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As the NHL's regular season dies down, the focus naturally turns not only to which teams are going to make the playoffs, but also which players or coaches deserve awards.
And when that happens, discourse and sanity tend to go a bit off the rails.
While this phenomenon is common for all types of awards, at no point does the argument over who deserves what ever get more shrill than when conversations to who seems to be the most valuable player. As many have brought up in the past, the reason for this is that the criteria for the award itself is defined far too broadly, and thus leads to the discussion of, "What qualifies as value to his team?"
Everyone's going to define it differently, meaning that some rather irritating arguments both in favor of and against some candidates.
For instance, the argument you often hear — from the same morons who think a guy shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame if he doesn't win a Stanley Cup — about why Steven Stamkos shouldn't have won the Hart last season, to cite a recent example, is that he couldn't have been that valuable if his team didn't make the playoffs. Never mind that he scored 60 goals and 97 points, Mathieu Garon couldn't make a save, and that, therefore, is somehow on him.
In thinking about this the other day, as well as just how bad the Southeast Division is in general this season, I got to wondering about Alex Ovechkin's insane recent production. He has 17 goals in his last 16 games, a run so impressive that it seems unlikely anyone save for Steven Stamkos would be able to replicate it any time soon. Recall that when all the 50 in 50 talk about Stamkos really heated up, his best run was scoring 12 in 10. A goal is a goal, and I understand that, but it turns out that he's only scored five goals in 16 games against current playoff teams — including one Tuesday against Montreal that earned a lot of scoffs at this particular line of thinking, as though the one goal undermined it.
It's not that these goals against truly bad teams don't count, it's that having a little more context for something as extraordinary as scoring more than a goal a game for 15 or 16 contests is probably important when determining "value."
The answer for how good or bad Ovechkin is at this point in his career is, I think, probably somewhere in the middle of what he's done this year.
The forward who couldn't buy a goal and was showered with criticism early on isn't who he is, and neither is this guy who has something like 30 percent of his shots going in the net right now (don't forget how hot Patrick Marleau was early on).
You obviously can't fault Ovechkin for going out there and demolishing the competition on the schedule, but before the Hart nominations start pouring in for the guy, and when almost a quarter of his goals this year are against the Florida Panthers, that seems important to keep in mind. It just seems hollow.
And for those wondering, 35 of Stamkos' 60 came in 49 games against playoff teams last year.
But the argument does circle back to value to one's team, and here, too, I'm not quite so sure Ovechkin has the edge. Without him, the Capitals are obviously not a playoff team, and with him, the Capitals are barely a playoff team in a race-to-the-bottom division the likes of which haven't been seen in the NHL in quite some time. While it's true that Ovechkin seems to be the only person on earth who wants to win the Southeast and guarantee a three-seed, and is therefore taking matters into his own hands the only way he can, I find it difficult to be all that impressed by it.
Not while Sidney Crosby is sitting on the sidelines with a broken jaw, and his doing so seems to have transformed the Penguins from a juggernaut into a shuffling disaster that can't beat anyone. Put another way, for those judging solely on the basis of how much better each makes his team: It's hard to trust the Capitals to beat anyone in the playoffs regardless of Ovechkin's participation in the series. The same can be said of a Crosby-less Penguins club, but with him they're the clear favorites.
But the thing is that at this awful time of year, any argument in favor of one candidate, or even against one, is taken to its illogical extreme.
When I noted on Twitter that the vast majority of Ovechkin's goals come against very bad teams (and make no mistake, any team outside the playoff picture in the East this year is very bad indeed), the response was about what I would have expected if I'd implied that he's still as bad at hockey as he was for the first 20 or so games of the season, and has just gotten really lucky. It's not even that he hasn't gotten really lucky recently, because even in his glory days he wasn't putting up these kinds of totals — and 2007-08 was a long time ago — but that at least balances out the incredible lack of luck he had earlier this year when he was shooting below his career average.
It's odd that things get so heated, except to say that it probably goes back to the Crosby/Ovechkin argument from years ago that we probably all hoped was dead and buried. I was actually accused of trying to parse this Ovechkin stat because I'm biased against Russian players, which seems like it should almost be impossible. Saying one guy deserves it over another, whoever they are, doesn't mean you think the latter is some kind of a bad hockey player. I thought Stamkos should have won last season, but considered Evgeni Malkin to be a perfectly good pick as well. Each player's "value" was roughly equal. This year, when it comes to the top choices, it's not.
As of right this second, Alex Ovechkin is probably the second-most credible MVP candidate in the NHL. That doesn't mean he sucks. It means he's second.
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