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It's getting to that point in the season when awards are being discussed more and more heavily. With fewer than 30 games left on the schedule for most teams, now seems as good a time as any.
Most people have pretty much already decided on who's going to get what awards in their minds. Giordano for Norris, Rinne for Vezina, etc. A few are still up in the air though, including the most important — or rather “Most Valuable” — one: The Hart.
The concept of who deserves to win the Hart Trophy has always been a weird one. It is, generally, treated in the way that the Norris or Vezina is: An award granted to the best forward in the league. And typically, “best” means “highest-scoring.” Which is fine. Scoring the most points is generally the best way to provide the most value to your team. Not always, but usually.
The last time a non-forward won it was 2002, when Jose Theodore took home both this award and the Vezina as the best goaltender in the league, whose .931 save percentage basically dragged a mediocre Habs team screaming into the playoffs.
Chris Pronger won it three years earlier, and Dominik Hasek took it home twice in 1997 and '98. Before that, you have to go all the way back to Bobby Orr to find a non-forward who wins this award. Orr won it three times running, the last of which came in 1972.
So yeah, seven Harts out of 44 since 1970 have gone to non-forwards, and it was only an even remotely frequent event prior to the conclusion of World War II (defensemen and goaltenders won 10 of the first 21 Harts awarded). This is rather safely a forwards' award.
Now the question of whether that's right or fair is a different matter entirely, and one that's once again rearing its head because, as with Theodore 13 years ago, it's looking like a Montreal netminder is probably going to win this award.
And it's hard to argue that Carey Price hasn't been the guy most valuable to his team this season. The Habs are a mess. Like most teams coached by Michel Therrien, they have the puck less often than their opponents (48.6 percent in score-adjusted corsi, 22nd in the league entering last night's games), and they allow the sixth-most shot attempts per 60 minutes at even strength in the league.
Their offense is solidly middle of the pack in terms of goalscoring at evens, and worse than that on the power play. They don't have much in the way of depth up front, and they're using Sergei Gonchar's ghost as a top-four defenseman.
This is a team with a lot of problems, and all of them are solved by Price.
His save percentage is second in the league at 5-on-5, checking in at a ludicrously high .941 (Rinne's .944 is better but he's played fewer games). When Montreal is killing a penalty, Price has been there too, with a fifth-among-starters .887. And given how bad the rest of the Habs generally are, his work is unassailably spectacular in all the ways you'd expect it to be from a franchise netminder. Only eight goaltenders have appeared in more games, and only seven have played more minutes.
The Habs lean on him heavily, and to great effect. As of this writing, the Canadiens are second in their conference, just two points back of that exceptional Tampa team, and with two games in hand. Their 32 wins is tied for second in the league, as well.
Let's put it another way: Given how much rubber Price is seeing — fifth in shots faced at 1,198 prior to last night's games— and the fact that only one other player in the league is north of .930, we can safely assume that just about any other goalie on the planet would look so much worse behind this exact same team.
For instance, the league-average save percentage this year is .913, down a single thousandth of a point. If Carey Price were merely league-average, he would have allowed an additional 22 goals this season. Given that we also know that roughly even three goals or so of differential equals one point in the standings, we can safely say Price has saved his team roughly seven points above an average netminder playing the same minutes. Losing seven points would have them out of the playoffs in the East right now, rather than the two-seed.
And so people are understandably banging the drum for Price to win the Hart. Again, it makes total sense. No single outfield player is going to have that kind of impact for their club; they don't play enough minutes and they neither save nor score enough goals to make up seven points in the standings.
If you want to get bogged down in trying to figure out point shares, by all means go for it, but know this: 1) It's extremely rare for someone who is not a goaltender to lead the league in this category; only Alex Ovechkin has done it in the salary cap era, and 2) it's not a particularly well-put-together stat yet.
Unlike WAR in baseball, where you can basically quantify everything a player contributes into a single number — which you can then, in theory, use to determine who is the most valuable player in the league with relative ease — no such statistic in hockey exists yet. But even more so than a starting pitcher in baseball, who delivers immense value even when he only plays every fifth day, a starting goaltender — and particularly an elite one like Price — is very likely to play as much 75-80 percent of your season.
Let's say there's a hypothetical forward who can put up assist numbers like Crosby, score goals like Ovechkin, and defend like Bergeron. That's about 50 goals and 70 assists for every 82 games he plays, based on career averages, but also getting nails-tough zone starts against the best competition in the game. And he would have done so despite being by far the best forward on the planet, approaching Gretzky/Lemieux levels of dominance relative to his peers.
Likewise, suppose there's a theoretical defenseman who eats minutes like Ryan Suter, puts up possession numbers like Zdeno Chara, scores like Erik Karlsson, and defends like Mark Giordano (actually, that's just describing Nicklas Lidstrom, but I digress). He'd rightly be seen as the overwhelming Norris winner in any year he can do that.
Most seasons, that forward's points share would probably surpass those of the best goalies in the league. That defenseman might finish fifth or so in point shares. Again, it's not a perfect stat, but that's illustrative of just how good you'd have to be as a skater to even get consideration in terms of value delivered to your team via individual contribution to goal differential.
Part of the reason for that is they don't play nearly as many minutes. Even the most-used defenseman in the league only plays 30 minutes a night or so, and forwards might sometimes check in around 25 for the season. Goalies play the full 60. But also, goaltending is the ultimate arbiter of whether a team is or isn't good. The Jets have missed the playoffs for years, despite being of roughly that quality, because they relied on a poor goaltender who cost them more games than he won them. You hear all the time that goalies can “steal games,” and basically every night, Price is doing just that.
But the issue is that if you start awarding goalies like Price the Hart because they are putting up big numbers, then the Hart should go to a goalie every year. Even if you add in the qualification that they need to play for mediocre-or-worse teams, Semyon Varlamov should have won the Hart last season, and Henrik Lundqvist in the lockout year, and Mike Smith in 2012, and Ryan Miller in 2010, and you can basically go on like this for a while. That doesn't necessarily mean the Vezina winner should win it every year, but it's not far off, either.
Put another way: The best goalie in the league is, far more often than not, the most valuable player in the league. This isn't a particularly arguable point. Were trophies awarded with this in mind, it would be the rare forward to break through the monotony of another goaltender Hart win, rather than the other way around.
And if you want to make the argument that this, then, should really be an award for goalies and then the occasional forward, and almost never a defenseman, then I don't really disagree with you. But the issue is that this isn't nor has it really ever been how the award was given out. In one sense, it shouldn't really take the kind of Herculean effort Price, or Theodore, or Hasek have turned in under relatively modern hockey circumstances to earn a Hart trophy nod. In another, giving them that kind of recognition, while warranted, isn't exactly fair to all the other goalies who might have had even better seasons in the past and didn't merit consideration because their teams would have won plenty of games without them (this is of course the “Tim Thomas” category).
What I guess I'm saying is that I view the Vezina largely as the “most valuable goalie” award because putting players and goaltenders in the same category is comparing apples to way more valuable oranges. The Norris should be viewed in the same way for defensemen.
So yes, Carey Price is the most valuable player in the league this year. But great goalies almost always are.
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