Spring is upon us and it’s almost time for the NHL to reveal the winners of their most prestigious awards. The awards include the Calder Memorial Trophy for the rookie of the year, the James Norris Trophy for the best defensive player in the game, the Frank J. Selke Trophy for the forward who exhibits the greatest defensive skills and the Jack Adams award for the coach of the year. One of the greatest individual achievements by an NHL player is to be recognized as the Most Valuable Player by winning the Hart Memorial Trophy. The Hart signifies greatness, recognition and overall ability. However, the Hart can be the cause of controversy and can leave some harboring acrimony because of artificially imposed standards by fans, writers, reporters and the rest of the media. Could these standards allow the MVP vote to be derailed this year in favor of a player that is not the league’s most valuable? Possibly, but nothing is certain until the Hart Memorial Trophy is actually handed out. Until then, we can take a look at who is likely to win and whether they should win.
Hart Memorial Trophy
Projected Winner: Alexander Ovechkin, LW, Washington Capitals.
Who Should Win: Tim Thomas, G, Boston Bruins.
The Hart Memorial Trophy is given out to the National Hockey League’s Most Valuable Player, MVP, each year. Unfortunately, the requirements for being in the discussion to become the league’s MVP are vague. The media has artificially created two requirements for being in the conversation for the league’s Most Valuable Player:
(1) The player must be either a Forward or a Defenseman
(2) The player must be on a Playoff Team
Tim Thomas will likely not get recognition for the Hart for the first reason: the majority of NHL aficionado’s interpret the MVP to cover only forwards and defensemen. This is very similar to baseball in that it doesn’t matter if Johan Santana or Jake Peavy are having career seasons, they won’t be considered for the greatest individual award in baseball. This could be the result of pitchers having their own accolade for performing greatly: the Cy Young award. Goalies in hockey have the Vezina award, which is given out each year to the best netminder. Since the rules are left open to interpretation, this matter will probably never be resolved. Some will see the MVP award as applying to everyone, while others will see the trophy as only available to forwards and defensemen. However, for those who think that goalies should not be considered because they have the Vezina, what about defensemen having the James Norris Memorial Trophy? Should they not be part of the MVP debate because they have their own award?
There are few that doubt Ovechkin’s talent and his name should come up in discussions for the best player in hockey. He is, at the very least, one of the most dominant skaters in the sport. He has posted some remarkable numbers, including 55 Goals, of which 35 were at Even Strength, 53 Assists and 108 Points through 78 games [Note: does not include last few games]. He has also been able to contribute 19 goals above the contributions of a marginal player in posting a + 19.0 GVT on the year. That being said, there is one newly developed statistic by Tom Awad of Puck Prospectus that indicates the sharpshooter has not been as good this year as advertised: his Relative Plus/Minus rating. Alexander has a 7.5 RPM (Relative Plus/Minus) on the year, which means he has been on the ice for 7.5 more goals scored than allowed when adjusting for team strength, goaltender and special teams play. While this is respectable, it does not put him among the top 30 forwards and defensemen in the league. Among forwards, the Russian native is beaten out by Alexei Ponikarovsky (+ 15.7 RPM), Nikolai Zherdev (+ 18.5 RPM) and Stephen Weiss (+15.9 RPM) by large margins.
While Ovechkin has been good this year, he has not been as dominant overall as Tim Thomas. The University of Vermont graduate has posted the NHL’s highest Goals Versus Threshold this year: a phenomenal + 26.5 rating. In baseball, one of the arguments for not considering a pitcher in an MVP discussion is that they only pitch every fifth day. Position players win the MVP because they tend to contribute for a longer period throughout the season, a notion that is true, yet shouldn’t dispel the possibility that a pitcher can still be more valuable than a hitter as has been shown through Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). In hockey, goalies will play for a longer time in a given game. While goalies generally play the full 60 minutes, forwards will receive 20 minutes of ice time along with defensemen playing for 25 minutes per game. Thomas has a third best 37 Quality Starts, defined as a .913 save percentage or better per start, among goaltenders in 52 games to go along with a .933 save percentage and a league leading GVT.
Although Tim Thomas is not likely to come up in MVP discussions because of his position, he does have one variable in his favor that has been the downfall of the MVP voting system in years past: the superficially imposed requirement of playing for a team that qualified for the postseason. In baseball, players on non-playoff or non-winning teams are usually not considered for the greatest individual award. In the last decade, the one exception has been Alex Rodriguez who won in 2003 with the Texas Rangers and joined Andre Dawson as the only player to win the MVP when playing for a last place team. Hockey has followed the same pattern having only three MVPs, when combining the Hart and Pearson awards, from non-playoff teams in its entire history: Jarome Iginla, CAL, 2001-2002; Mario Lemieux, PIT, 1987-1988; and Roy Conacher, CHI, 1948-1949. Fortunately for Thomas, the Bruins have been one of the better teams in the National Hockey League this year. Unfortunately, there are players that have been very good this season that won’t even be considered for the Hart because of the second criteria that’s taken into account. Take a look at the list of the most valuable players in the NHL, according to Goals Versus Threshold:
Val OG: Offensive value for position players, Goaltending value for goaltenders
Val D: Defensive value
Val S: Shootout value
PO: Team qualifies for Playoffs
Best overall players
Name Team(s) P Val OG Val D Val S Total PO
1 Tim Thomas Bruins G 26.4 -0.3 0.5 26.5 YES
2 Niklas Backstrom Wild G 21.1 0.6 3.4 25.1 MAYBE
3 Tomas Vokoun Panthers G 22.9 -1.1 1.7 23.5 NO
4 Mike Green Capitals D 14.1 6.6 0.0 20.7 YES
5 Pavel Datsyuk Red Wings F 14.2 4.9 1.3 20.4 YES
6 Zach Parise Devils F 15.1 4.0 0.6 19.8 YES
7 Alexander Ovechkin Capitals F 16.9 2.4 -0.4 19.0 YES
8 Evgeni Malkin Penguins F 15.3 3.8 -0.4 18.7 YES
9 Pekka Rinne* Predators G 16.2 0.1 2.4 18.7 MAYBE
10 Alexander Semin Capitals F 12.8 4.5 0.6 18.0 YES
11 Ryan Miller Sabres G 15.7 -0.6 2.5 17.7 NO
12 Mike Richards Flyers F 11.9 4.4 0.3 16.5 YES
13 Patrick Marleau Sharks F 10.4 5.3 0.7 16.4 YES
14 Marian Hossa Red Wings F 12.4 3.2 0.6 16.2 YES
15 Simon Gagne Flyers F 10.8 4.3 0.3 15.4 YES
16 Henrik Lundqvist Rangers G 10.6 -0.1 4.5 15.1 YES
17 Joe Thornton Sharks F 10.7 4.3 0.0 15.0 YES
18 David Krejci Bruins F 10.7 4.3 -0.0 15.0 YES
19 Nicklas Lidstrom Red Wings D 8.0 6.9 0.0 15.0 YES
20 Steve Mason* Blue Jackets G 13.7 1.2 0.1 15.0 YES
21 Jeff Carter Flyers F 13.4 2.3 -1.4 14.3 YES
22 Jonas Hiller Ducks G 10.8 -0.1 3.4 14.1 YES
23 Patrik Elias Devils F 11.1 2.3 0.6 13.9 YES
24 Mark Streit Islanders D 7.8 6.1 0.0 13.9 NO
25 Brian Rafalski Red Wings D 9.5 4.3 0.0 13.8 YES
26 Dan Boyle Sharks D 8.3 5.1 0.3 13.7 YES
27 Henrik Zetterberg Red Wings F 9.8 2.8 0.6 13.2 YES
28 Nicklas Backstrom Capitals F 10.2 2.5 0.3 12.9 YES
29 Dennis Wideman Bruins D 7.4 5.5 0.0 12.9 YES
30 Rob Blake Sharks D 6.2 6.7 0.0 12.9 YES
31 Marc Savard Bruins F 11.3 2.5 -1.0 12.8 YES
32 Shea Weber Predators D 6.5 6.2 0.0 12.7 MAYBE
33 Jamie Langenbrunner Devils F 7.0 4.0 1.6 12.7 YES
34 Jason Blake Maple Leafs F 8.1 2.5 2.0 12.6 NO
35 Ilya Kovalchuk Thrashers F 11.9 1.0 -0.4 12.6 NO
While the majority of this list consists of players on playoff teams that should and will be considered for the MVP (Tim Thomas, Mike Green, Alexander Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk), there are still player’s on non-playoff teams that should be considered for the NHL’s MVP (Mark Streit, Jason Blake, Illya Kovalchuck, Tomas Vokoun and possibly Shea Weber) and won’t even get consideration. Until the two requirements of being either a forward or a defenseman and being on a playoff team are taken out of the equation, expect the NHL's Hart Memorial Trophy to be continually handed down to players that are not the best in the league.
Andrew Rothstein is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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