2021 Hart Award Finalists: Who Should Take Home the Trophy?

The final and most prestigious player award on the docket is the Hart Trophy. Handed out annually to the player dubbed most valuable to his team, the Hart Trophy is one full of history and excellence. This year we get to see two familiar faces and one new one added to the mix. All three of them are superstar centers for their respective teams, and interestingly enough, they were all number one overall picks. Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and Auston Matthews are this year’s finalists. Which one of them deserves the award?

Connor McDavid

What more is there to say about McDavid that hasn’t already been said? The guy is absolutely ridiculous. His otherworldly speed and his absurd hands make for some outrageous goals. He can find players on the ice that most other players can’t, and he continues to prove why he may end up becoming one of the greatest players of all time. The Edmonton Oilers are doing a disservice to him by not building a team that can contend for a Stanley Cup.

Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

McDavid improved a lot on his defensive game, and it showed through the eye test and analytics. McDavid’s numbers shot up in goals above replacement (GAR) and expected goals above replacement (xGAR) metrics, per Evolving-Hockey. Traditionally, his offense was enough to keep him in the upper echelon, but with his defense being much better, they were far and away the best in the NHL. He had a 27.4 GAR, with the next closest being Jared McCann at 17.9. As for xGAR, he was second with 26.2, so he and the player in first that we will talk about later were on another planet. He also had a ridiculous expected goals for percentage (xGF%) at 57.3%. Oh, and did I mention that he hit 105 points in 56 games? He had one of the best scoring seasons in decades, and it was an absolute joy to watch.

There wasn’t much that McDavid didn’t do with his Oilers teammates. He played great defense, elite offense and did all he could do in terms of scoring points. He deserved better.

Nathan MacKinnon

MacKinnon started the season off relatively slow. However, he whipped himself into shape before it was too late and went on an absolute tear. One of MacKinnon’s many notable plays was driving past Alex Pietrangelo of the Vegas Golden Knights and ripping a shot past Marc-Andre Fleury in the Lake Tahoe games. His speed is mesmerizing, and the power he generates with his stride is something not many other players can replicate.

Nathan MacKinnon Colorado Avalanche
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

MacKinnon put up 65 points in 48 games, 20 of which were goals. The Colorado Avalanche are absolutely ridiculous analytically, and he adds to the pile. Six of the top seven players in the NHL in xGF% with a minimum of 600 minutes are Avalanche players, and the third is MacKinnon with an incredible 63.31 percent, the highest among the finalists. He had a 12.6 GAR and a 9.6 xGAR. Underwhelming for a player of his caliber, but they aren’t anything to scoff at either. MacKinnon’s numbers definitely could have been better, but sometimes players have uncharacteristic down years. The fact that he was still able to get a Hart nomination with the slow goal-scoring start is a testament to how well he performed after the drought.

I would have loved to see more out of MacKinnon in the aggregate, but hockey is a game of ups and downs. His start to the year was not optimal, just as any seven-game goalless streak isn’t, but he recovered perfectly well. He was still scoring points at the time, but not as many as he could have been. He and Mikko Rantanen were easily Colorado’s two best forwards, and their connection was mutually beneficial. Both of their numbers improved, and it helped MacKinnon come back from his “slump.” It’s hard to come back from slumps analytically, but he did everything to make sure that happened, and it worked.

Auston Matthews

Matthews is gradually becoming known around the league as the top goal-scoring talent. If not for the shortened season, he would have easily eclipsed 50 goals, and had he not gone on a brief scoring drought, he might have hit 50 in 56 games. He has a lethal wrister. And although most people despise the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s good to see him getting the credit he deserves, including this Hart Trophy nomination. He showcased what he can do and the kind of talent that he is, and in doing so, put the league on notice.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Matthews scored 66 points in 52 games this season, which is impressive on its own. However, the fact that 41 of those 66 points were goals makes it all the more impressive. As for his analytics, he led the league in xGAR and placed sixth in GAR, which is second among the three finalists. His xGF% was slightly below Avalanche defenseman and Norris trophy finalist Cale Makar at 11th with 60.72 percent. The Leafs controlled a ton of the play with him on the ice, and his contributions to their offense cannot go understated.

Matthews truly had a breakout year. Although some may discredit him because of the perception that the North Division is the weakest, he deserves all of his recognition. He’s only 23 years old and is scoring at levels that we, as hockey fans, rarely get to see. The debate between Alexander Ovechkin and him right now is extremely intriguing and one that a lot of fans can get pretty passionate about. Hate the market all you want, but Matthews is the real deal.

As much as all of these players have their cases to win the award, it would be a farce not to choose McDavid. He put up historic scoring numbers, and the Oilers looked utterly lost without him on the ice. As much as I love the two studs, Matthews and MacKinnon, McDavid is heads and shoulders above the rest of the pack, and he proved that with his performance this season. It will be a mistake for the ages if McDavid doesn’t end up winning the award.

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