net, he isn’t bailing them out every single night either (they’re in the top third in the league in fewest shots and high danger chances against per hour). Anyways, the Capitals are far and away the best team in the league this year, and Holtby has been a big part of it, so yeah, he deserves some consideration (well, I mean some third and fourth place votes) for MVP. But if he’s actually going to take this thing home, he has to be as dominant as Carey Price was last year, which he isn’t. And he isn’t playing for a garbage team like Carey did. So yeah, probably not happening.
2. Erik Karlsson
This is really a two-player race, though. It’s between Erik Karlsson and one other guy, hopefully by now you can guess who it is. Karlsson, for all the crap he gets for being a defensive liability who turns the puck over and whatever blah blah, is literally the Ottawa Senators. He’s third in the league in points this season, and he’s producing at above a point-per-game pace, which is incredible for a defenceman who’s playing in an age of downturned scoring. He’s on pace to score 83 points (69 assists!) over an 82-game pace, and according to hockey reference, if you adjust that for era and point inflation, he would finish this season with somewhere around 94 points, which is nuts. Forgetting about that adjusted number, the 83 points he’s on pace to score this year in real life would be the most since Al MacInnis scored 83 back in 1987-88. Nobody’s come close to that number since Niklas Lidstrom scored 80 points in in 2005-06, but even then, the Hall of Famer was playing in the context of a season with massively inflated offensive numbers.
There’s simply no other way to describe what Erik Karlsson is doing other than it’s goddamn incredible. He leads the league in average ice time per game logging just over 29 minutes of action per night. He also boasts far and away the best relative Corsi For percentage at even strength on the Senators, and amazingly, he’s the only defenceman on the team who has a positive number in that metric. So he’s literally the only defenceman on that team who actually makes the team better when he’s playing. I don’t even want to imagine how terrible the Senators would be without Erik Karlsson. Actually, just watch the team when he isn’t on the ice. It’s a disaster. That should give you an idea of how valuable he is.
1. Patrick Kane
And finally, the other half of that two-player race. Patrick Kane has had an absolutely dominant season, easily the best of his nine-year career, and as a result, it looks like he’s poised to earn his first-ever Hart Trophy (and Art Ross Trophy) to add to his already loaded awards shelf. He’s won the Stanley Cup three times, and he’s also won a Conn Smythe Trophy for playoffs MVP and the Calder Trophy for league’s top rookie. This year, through 69 games, Kane has 38 goals and 51 points, which is well clear of Benn, Karlsson, Seguin, whoever for the league’s scoring title. Also, the fact that he has 89 points means that he’s been involved in all but 79 of Chicago’s 168 goals this season, which is, well, damn incredible.
Also, let’s be honest here: It’s pretty common that the guy who scores the most points ends up winning the Most Valuable Player award. Unless we have a situation like last year, where a goalie is leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else, leading some garbage team from the basement to elite status, or the guy who won the scoring race played for a team that didn’t make the playoffs, odds are an Art Ross also means a Hart. Since Jose Theodore won the Hart in 2002, eight of the 12 MVP recipients have also been Art Ross winners. And the years when they weren’t, it was won by the player who won the Rocket Richard Trophy. So yeah, there’s definitely a common theme here.
Judging by the sheer magnitude of points produced by Kane, the fact he’s on pace to outscore the next best player by like twenty points, and the fact that the Hawks are a really good team yet again this year, I think we have our winner pretty clearly.