To conclude my 2013 NHL Awards series, I left the big one for last.
The NHL describes the Hart Trophy as “the annual award given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team.” In other words, this is the NHL’s MVP trophy as awarded by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. This leaves the Hart Trophy open to various interpretations:
- Does the team have to be successful in order for the player to be considered for the Hart? For example, are Steven Stamkos’ contributions any less meaningful to his team than Alex Ovechkin’s just because Stamkos’ team did not make the playoffs?
- Are certain contributions weighed more heavily than others? Does Sergei Bobrovsky’s outstanding second-half performance mean more than a consistent season-long performance like we got from Patrick Kane?
- In keeping with the goaltender theme, do their contributions mean less than that of goal scorers?
- Does a team loaded with superstars, like Pittsburgh, dilute the impressiveness of a particular season (like Sidney Crosby’s) when compared to players like Martin St. Louis, where it’s him, Stamkos and then everyone else on the Tampa Bay Lightning.
You can see how subjective this can get. The best way to go about this is what my dad had told my brother and I both as we were growing up, “To judge who an MVP should be, if you were to take that certain player off their team, how do you think the team performs without them”? In other words, which team would be in the most trouble without their superstar? So these are the criteria I have adopted for the Hart Trophy:
- The final placement of a team in the standings is important to me. For a player to provide the kind of value to his team that he would deserve the MVP trophy, his team needs to succeed. There is much, much more value in a player that can push you from 10th in your Conference (and out of the playoffs) to 7th (and in the playoffs) than from 15th in your Conference to 12th.
- I do look at advanced stats to see how a player performed relative to his competition and to his teammates. Just saying someone had a good year and was valuable to their team without giving that statement context is fairly useless.
- I value goaltending more than most writers, bloggers and fans. It is difficult to equate the value of a goaltender with the value of a skater but I look at it in the most mathematical way possible, “is one skater out of 18 on the game roster more valuable than the lone goaltender that will play?” The answer is: I doubt it.
The nice thing about that vague definition given by the NHL is that it enables the individual to adopt his/her personal interpretation of said definition. With that being said, here are the three players I saw as the most instrumental to their team’s success.
Nomination #1: C – Jonathan Toews (CHI)
Typically when it comes to MVPs, I like to look at people that aren’t playing on a team loaded with superstars. When it comes to the Blackhawks, however, Jonathan Toews is the superstar-iest of them all. He is the proverbial “straw that stirs the drink,” if you will.
Chicago had a fantastic year. They started the season earning at least a point in 24 straight games (as in, half the season), they finished the season with the best record in the NHL and they did this largely on the back of their Captain (dubbed by some as Captain Serious for his demeanor).
Toews has been an elite player for a few years now and this season is just another accomplishment. If you want to look at his statistics, this is how he measured up:
- He finished the season with 48 points in 47 games, better than a point-per-game pace. There were 13 players in the NHL who played at least 40 games and averaged better than a point per game and Toews was one of them.
- Toews finished second in the NHL in faceoff percentage (59.9%), behind only Patrice Bergeron of Boston (62.1%). He finished tied for second in the NHL in total faceoff wins (559) with Tyler Bozak of Toronto (Claude Giroux of Philadelphia had 644). Neither Giroux (54.5%) nor Bozak (52.6%) were even close to Toews, though, in efficiency.
- Toews was a fixture on the Chicago penalty kill that finished third-best in the NHL and was Chicago’s best penalty killer by a pretty wide margin.
It was pretty close between Toews and Kane as to who was more valuable to the league’s best team. Although Kane does have the edge in points, Toews was one of the best faceoff men in the league and one of the NHL’s best penalty killers to boot. If you’re wondering why I’m giving more weight to the penalty kill than the power play it’s because Chicago had the 19th ranked PP compared to the 3rd ranked PK.
Toews does it all. He excels at 5 on 5, he plays the power-play and is one of the best penalty killers in the NHL. He takes all the important faceoffs and is pretty darned good at it. It’s tough to not put him among the NHL’s most valuable players.
Nomination #2: G – Braden Holtby (WSH)
I can already hear the tweets being typed as to why this is a stupid pick. Also, I didn’t have Holtby in my Vezina nominations. The reason I had Sergei Bobrovsky nominated over Holtby was quite simply that Washington has more weapons to work with than Columbus does, which is an important point I will explore further.
I’m going to compare two teams and you will see what I mean:
Team A: 3.06 Goals/For; 27.6 Shots/For; 3.06 Goals/Against; 30.2 Shots/Against; Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading point getter
Team B: 3.04 Goals/For; 28.1 Shots/For; 2.71 Goals/Against 32.3 Shots/Against; Rocket Richard Trophy as NHL’s leading goal scorer
Team A is the Tampa Bay Lightning and Team B is the Washington Capitals. You can see the points I highlighted in bold; the main differences between the two teams are shots against (at which Washington was worse) and goals against (where Washington was better). So you can argue (and I am) that the biggest difference between Tampa Bay (14th in the East) and Washington (3rd in the East, division winners) is goaltending.
Steven Stamkos opened the season on a tear, scoring 31 points in his first 20 games. Alex Ovechkin finished the season on a tear, scoring 33 points in his final 20 games. On Stamkos’ tear to start the season, the Lightning only went 9-10-1 (19 points) as they allowed 63 goals against in those 20 games. On Ovechkin’s tear to finish the season, the Capitals went 15-3-2 (32 points) as they allowed 45 goals in those 20 games.
Holtby finished the season with a .920 SV%, good for seventh-best among goalies that played at least three-quarters of their team’s games. But it was his work down the stretch when Ovechkin was going on his tear that separates him from the others; over the months of March and April (23 starts), Holtby managed a .931 SV% and went 17-5-1.
I know that Tampa Bay isn’t as good of a possession team as Washington, but the difference is not a chasm; the difference between Tampa Bay and Washington is about the same as Washington and Winnipeg. Toronto was the second-worst possession team in the league and James Reimer managed a .924 SV%. So, goaltending, right?
Undoubtedly, Ovechkin had a huge hand in getting Washington into the playoffs. However, without the outstanding play of Holtby down the stretch, Washington is probably Tampa Bay in red clothing.
Nomination #3: C – Pavel Datsyuk (DET)
It’s amazing that Pavel Datsyuk doesn’t get more recognition than he does. He can make the opposing team look silly like this and can make goalies look foolish like this. Although I usually deal in terms of fantasy value, when it comes to real hockey, Datsyuk is near the top of the list of players I would want on my team.
So let’s start with the nuts and bolts.
Datsyuk was one of the 13 players I mentioned earlier that played at least 40 games and averaged over a point per game, finishing with 49 points in 47 games. This put him in a tie for 10th in league scoring overall. He also finished 9th in the NHL in plus/minus with a +21 rating, which was second-best among players not playing for Chicago, Boston or Pittsburgh.
The Wizard was also very proficient in the faceoff circle, finishing the year at 55%. This is very important to a team like Detroit who has traditionally been a puck-possession team. He also took the comparative majority of Detroit’s faceoffs, finishing the year with 887 total faceoffs (second was Henrik Zetterberg with 544).
The advanced stats are kind to him, as well. He played the second-toughest minutes among all the forwards on his team and still managed to lead the team in On-Ice Corsi with a +15.48. He and Zetterberg led the way for the Red Wings this year, but there’s one important distinction: With Datsyuk on the ice (at 5 on 5), the Red Wings shot 9.62% (the highest on the team), but with Zetterberg it was just 7.32%. So the Wings (who were among the least-efficient teams at even-strength in the NHL) were scoring at a much higher rate with Datsyuk on the ice even though he was starting in his own end more often than guys like Zetterberg and Johan Franzen.
For good measure, Datsyuk had eight power-play goals (T-7th in the NHL) and was the best penalty killer on a team that finished 12th in the NHL in penalty kill efficiency.
My Pick: Pavel Datsyuk
For me it came down to Toews and Datsyuk. Braden Holtby had a really great second half and would garner more consideration if he was consistent for the whole season. I give the edge to Datsyuk because I feel the Red Wings relied on him (and Zetterberg, too) much more than the Blackhawks relied on Toews (and Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Saad, Keith etc.). The abundance of talent in Chicago for me was the deciding factor in giving it to Datsyuk. Without Datsyuk, Detroit almost certainly misses the playoffs (they almost did, anyway). Without Toews, the Blackhawks are still a playoff team.
It was hard for me to leave John Tavares off the list but not penalty killing means he provides less value than some of the others. Of course Sidney Crosby had an unbelievable season, but he only played 75% of the games and we don’t usually give Hart Trophies to 60 game players in a normal season (not to mention they went 8-4 without him). Alex Ovechkin was also a close choice and maybe at the end of the day he and Holtby should be co-nominees.
Disagree? I’m sure you probably do. Reach me on Twitter and let’s talk about this!