The search for Hart
The perils of picking the NHL's MVP
Two months ago, I ran a poll on the Hart Trophy which had close to 1,000 votes, the bulk of which (43%) were cast for Alex Ovechkin.
Even with 15 candidates on the ballot, the players I figured were most likely to contend for the award at season's end, there was no Evgeni Malkin. Martin Brodeur received just six votes, and Jarome Iginla was a distant fourth with only 8 per cent support.
Two months later, in my mind anyway, there are five legitimate candidates who have a chance at the hardware: Ovechkin, Malkin, Brodeur, Iginla and Nicklas Lidstrom.
And it's a very close race.
In a piece that's been getting a lot of attention on the interweb, Damien Cox backs Lidstrom. Ross McKeon says it should be Iginla. And Steve Simmons picks Ovechkin.
These three, as members of the hockey writers' association, will all have votes, and I imagine this will be one of the most hotly contested MVP votes in NHL history. It's hard to say there's a wrong answer, but in my mind the closest thing to that would be to dismiss Ovechkin simply because his team misses the postseason.
Cox points to the fact that fans and pundits love the heroic star on a lesser team, but the fact is, there's no advantage to being the lone wolf on an otherwise dismal hockey team. A goaltender may face more shots and be able to shine brighter on a bottom feeder, but the odds are stacked against Oveckin every night, from the fact he has a rookie finding his way as his linemate to facing the most difficult opposition each and every night.
Ovechkin leads the league with 31 goals on the road, where the matchups go against him every shift, despite the fact only three others have managed even 20 away from home this season.
With 60 goals in 76 games, he's on pace for nearly 65 goals, which would tie for the 23rd-best single-season goal total in NHL history despite the fact he plays in the lowest-scoring era of any player who has ever hit the 60-goal mark.
How can you write off one of the greatest goal-scoring seasons of all time because the Capitals miss the playoffs due to poor goaltending? And injuries to key personnel? And poor coaching early on, bad management decisions, an inexperienced blueline, lack of secondary scoring...
You get the idea.
Ovechkin has had more help this season than in the past, but he's still very much a man on an island. Which makes his accomplishments all the more impressive — not less.
That's not to say he's my pick with no questions asked. At this point, I'd be satisfied with either Ovechkin, Iginla or Lidstrom as MVP, with the last two weeks of the season playing a big part in determining who wins of the three.
But let's pick a player for the right reasons.
Which brings me to Cox's comments on Lidstrom:
Lidstrom's worth to the Wings was amply demonstrated by the way in which the team nearly fell apart during his recent injury absence.It sounds good, it really does. It's persuasive, and it makes sense given the Red Wings' little bump in the road this season.
After years of watching Lidstrom's quiet brilliance all but ignored despite the success of the Wings, this was indisputable evidence that he is a difference-maker on a team that still sports the NHL's best record.
But it's wrong.
Detroit was 0-6-1 in its last seven games before Lidstrom got hurt, but without him in the lineup, including the game he was injured and played just three minutes, the Red Wings went 3-3-1.
That's the basis for the Hart Trophy? That's the "indisputable evidence?"
Lidstrom's a fine candidate, and he's who I picked at the midway point, but if you want to make that argument, start with the quality of competition he faces and his plus-minus rating. Only four players face more difficult 5-on-5 opposition according to Behind The Net, yet Lidstrom's numbers at even strength are incredible: 3.73 goals for average and 1.66 goals against average when on the ice, compared to 2.11 and 1.79 when he's off it.
There's not another defenceman in the league that sees well under two goals against per 60 minutes facing that kind of opposition. It's absurd.
Detroit scores on stingy opposition when he's out there. Then he and his defence partner prevent goals against from the top-scoring players in the league. And both the offence and defence improve significantly when Lidstrom's on the ice.
Combine that with the number of points he produces, nearly a point a game at age 37, and he's in the class with the best blueliners of any era.
That's an MVP argument.
Just don't ask me for my final answer quite yet.