Photo credit: Francois Lacasse
Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Jonathan Toews, and Alex Ovechkin. Those are the names most seen in the deluge of chatter about this season’s Hart Trophy, the award given each year to the player deemed most valuable to his team. Washington’s own goal-scoring leader Alex Ovechkin seems to be the underdog in those conversations for a variety of reasons, namely that he plays in a bad division and wasn’t exceptional until the middle of March. I think those reasons are suspect, but the Hart conversation is already marred by a whole lot of questionable conventional wisdom.
The Hart Trophy is supposed to be awarded to the player that the Professional Hockey Writers Association deems most valuable to his team. While the actual inscription on the Hart Trophy leaves out the whole “to his team” part, I find that little prepositional phrase to be crucial. The NHL is unlike the MLB, whose MVP award has a simpler definition (“most outstanding player“), the same one used for the Ted Lindsay Award.
The Lindsay is the NHL’s real MVP award: voted on by the players and without consideration for team quality or any of the other logical convolutions that make the Hart the cause of ulcers for everyone silly enough to care about it.
The Hart is for the League’s Best Player
The Hart is not for the league’s best player. It is for the player most valuable to his team. Says so right on NHL.com.
If the Hart were truly an assessment of who the league’s best player is, we could just calculate everyone’s GVT (goals versus threshold, a catch-all stat similar to baseball’s WAR, invented by Tom Awad). The guy with the highest GVT gets the trophy and we all go home.
But it’s not about “who’s best?”, it’s about “who is most valuable?” An insultingly dumb analogy would go like this: a glass of water is more valuable to a guy in a desert than it is to a guy with a Brita. To understand value, we have to understand context. In this case, context is the team. So let’s talk about teams.
Non-Playoff Teams Need Not Apply
The assertion seems to be that about half of all players are disqualified from contention because their teams sucked. Imagine a player who scored more than a quarter of his team’s total goals and assisted in another 15%. Is he not valuable because his team valued him too much? The logic sort of unspools there. That player was Steven Stamkos, and using the NHL’s own definition of the Hart, he certainly deserved a look for last year’s trophy.
Here’s the thing. A great player on a bad team is more valuable to his team than an equally great player on a good team. This isn’t an argument of relative greatness (let’s say they have identical goals and assists); it’s an argument of value, which is the whole damn point of the award in the first place. So yes, sadly, players with good teammates should get “punished” because they are less valuable as a result.
No Goalies Allowed Either
The last goalie to win the Hart Trophy was Jose Theodore, back in 2001-2002. He posted a .931 save percentage in 67 games that year. Since then, Roberto Luongo, Mike Smith, Jonathan Quick, and Ryan Miller have had comparable seasons without the same recognition. Perhaps giving the Hart to a goalie is redundant since the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the best goalie, already exists. But Mike Smith’s performance in Phoenix last year and particularly Lou’s back in pre-lockout Florida were extremely valuable to their teams.
Maybe it’s just that goalies play fewer games a season than skaters. Now that you mention it…
The Games-Played Cutoff
Sidney Crosby will have played in 75% of games this season. That’s a larger percentage than Mario Lemieux played when he won the Hart in 1992-1993. By conventional wisdom, Crosby should not be eliminated from Hart contention, and I totally agree. While there seems to be some kind of minimum threshold of games played for someone to be considered a Hart nominee, it’s arbitrary. That’s okay: this is and should be a subjective award based on the individual value judgments made by its voters. I’m just here to question what those value judgments are, and this one seems legit.
To me, awarding the Hart is identifying the player who is more indispensable to his team than anyone else on any team. It’s not the player who– if you replaced him with some schmuck off the streets (let’s just call that schmuck Jussi Jokinen)– his team would still win six in a row and eight of their last ten games. That replaced player may still be fantastic (in fact, this hypothetical player from Nova Scotia might still be a slam-dunk for the Ted Lindsay), but his value proportional to his team is not as high as other players’.
All the points above are important in discussing how to differentiate good players, but they’re not really relevant to players’ values to their teams, and that’s what matters. Or is supposed to matter, at least.
I don’t know who will win the Hart Trophy. If it’s Crosby, the cynic in me would feel vindicated and the hockey fan in me would be delighted. But judging by public conversations about the Hart, the deliberative process is a mess– poorly defined and clouded by all kinds of dubious wisdom.
Predicting who will win the Hart is a sucker’s game. I usually find it more illuminating to talk in terms of “should” rather than “will” anyway. Especially in the case of the Hart Trophy, which is stupid.