14 March 2007

who's your MVP?

to be published at SportsBlurb.com and Sportingnews.com - March14th.

Quick quiz: how many goaltenders have won the NHL’s Hart Trophy?

It doesn’t happen often. Similar to pitchers winning the MVP in baseball, a goalie will seem to have more of an opening to win the Hart if there's no overwhelming favourite in the "normal" pool of players. Over the past decade it has happened a few times, which may mean newer NHL fans may not realize just how infrequently it happens. A likely reason that we’ve seen more goalies as Hart finalists of late is the dearth of scoring over the past ten-plus years. The most recent – Montreal’s Jose Theodore in 2002 - just edged out Calgary's Jarome Iginla on a tie-breaker (Theodore had more first-place votes). Dominik Hasek's back-to-back Hart trophies with the Buffalo Sabres in 1997-1998 came in the lowest-scoring era in the NHL since the late 1950s (with the average goals-per-game dipping below 5.3 for the first time since 1956).

This isn’t meant to take anything away from those seasons by Hasek and Theodore – they were worthy winners – but it’s hard not to think that had the NHL had an era of scoring like the early 80s, where getting 112 points might get you no higher than eighth in the league (Bobby Smith, Minnesota – 1982), that an offensive player wouldn’t have won in at least one of those seasons.

So even if we all remember the last decade, the gap before Hasek to the previous goalie to win the Hart goes way back - 35 years, to be exact - to Montreal's legendary Jacques Plante in 1962. The 1950s saw two goalies win the Hart, with the Chicago Blackhawks’ Al Rollins taking it in 1954 and the New York Rangers’ Chuck Rayner winning in 1950. Before that you have to go back to 1929 and the old New York Americans when Roy "Shrimp" Worters was the winner.

And that's it. Only seven times in 82 years has the award been given to a goaltender. Overall the award winners are highly skewed to forwards, especially centers: 63 times the winner has been a forward, with 42 of them being centers. Only 12 defencemen have brought home the trophy.

With only a few weeks left in the season, we can start to compile a short-list of Hart candidates. I've mentioned it before that I don't put much - if any - stock in who wins end-of-season awards, however it's still fascinating to talk about (that seeming dichotomy can make sense if you believe, as I do, that winning an award obviously doesn't automatically make the player the best). So having said that...who's your MVP?

I’ve created two lists of who I think are worthy candidates, dividing into A and B levels. My A-level candidates have the best chance of walking away with the Hart Trophy in June; in other words I think these will be the finalists. This doesn't necessarily correlate to "best" - as any voted-upon award, it's all subjective, but given the press generated by these players and/or the markets they play in, I'm confident this year's MVP will come from this group:

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins. Any and all accolades thrown Crosby's way are in every way deserved. Age shouldn’t be a factor in winning the Hart, but the fact that he's only 19 still has to in some way play into it. He has led the league in scoring for virtually the entire season and catapulted a young and hopeful Penguins team into the upper echelon of the East while still in his teen years. Comparisons to the one and only Wayne Gretzky are apt. Crosby is the best player in the NHL.

Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils. I’ll admit it: perhaps it has been my iconoclastic nature over the years, but for various reasons I'd thought Brodeur's status was slightly over-inflated. I thought him to be as much a product of New Jersey’s system as a singular talent. No longer. Statistically this is shaping up to be his best season but simply watching his stellar positional play this year leaves one with little doubt that Brodeur is as good as or better than he's ever been. He carried the traditionally low-scoring Devils through the first half of the season until the team seemed to get better around him over the past few months and now look as dangerous as any team in the East. A scary thought for fans of Buffalo/Ottawa/Tampa/Pittsburgh, etc.

Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks. The trade that brought Luongo to Vancouver from the hockey wasteland of southern Florida brought enormous pressure to Luongo, and he has responded with arguably his best season. The Canucks haven't had an extensive history of top-of-the-league goaltending but with Luongo they finally have that; he has led the low-scoring Canucks to the top of their division and given their fans legitimate contending hopes.

Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay Lightning. Vinny has finally arrived. Sure, he’s always been a good player, but has never really lived up to his billing as the top-overall pick in 1998. This season he’s already shattered his individual highs for goals and assists, is leading the league in goals with 46, and of late has been giving Crosby a mild push for the scoring title. Lecavalier has vaulted Tampa Bay back into the mix for the Southeast division title.

My B-level candidates are players that won't win the award for a host of reasons, but take a backseat to none of the players listed above:

Daniel Briere, Buffalo Sabres. Leading the best team in the East all year, he gets the bulk of his scoring at even-strength off the powerful Buffalo rush. Briere often sets the pace for the Sabres' uptempo game and has countless late-game and shootout goals, giving him the moniker in Buffalo as "Cookie Monster" (as in response to announcer Rick Jeanneret’s famed goal call: "top shelf where momma hides the cookies!!!")

Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning. I'm not sure fans realize how good of a season the former Hart winner is having. Aside from battling teammate Lecavalier for the silver medal in the Art Ross race, for much of the season he's been leading the league in even-strength scoring as well as shorthanded points.

Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames. Back in November I trumpeted Iginla in this space as a potential MVP candidate, and I maintain that the only thing keeping him from being one of the finalists this spring is his missing 11 games. Having played only 58 games to date, he's fourth in the league in even-strength points with 51 - ahead of such luminaries as Crosby, Marian Hossa, Dany Heatley, and Alex Ovechkin. He has been and continues to be *the* marked man for Calgary and yet has led the team all year.

Chris Pronger, Anaheim Ducks. When he was acquired from Edmonton in the off-season he was expected to give Anaheim strength on defence (along with Scott Niedermayer) unparalleled in the league. The fact that the team led the West until his injury and then fell apart in his absence speaks volumes to his skill and the team's reliance on him for success.

Marian Hossa, Atlanta Thrashers. Hossa remains an underrated talent in the league, despite his top-five scoring status and fourth straight season with more than 35 goals. Hossa’s +19 rating is particularly impressive on a team that gives up more goals than they score.

Teemu Selanne, Anaheim Ducks. Teemu has found new life over the last two years in Anaheim and become a veteran leader on a team with an otherwise youth-laden forward attack. This year’s 41 goals and counting is his second-straight 40 goal season, and his +22 rating is in the league’s top-20.

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