As the NHL season slowly winds down, the yearly debate about who should win what award is starting. Early in the season, it seemed as though Nikita Kucherov was well on his way to earn his first Hart Trophy. However, with a bit under 20 games left to play, Kucherov is in danger of losing his grip on the MVP nod, and rightfully so.
This is quite possibly one of the most wide open years for the Hart trophy in recent memory. Although there is still a decent amount of hockey left to be played, a compelling case can be made for nearly ten players as of today to be named MVP of the season. Taylor Hall is almost single-handedly bringing the New Jersey Devils back to the playoffs thanks to an incredible 25-game point streak, Nathan Mackinnon is having a monster year in Colorado, and Anze Kopitar is stepping up for the L.A. Kings in the absence of Jeff Carter.
I’ll leave it at this: if Nikita Kucherov ends up being voted as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player and takes home the Hart trophy, then the award is simply flawed. This isn’t to say that his season hasn’t been spectacular, but he just isn’t the most valuable player to his team. The NHL has the Ted Lindsay award for a reason, which is given to the most outstanding player as voted on by the NHLPA. Let’s take a look at some of the real MVP’s of the league and the cases they have.
Nearly two years after being dealt to New Jersey, Hall is playing the best hockey of his career. His 25-game point streak is extremely impressive, yet that’s only the beginning of his case for MVP. Hall is currently sitting at 72 points. The next closest player on the Devils is rookie Nico Hischier with 41 points. For those bad at math, that’s a 31 point difference. Hall is by far doing the most for his team with the least amount of support than anyone in the league right now.
Cory Schneider has been limited to 37 games and owns an underwhelming .912 save percentage, and backup Keith Kinkaid has a .904 save percentage in the 27 games he’s appeared in. The Devils’ blueline is less than elite, with guys like Will Butcher, John Moore, Andy Greene and now Sami Vatanen eating majority of minutes. Secondary scoring is extremely sparse, with Hall having 38 more points than Jesper Bratt and 41 more than Kyle Palmieri, the next leading scorers. When Hall is on the ice at 5-on-5, the Devils are plus-16. When he’s off the ice, they’re minus-21.
Without Hall, the Devils would easily be fighting for the top lottery spot right about now. Instead they’re looking primed for a playoff berth as one of the East’s wild cards. Hall’s contributions to his team are pretty much the sole reason why the Devils are winning games this year. The Hart trophy is awarded annually to the “player judged most valuable to his team”. If that’s not the exact definition of Taylor Hall this season, then I don’t know what is.
After signing a massive 8-year $80 million extension in 2016, Kopitar followed it up by having his worst season of his career last year. This season is a completely different story, with Kopitar quietly on pace for the best season of his career, as he’s on pace to finish with 88 points. Similar to Hall, Kopitar has gotten little offensive support from his teammates. The second highest scorer on the Kings is Dustin Brown with 45 points, putting him 26 points behind Kopitar.
The playoff race is tight in the West, but the Kings have a pretty decent shot at making it this year. They’re currently sitting in the second wild-card spot, with room to move up in their division. However, unlike the Devils, L.A. isn’t totally a one-man show. The Kings have the reigning Norris trophy champ Drew Doughty patrolling the blueline, and Jonathan Quick manning the crease. Doughty is having another Norris caliber season, and Quick is playing extremely solid with a .921 save percentage in 51 games. With the return of Jeff Carter and the arrival of Dion Phaneuf, Kopitar now has a lot more support around him.
Before the season began, many people had the Colorado Avalanche penciled in to finish near the bottom of the standings. When Matt Duchene was dealt to Ottawa early in the season, people switched from pencils to pens to make the marking permanent. That’s when Nathan MacKinnon turned on the jets and took his game to a whole other level. Despite missing a chunk of games due to injury, MacKinnon currently sits in sixth place with 77 points, but is now first in points per game with 1.35. After a bit of a sophomore slump the former first overall pick is showing his true potential this season.
Despite playing seven less games, MacKinnon has 13 more points than the next leading scorer on the Avalanche, Mikko Rantanen. Jonathan Bernier and Semyon Varlamov have split time in the crease this year, both putting up pretty average numbers with .914 and .913 save percentages. MacKinnon’s case is extremely similar to Hall’s, in the sense that he’s doing the most with the least amount of support. However, the only thing working against him right now is Colorado’s uncertainty of earning a playoff spot. If the Avalanche do end up making the playoffs, MacKinnon will make it an even tougher choice for voters.
Kucherov will almost inevitably get at least a nomination for the Hart, which is warranted to a certain extent. Simply based on the history of the award, the NHL often rewards guys who had the best season, rather than guys who are actually the most valuable. A Kucherov-less Tampa Bay Lightning team would still probably be a top team in the East and undoubtedly a playoff team.
Steven Stamkos is finally having a fully healthy season, and is reminding us what an elite player he really is. Andrei Vasilevskiy is putting together a Vezina and even debatably a Hart worthy season with 38 wins and a .926 save percentage. Victor Hedman looks like he’s on his way to win his first Norris Trophy. There’s no lack of depth or help for Kucherov in Tampa Bay in comparison to teams depending on guys like Hall and Mackinnon.
This is why the NHL needs to re-establish what the MVP award is defined as. We see this in the NFL and MLB also, where more often than not the MVP award is simply handed to the player who had the best season at the end of year. There should be a separate award for the most outstanding player, which there is in the Ted Lindsay Award, and then an award handed to the most valuable player. Simple as that.
Evgeni Malkin. Alex Ovechkin. Patrice Bergeron. Blake Wheeler. These are just a few of the large number of players that can easily contend for the Hart depending on their play in the next few weeks. This will easily be one of the toughest years deciding who will take home the hardware, but at the end of the day some of these guys are exponentially more valuable to their teams than others.
If Nikita Kucherov does end up taking home the Hart Trophy, then the NHL clearly has a flawed award on its hands. If he doesn’t, then kudos to the voters on making the right choice.