Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, center Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins and center Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning are the three finalists for the 2011-12 Hart Memorial Trophy.
Each year, the Hart voting opens up several debates about what "value" really means in the NHL. Is a position player ever more valuable than a goaltender? Is it even a fair comparison?
What value does a player have if he leads his team short of the only measure of minimum success for an 82-game season: Making the playoffs? Should a 10th place finish in the Eastern Conference really yield an MVP candidate?
You have the finalists; now who wins the Hart? And is the Western Conference eligible for this award this season?
Why Henrik Lundqvist Deserves the Hart
Via the NHL:
Lundqvist was the anchor of a Rangers club that posted its best regular-season record since the Stanley Cup season of 1993-94 and captured first place in the Eastern Conference. He went 39-18-5 in 62 appearances, setting a career high in wins. He placed near the top in all major goaltending categories: third in wins, tied for third in shutouts (eight), fourth in goals-against average (1.97) and fourth in save percentage (.930). Also voted a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, Lundqvist is the first goaltender to vie for Hart Trophy honors since 2007, when Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and New Jersey's Martin Brodeur were second and third, respectively.
Lundqvist is the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy, and clearly gets the "best player on the best team" nod from the voters as the face — the beautiful, beautiful face — of the Eastern Conference regular season champions. Like Luongo and Brodeur before him, Lundqvist has outstanding stats to go along with a flashy win total.
Why Evgeni Malkin Deserves the Hart
Via the NHL:
Malkin captured his second career Art Ross Trophy by leading the NHL with 109 points (50 goals, 59 assists). He registered points in 60 of the 75 games he played in (80%) and became the first player since 1995-96 to record five or more points at least four times in one season. Malkin also finished second in the NHL with a career-high 50 goals and led the League with 339 shots on goal. He is the first scoring champion to win by a double-digit margin since Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr finished 20 points ahead of Anaheim's Teemu Selanne in 1998-99. Malkin is a Hart Finalist for the third time; he finished second to Washington's Alex Ovechkin in 2008 and 2009.
It's not so much that Malkin deserves the Hart as that he'll win the Hart. He was the best offensive player in the League by a long shot, and once again shouldered the load for the Penguins as Sidney Crosby and a slew of others were on the mend.
Why Steven Stamkos Deserves the Hart
Via the NHL:
Stamkos scored a League-leading 60 goals to capture his second Maurice Richard Trophy in the past three seasons. He notched his 60th goal in Tampa Bay's season finale at Winnipeg, becoming the first player to reach the milestone since 2007-08 (Alex Ovechkin, 65); before Ovechkin, the last time a player hit 60 was 1995-96 (Mario Lemieux, 69; Jaromir Jagr, 62). Stamkos tied for the League lead with Phoenix's Radim Vrbata in game-winning goals (12), scored an NHL-record five overtime goals and notched 48 even-strength scores, the most of any player since 1992-93. The 22-year-old is an NHL Trophy finalist for the first time.
The voters apparently feel a 60-goal season trumps not making the playoffs, as Stamkos becomes the first NHL player since Jarome Iginla in 2002 to miss the postseason but make the Hart Trophy cut. Perhaps this is best an every-10-years-thing. Or perhaps they thought they were voting for the Richard Trophy.
Who Wins The Hart?
Malkin, in a walk.
1. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins
2. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers
3. Jonathan Quick, LA Kings
4. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
5. Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey Devils
OK, lemme explain the Lundqvist thing before everyone pitches a fit.
First off, I try not to overload the ballot with goalies. Last year I had both Tim Thomas and Pekka Rinne on there, mostly because there was a top four but not a clear cut top five. Between Quick and Lundqvist, I choose Quick as my MVP goaltender, just as I would have chosen him for the Vezina. He did more with less, he handled the adversity of coaching and personnel changes, and he managed to drag the second-worst offense in the League to the playoffs. (The Rangers were No. 11.)
No Quick, and Lundqvist is on this list. But in the spirit of "every goalie could be an MVP," I try to limit it to one.
I watched a lot of the Rangers. Lundqvist was vital to their success. He's sixth in my top 10. I feel the Rangers played very well in front of him as a team. Others, I felt, shined brighter. Karlsson, for example, set the tone and personality for that Senators team to go along with his point total. Kovalchuk played the best season of his career as a hockey player, rather than as an offense-first puck hog. Both teams defied expectations because of them. Both players defied my expectations for them this season in a way that, frankly, Lundqvist didn't. Lundqvist was Lundqvist.
If I had to reconsider the ballot, I might pop Lundqvist ahead of Kovalchuk. But he wasn't going to crack my top three ahead of Quick, whom I feel was the more valuable goaltender to his team's success.
The bottom line is that everyone has their own standards for these awards. I've got my goalie thing as a voter; others clearly don't share my disdain for MVP candidates from non-playoff teams.
Now, about Stamkos …
I draw the line at the playoffs. It's the only reason we do this thing for 82 games every season. The Hart Trophy exists to reward those who help their teams achieve greatness. There's no question that Stamkos was the most valuable player on the Lightning, but to what end? Who is penning poems about the 10th place Bolts? They're a non-factor. If you're not part of the field of 16, you're an also-ran. And willing your team to 10th place doesn't deserve a place in the pantheon of MVP performances we've seen for the last several decades.
(And yes, had Quick missed the playoffs with LA, the same would have applied to him.)
Malkin's your MVP, no questions asked. That Giroux isn't in the top three is a sham, because he was every bit as vital and valuable to the Flyers' season as Malkin — facing added adversity given the nature of the previous offseason.