The Hart Trophy race has heated up, thanks in large part to Sid Crosby missing a quarter of the season. This week, I made the apparently unforgivable mistake of saying that anyone who would discount a player's chances for winning the award based on their not having made the playoffs "idiotic."
The argument that if you didn't make the playoffs, you shouldn't get MVP consideration is essentially this: The only thing worthwhile in hockey is more or less whether you make the playoffs. That's why you play an 82-game regular season, and if you don't succeed in doing so in the course of that season, then your value automatically reverts to zero.
The reason this was brought up at all was because there was some talk about the candidacy of Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who certainly merits consideration but whose team is very much on the bubble of playoff contention at this late date in the season.
The school of thought among the incorrect people who think he should win the award is pretty obvious: Look at how bad Columbus is, but look where they are despite being bad.
There is an apparently-sizable group of Professional Hockey Writers Association voters who would, at the end of the season, look at Bobrovsky's numbers, with the sky-high save percentage and sweet and lowdown goals-against average, and have two different opinions of them depending on where his (once again) not very good team finishes.
If they get to 55 points and take the final playoff spot because Detroit falters in its final game, then his efforts to get a club with one of the worst offenses in the were indeed quite valuable.
But if they get to 55 points and Detroit either matches or exceeds that total, then he, like everyone else that didn't make the playoffs, had no actual value whatsoever, at least in terms of assessing qualifications for this award.
Of course, this goes without mentioning that some people also don't think goalies should be able to win the Hart at all, because if you were basing the award on straight-up value, a goalie would win it every year since they play 60-plus minutes a night for something like three-quarters of the season or more. That's a palatable argument, and I agree that in most cases a goaltender should have to blow everyone else's doors off to merit consideration. I don't think Bobrovsky has done that.
Perhaps the best historical example of two of these things — a goaltender blowing the doors off the competition and the guy who should have won the Hart while missing the playoffs — happening at the same time is the 2001-02 season, when Jose Theodore dragged the Canadiens into the playoffs almost through sheer force of will, facing the second-most shots in the league, and securing the eighth seed despite scoring just 207 goals all year.
While all that happened, Jarome Iginla scored 52 of Calgary's 201 goals, but since we're talking about the Flames in the early 2000s, they obviously didn't come close to a playoff spot, finishing 11th in the West. By the logic of people who would exclude Iginla on the basis of his having missed the playoffs, if Theodore's backup — Jeff Hackett — had lost one more game, dropping the Habs' win total to 35, all of Theodore's work would have been invalidated as well. Patrick Roy probably would have won as a result, since he played on an All-Star team and made the playoffs with ease.
This USA Today piece from that year sums up the argument against Iginla thusly:
"Hard for voters to justify picking player on weak team, and many will figure that Iginla's best years are still ahead of him."
These are both truly dumb reasons to not think someone was valuable. The guy had Craig Conroy as his center and scored 52-44-96. To paraphrase something Jonathan Willis said the other day: People that excluded him from their ballots actually believe, in effect, that if Iginla really wanted the award badly enough, or was the most valuable player in the league, then he would have willed everyone on his team to be better.
The question becomes what constitutes value, I suppose. On the one hand, a player like Iginla, or Stamkos last year, scoring an absurd amount of goals for a team that would have netted hilariously few without him is in some ways the opposite of valuable: His continual contributions have served to make bad teams better, when their goal should be tanking as hard as possible to get the best chance at the first overall pick. But people who say that making the playoffs is the only thing that matters are essentially saying that winning is the only thing that matters.
These voters should by that logic be storming the Bastille over general managers who don't give the Vezina to the goaltender with the best winning percentage every year. Stats don't matter, only wins do.
Of course, stats do matter. They're the only thing by which we have to compare one player against the other short an American Gladiators-like obstacle course (not that I wouldn't like to see Nitro light up John Tavares when he went through the wrong door right before the finish line).
Again, I'll note that I think no one who misses the playoffs this season warranted serious consideration for the award, with Bobrovsky having come closest regardless of how things shake out Saturday, whether that value came for a team that was awful or among the league's very best.
It is not Sidney Crosby's fault, for instance, that his general manager has constructed a remarkable roster of exceptional players at nearly every position (sorry, Marc-Andre Fleury) and his coach rallied the troops to continue winning even in his absence.
His MVP credentials, the most robust in the league, should not be made more valid because his team melted down without him, nor should they be considered less than what they would be just because the team has kept winning without him. That's the point of having depth, right? To win even when catastrophic injury strikes?
Which brings us back to the Iginla/Stamkos issue: Their teams had no depth, and they still excelled. That should therefore not count against them either.
I've heard the argument that, in normal situations, a player should have to have made the playoffs to be up for the Hart, but there are certain circumstances in which a player who didn't should be considered. They would, obviously, have to be extraordinary.
Maybe Stamkos or Iginla are among those examples. Maybe Bobrovsky becomes one this year. But then it becomes a slippery slope argument, and we all know how fun those are.
If Stamkos at 60 goals last season wasn't good enough, for instance, what would be? Sixty-five? Seventy? At some point these voters are setting these standards merely for the purpose of appearing flexible on the matter when they are, in fact, being anything but.
The same is true of the distance out of the playoffs a team finishes. Let's look at Bobrovksy's case again. Those who would have voted for him and live by this code of honor that only playoff participants can be considered, then if the Blue Jackets made the playoffs, then no problem, there's your MVP.
What about if they miss by one point? Is there wiggle room there? What about two? Three? What if he was really good — like, Tim Thomas in 2010-11 numbers — but missed by eight points? Having to strike a balance between those two factors of "really great" and "missing the playoffs by x points" seems pretty stupid.
Please don't, by the way, take that as some sort of statement that it should be an either/or proposition. Don't fall back to your trenches, but rather consider how silly it is to be a hardliner in a sport in which I think we'd all acknowledge has so many moving parts that it's difficult to stick with any one rule to divine out who's worth nominating.
It's how Bobrovsky played over the balance of the season that should be the only consideration. And though it's interesting to note his first two months were crap, he overcame it, became probably the best goalie in the league this year. If you're on the fence about whether to write him in that's the only evidence you should need.
If you were going to vote for him, just vote for him. You don't have to have a moral crisis about what it all means if you start letting losers like him into the Hart discussion. It doesn't tear down the sacrosanct solemnity with which the trophy is usually awarded. It doesn't do anything but ensure that the player you "judged to be the most valuable to his team" just days before he missed the playoffs still gets the award.
Almost everything will be as it was before. The only thing that will have changed was your acceptance of what constitutes a player's value.
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