When it comes to determining the most valuable player in the NHL, you have to say that most of the time, the voters get it right. Well, mostly right.
While you can quibble about the eventual winner, it’s very rare that the guys who had the best seasons don’t at least finish in the top three slots. Going back through the last decade or so of players who finished top-three in Hart voting, it’s hard to argue with anyone the PHWA selected. They might get other trophies wrong on occasion (hello to Drew Doughty’s Norris) but MVP is kind of a hard one to mess up, and to their credit, it almost never happens.
However, it must be said that it’s tough to nail down a specific criteria for what defines “most valuable.”
You hear that argument all the time. “How can you have been the most valuable if your team misses the playoffs?” and all that kind of thing. That in particular is a dumb argument but I think if you combine high point totals plus the relative impact a guy had on his team’s ability to both score and prevent goals when he’s on the ice, that’s a pretty good jumping-off point. You can also somewhat subjectively look at how good his team actually is in the first place, or would be if he weren’t playing. That sort of thing.
With this in mind, it’s a little shocking to see how hard Sidney Crosby has come on in recent weeks for the MVP award. Earlier in the season, Crosby was having a great season, no doubt, but this looked like Connor McDavid’s award to lose.
We can all agree that this Oilers club is hardly a world-beater, but McDavid continues to lead the league in points even if his goal total (“just” 26) isn’t exactly awe-inspiring. Meanwhile, Crosby is quietly having another borderline-MVP season despite the fact that it feels like his team hasn’t had any healthy defensemen since Thanksgiving. This comes after a torrid goalscoring pace (he had 26 in his first 31 games and was shooting about 24 percent for three months) but he still has 15 in 35 since New Year’s Eve.
Moreover — and this is just conjecture on my part — once guys like Brad Marchand and Nikita Kucherov started breathing down his neck in the Rocket Richard race, Crosby kicked it into overdrive again; he’s got 19 shots and seven goals in his last five games.
Anyway, the idea that Crosby would fade a bit once the goalscoring hot streak ended proved to be wrong, because Crosby does not play the game by the same rules as mere mortals. When he was goals, he wasn’t getting a huge amount of assists. When he stopped scoring, his assist totals went way up.
That’s just how it goes, I guess.
Meanwhile, though McDavid has been excellent, the quality of play the Oilers provided beneath him has improved dramatically in the past several months. They were, flatly, a mess through mid-December, allowing McDavid to put together huge relative numbers the likes of which we’ve rarely seen in recent years. But because the rest of the club has kind of gotten its act together, dramatically narrowing its negative goal differential with McDavid off the ice, the huge impact he’s carried all year doesn’t look quite so impactful.
(Let’s also not forget Crosby would probably be leading the points race had he not missed six games at the beginning of the year.)
Point being, Crosby hung around the top of the MVP race a lot longer than some might have expected, while the Oilers got better, to the point that the decision between he and McDavid is a bit of a toss-up at this point. And other challengers have entered the field.
While people were making noise about a Brent Burns candidacy not too long ago — and Burns certainly continues to deliver for San Jose — Erik Karlsson has nearly caught up to his point total that probably seemed untouchable when the calendar flipped to 2017. And Karlsson did it on a far worse team than the Sharks, in what is certainly a tougher conference, and arguably a tougher division.
Finally there’s Marchand, whose candidacy boils down to an absurdly hot goalscoring run, another high-level possession game, and the fact that his team is also really bad. Marchand had 31 points in 39 games to start the year, which is a solid, respectable number. He has 49 in his last 34, including 27 goals. It’s something of a reverse-Crosby season, but here we are, with Marchand just a handful of points behind McDavid. Certainly, his candidacy has merit as well.
And when comparing this group of five players — all of whom are perfectly legitimate to put on your ballot in just about any order you want that doesn’t have McDavid outside the top two — to all the skaters who finished top-three in MVP voting on the basis of their goals impact, you can see where they stack up to some extent.
I like relative goals impact as a way to measure MVP candidates — in conjunction with point totals and subjective examination of team quality — because while it may not necessarily be predictive, postseason awards are meant to reward past success. If you kept the puck out of your own net and filled the opponent’s to a greater extent than your teammates (or anyone else in the league) that should be rewarded, especially if your team wouldn’t be very good without you.
So on the following chart, you want to be in the upper left quadrant, which shows relatively few goals against and a lot of goals for:
This list obviously excludes two goalies. In 2014-15 Carey Price was the MVP, and in 2011-12, Henrik Lundqvist finished third among Hart candidates. But we still have 30 data points, and unlike previous years when there were clear winners (those two huge outliers in the upper left are Alex Ovechkin in 2009-10 and John Tavares in 2012-13; neither of them won), this year there are arguments to be made for all five guys.
Burns still looks like a better than Karlsson by this measure, so if you’re going to vote for a defenseman here, that’s probably your guy. But as for the forwards? Well, that’s a tight one.
The argument for McDavid is: Leading the league in points, and the quality of his teammates, while not terrible, isn’t exactly what Crosby has behind him. As such, teams can throw a lot at him and he just has to take it. If teams throw a lot at Crosby alone, well, here comes Geno Malkin.
The argument for Crosby is: Malkin rules and really helps prop up the Penguins’ production even when Crosby’s off, so for Crosby to deliver a goals impact roughly equivalent to McDavid’s is impressive. Especially because he turned Conor Sheary into a 50-point guy like he did with Chris Kunitz in the past. Crosby just does this for everyone, doesn’t matter what other factors are out there.
The argument for Marchand is: He’s coming in hot down the stretch (and if you think that doesn’t matter, check out Corey Perry’s Hart win in 2011. Moreover, his team isn’t even as good as the Oilers top-to-bottom. Does he play with Patrice Bergeron? Sure he does. That’ll help anyone. But that also means he’s scoring 40ish goals and 80-plus points as a shutdown guy. Mighty impressive.
Things are still a little fluid here since there’s still a small chunk of the season to go, but you can clearly see the Crosby/McDavid/Marchand group is in the thick of things with other MVP candidates. It’s also important to remember goals are still a little hard to come by this season in comparison with most seasons before 2010.
Burns and Karlsson are sort of low-end outliers, but being No. 1 defensemen probably hurts their numbers too. They’re the only defensemen on the above chart, so it’s tough to compare them directly and say, “Well, they’re not legitimate candidates.”
Honestly, I’ve been a McDavid hardliner all season, but if you’re doing your end-of-season due diligence, you really can’t go wrong with Crosby or Marchand either. It’s a little surprising, to be honest, but I guess that’s why they play the full 82.
I’d still go with McDavid unless one of the other guys goes on an absolute bender, but that’s not outside the realm of possibility.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.