Based on the “eye test”, posing this question seems utterly asinine and most people have probably answered “NO!” already. Los Angeles Kings’ forward Jeff Carter doesn’t have the stats or all-around game that Sidney Crosby has. He’s not the perennial scorer that Steven Stamkos is. He isn’t even leading his own team in points (Anze Kopitar has 22). Relax though, the title says “candidate” instead of “winner” for a reason. Take a close look at how the season has played out for the Kings thus far and the idea seems much less far-fetched than one would think.
THE HART MEMORIAL TROPHY
Before even looking at Carter or the Kings though, it’s time for the annual “What is the Hart Trophy even awarded for” debate.
Should the trophy go to:
a) The best all-around player
b) The player with the best stat line
c) The player carrying his team the most
d) all of the above
e) none of the above
f) Other (Write in: _____)
I hate these multiple choice questions just as much as you do, but that is the path most hockey fans take year after year in debating the Hart Trophy. According to the NHL, “The Hart Memorial Trophy is an annual award given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team.” Furthermore, the winner is selected by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association at the end of the regular season.
That seems like an easy definition – the answer is “C” then, right? No, it’s not that simple; it never is. In most NHL circles, winning the Hart for being the most valuable player on a team comes with a caveat – that team must make the playoffs. Whether it’s right or wrong, many writers find it difficult to give a player his due if he isn’t strong enough to at least carry his team to the postseason. Sorry Stamkos, your Hart chances are dropping rapidly with every loss for the second year in a row.
Other factors play in as well: 1) goalies have their own award in the Vezina (back away, Craig Anderson), 2) some players have another superstar to help them out, which unfortunately can lessen their own value (sorry again Stamkos, and Martin St. Louis), 3) other players are too one dimensional no matter how valuable they are (Carter perhaps?).
Let’s put all of these biases aside and stick to the words as they are actually written, “player judged to be the most valuable to his team.”
THE CASE FOR JEFF CARTER
At the end of the first quarter of the season just three short weeks ago, the Kings were 5-5-2 and sitting in last place in the Pacific Division, 12th in the Western Conference. Their offense was dismal (2.25 goals per game), their defense was worse (allowing 2.67 goals per game), and their goaltending was abysmal (neither Jonathan Quick nor Jonathan Bernier had a save percentage above .900).
Still, the Kings had managed 5 wins in part thanks to Jeff Carter and his team-leading 6 goals through the first 12 games. It wasn’t enough to make the Kings look like a repeat contender for the Stanley Cup Championship though.
Fast forward through the second set of 12 games and the Kings have hit the halfway point of the season at 14-8-2, good for 2nd in the division and 4th in the conference. Their 9-3 record in the second quarter of the season is due to improvements in every facet of the game. The offense has jumped significantly to 2.92 goals per game, the defense has improved a bit to 2.46 goals against per game and both goalies have improved their numbers significantly (though Quick doesn’t have a .900 save percentage quite yet).
Through the team’s complete 180 degree turnaround, one player has continued to hold the spotlight that he earned when things looked bad. Jeff Carter has scored 11 goals in the past 12 games to give him a total of 17 on the season, good for 2nd in the NHL behind Stamkos. Six of those 17 goals have been game-winners too, including 4 in the Kings’ last 9 wins.
Where exactly would the Kings be without Carter’s finishing ability right now? He has scored 24% of LA’s goals (17/71). In comparison, Stamkos has scored 22% (19/85) of Tampa Bay’s, Chris Kunitz and James Neal each have 18% (17/97) of Pittsburgh’s, and John Tavares has 21% (16/77) of the New York Islanders’ goals.
Odds are; the Kings would be exactly where they were before trading for Carter a year ago: averaging a little over 2 goals a game and struggling to find a way into the playoffs. If that kind of boost isn’t seen as most valuable to the Kings and worthy of Hart consideration, then I’m not sure what is under the verbatim definition.
THE CASE AGAINST CARTER
At the same time, it isn’t hard to find many flaws in Jeff Carter’s bid for the Hart Trophy. The first one that will be pointed out is his lack of assists (2) which leaves his point total at only 19, well below many of the early Hart candidates. The next question would be if he’s even worthy of being the Kings’ MVP or if it should be Anze Kopitar, or even Slava Voynov right now. It’s certainly a point that could be debated for hours among Kings fans, let alone hockey writers looking for an NHL MVP.
Will Jeff Carter win the Hart Memorial Trophy? No, there’s basically no chance on Earth, or in this universe, barring an incredible performance that I can’t even imagine. However, should he be a candidate and receive a few votes here and there? I would argue fervently yes. If you take his production out of the lineup, who else is scoring for Los Angeles? They gave you that answer last year before acquiring Carter; it’s no one.
At least if his bid for the Hart Memorial Trophy fails, Carter can take pride in vying for the Cy Young Award.