Over the course of the next few days, the women and men of the Professional Hockey Writers Association will cast ballots that determine the winners of five categories of this season’s NHL Awards. Unfortunately, the integrity of the most prestigious of those categories – the Hart Trophy – has cracks in its foundation. And those cracks have been made by a lawyer’s simultaneous best friend and worst enemy: vague language.
Here’s what I mean: if you go by the strict description laid out for the award, the Hart is supposed to go to “the player judged to be most valuable to his team.” But if you look at the way the general public perceive an MVP award – and the way PHWA members have voted – you arrive at the conclusion the public interprets “value” as “excellence.” And once you realize that, you can’t deny the Hart is, in reality, a Most Outstanding Player award and should officially be redefined as such.
Some of you are already in various degrees of unrest because a most outstanding player award already exists and is named the Ted Lindsay Award (formerly the Lester B. Pearson Award). But why can’t there be two? The Lindsay is for the players and the Hart is for everyone else. In some ways, the Lindsay would be more legitimate to NHL players, because it is voted on by their peers. But if we’re being honest, we have to acknowledge the Hart has more prominence and history to it than does the Lindsay.
And anyway, the voting patterns of the PHWA confirm writers have for decades treated the Hart as a most outstanding player award. To wit: seventy percent of the past 20 Hart winners won the Lindsay/Pearson the same year. Are we supposed to believe that, year-in and year-out, the concept of most valuable is inherently linked to being the most outstanding? Maybe in a couple of those seasons that would be true, but when the result is the same 70 percent of the time, that strongly suggests the Hart voters have spoken and do not see the award as a true MVP honor.
The general public agrees with them. Look around on the Internet and social media and you’ll see people making arguments for Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews as the rightful Hart winner this year. Of course, there’s no doubt Crosby and Toews are among the best (if not the best) all-around players on the planet and have had incredible seasons, but they also play on arguably the NHL’s top two teams.
If you took Crosby away from the Penguins – as the injury bug did again on March 30 – would they plummet from the top spot in the Eastern Conference? The proof is right in front of you. By contrast, if you took John Tavares away from the New York Islanders or removed Sergei Bobrovsky from the Columbus Blue Jackets, would those two teams be in playoff position? Most hockey people would say no.
To me, that says they are of greater value to their teams than Toews or Crosby are to Chicago and Pittsburgh respectively. In essence, by sticking with the literal interpretation of most valuable, you are ruling out great players who play on talent-rich teams and will almost always be giving the Hart to a player on a playoff bubble team. That’s punishment for something beyond any player’s control.
However, if the league reclassified the Hart as the award for most outstanding player, Tavares, Crosby, Bobrovsky and Toews all could be included in the debate. Fans and media still would argue about who was the most outstanding, but at least the metric would be the same. At least we’d all be having the same conversation.
Determining the MVP in the post-season is relatively straightforward. Nine times out of 10, the Conn Smythe Trophy is presented to the player central to his team winning a Stanley Cup. There are exceptions when the player on the losing side of the Cup final performs especially well – see Ron Hextall in 1987 or J-S Giguere in 2003 – yet there is a clearly defined group of candidates every year.
Unfortunately, the manner by which the NHL determines its regular season MVP is far different. In making their biggest individual honor about a nebulous concept and not a more inclusive term like excellence, the NHL has allowed semantics to drag down the voting and dilute its results.
“Value” is in the beholder’s eye, but everybody knows what “outstanding” entails. And the sooner the NHL recognizes that adjusting and clarifying the language behind the awards will lead to more accurate results, the better off the voting process, and the Hart itself, will be.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.