Monday, September 21, 2020

Defensemen and goalies win the Conn Smythe but not the Hart. Why?

The NHL will announce the winner of the Hart Trophy tonight. We know it will be a forward, because the finalists are Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, and Artemi Panarin. It’s the third year in a row and tenth time in the last 13 seasons that all three finalists are forwards. Hold that thought.

We’ve also got a Stanley Cup final game tonight, and each team has a defenseman at the top of the Conn Smythe watchlists, with Miro Heiskanen and Victor Hedman emerging as perhaps the two leading candidates. There are forwards from both teams in the mix, and with a dominant performance in the final, either goalie could move to the front of the line. Hold that thought too.

Last week I tried to figure out if a team made up entirely of players who’d won the Hart Trophy as league MVP could beat a team made up of players that hadn’t. It ends up being closer than it probably should be, for a simple reason: There’s a strong positional bias in Hart voting, so while they had a ton of legendary centers to choose from, things got dicey on wing and downright barren on the blueline and in goal.

It’s actually kind of astounding when you dig into it. Only three goalies have won the Hart since the days of Jacques Plante, and only one defenseman has won it since Bobby Orr. That’s crazy, right? It spurred some discussion in the comment section about why exactly we see this. In a league where we’re told that you build a winning team from the net out, where nobody can win without a hot goalie and a stud on the blueline, why do Hart voters only seem to want to recognize forwards?

A consensus quickly formed, and the consensus was that the voters are bad.

That’s… well, it’s maybe not a terrible place to start. As a member of the PHWA, I’m one of those voters, and I think we can all agree that my votes are always good. (Full disclosure, my five-player Hart ballot had four forwards this year.) But with so many of us voting in any given year, individual ballots don’t matter all that much, and a case of groupthink can sway the vote in the wrong direction. Maybe that’s it. The PHWA is just bad at voting for MVPs.

But there’s a possible flaw in that theory, and it’s one I find interesting. The PHWA doesn’t just vote for one MVP award. In addition to the Hart Trophy for regular season excellence, the writers also vote on the Conn Smythe, for playoff MVP. And somewhat weirdly, the Conn Smythe doesn’t really show the same positional bias.

The Hart was introduced in 1924; the Conn Smythe was first awarded in 1965. Here’s how the winners have broken down by position over the years:

Hart Trophy (regular season MVP)


Conn Smythe Trophy (postseason MVP)


Wingers are still having a rough time, but maybe that’s to be expected – up front, center is just a more important position, so we should probably expect to see it represented more in the awards. (And for what it’s worth, wingers have won three of the last seven Conn Smythes.)

But the big takeaway is that goalies and defensemen are getting a fair shake from Conn Smythe voters. Your mileage may vary, but to my eyes that second chart looks a lot more like what I’d expect to see if we’re measuring which players on a hockey team are actually the most valuable.

So what’s going on? Why do voters from the same organization seem to treat two MVP awards so differently?

I asked around, checking in with a few writers who’ve voted for both awards. (I’ve only ever voted for the Hart.) Based on that, and just thinking through the possibilities, I have five theories about what we could be seeing here.

Theory #1: The Conn Smythe voters are different

I said that the PHWA votes on both awards, and that’s true. But it also might be misleading, because it’s not the same group of voters. For the Hart, ballots go out to nearly 200 members from every market in the league. But for the Conn Smythe, the voting list is much smaller, maybe two dozen or so in a typical year, with a mix of national writers and locals who cover the finalists.

That could matter, in a couple of ways. First, the smaller group is made up a lot of recognizable names. You have to have been around a while to get an invite, so the voters should know their stuff. Maybe they’re just smarter, or at least better informed, than the larger Hart voting bloc that occasionally includes writers who cover multiple sports and may not be following the race as closely. Better voters, better results. It’s a possibility.

But having fewer voters might be important in another way, because these two dozen or so writers are presumably all talking to each other. With the Hart and its 200 voters, I can complain all I want about positional bias, but I’m probably not going to move the needle much, if at all. But with the Conn Smythe, one writer who makes a strong case for a goalie or defenseman over intermission popcorn or postgame beers might be able to sway over two or three votes. And with so few in play, that could be enough.

Theory #2: Seeing things in person makes a big difference

The knock against PHWA voters is that when it comes to the Hart Trophy, we just lazily go to the stats page and click “sort by points” and call it a day. As someone who spends hours agonizing over my ballot every year, I can assure that this is not true. It’s never been true. You should ignore anyone who suggests it might be true.

But also, it’s kind of true?

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free trial.)

No comments:

Post a Comment