Monday, January 19, 2015

Weekend wrap: Is this the year a goalie or defenseman wins the Hart?

A look back at the biggest games and emerging story lines of the NHL weekend.

Theme of the Week: Is This the Year a Goalie or Defenseman Wins MVP?

The midseason mark typically presents an opportunity to start narrowing down the various awards races, picking out the front-runners and shrinking the fields down to a handful of realistic contenders who voters can focus on for the rest of the season. But when it comes to the biggest award of them all — the Hart Memorial Trophy for league MVP — the first half hasn’t provided much clarity.

While a player’s value can be measured in many ways, the Hart Trophy often just ends up going to the league’s leading scorer — the Art Ross winner has also been named MVP in eight of the last 11 seasons. But this year’s tight scoring race clouds the picture, with 16 players within 10 points of Jakub Voracek’s league-leading 53. A look down the top 10 further complicates things. Alexander Ovechkin, who’s earned three of the last seven Harts, is nowhere to be found. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who’ve combined to win three more, are both near the league lead, but two players from the same team posting similar totals could end up canceling each other out.

Meanwhile, two of the season’s breakout stars, Philadelphia’s Voracek and Dallas’s Tyler Seguin, play for teams that look likely to miss the playoffs, which still stands as a deal-breaker for many voters. And other top scorers like Vladimir Tarasenko and Tyler Johnson are relative newcomers who might find it difficult to garner much leaguewide support this early in their career.

All of this may open the door for a rare sight: a non-forward taking home the league’s top individual award. The Hart Trophy has evolved into the near-exclusive domain of centers and wingers, who’ve won 37 of the last 41 awards. Only six goaltenders have won the award in its 90-year history, and only two have done so since 1962 — Dominik Hasek, who became the only goalie to win the award twice when he took it home in 1997 and 1998, and Jose Theodore, who won a tiebreaker over Jarome Iginla in 2002.1

Defensemen have had an even tougher time in the post–Original Six era. Since Bobby Orr’s three straight Hart Trophies from 1970 to 1972, only one defenseman has been named MVP. That was Chris Pronger in 2000, when he edged Jaromir Jagr by a single vote. Since then, a blueliner hasn’t so much as been a finalist for the award.

It’s an odd phenomenon. It’s not as if there’s some sort of belief that defenseman and goalies can’t be valuable — the Conn Smythe, awarded to the playoff MVP, has gone to a non-forward 10 times in the last 20 seasons. Perhaps goalies and defensemen just fall into the same trap that pitchers do in baseball, with enough voters figuring “they’ve got their own award” that non-forwards can’t win without a season for the ages.

In either case, there’s a growing consensus that this could be the year to avoid the forward logjam. Plenty of voters seemed willing to throw their support behind Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne before his recent injury. Some of that support now seems to be drifting toward Carey Price, and Roberto Luongo has earned some consideration. There hasn’t been quite the same level of support for defensemen, although Calgary’s Mark Giordano gets an occasional mention.

Only time will tell whether the current mood among Hart voters continues, or whether they retreat back to the more comfortable forward ranks as the season wears on. Of course, any of the top-scoring forwards could make the whole discussion moot with one long hot streak (and Crosby, with seven points in his last three games, may already be doing just that).

But for now, at least, there’s some momentum to mix things up. That alone could be enough to make this year’s voting a little less predictable.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

The five teams that seem most likely to earn the league’s top prize: the Stanley Cup.

5. New York Islanders (30-14-1, plus-19 goals differential): They edge out the Lightning for the fifth spot after earning big wins over the Penguins and Rangers by a combined score of 9-3. (We’ll just pretend we didn’t see Saturday’s letdown game against the Canadiens.)

4. Chicago Blackhawks (28-15-2, plus-34): We’ve had them ranked no. 1 for six weeks, but there’s no denying that the Hawks just haven’t looked like themselves in the new year, going 3-5-0 against a schedule devoid of any top teams.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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