2021 NHL Award Watch: Evaluating the Hart Race

The season is just a little over a week away from coming to an end, making it a perfect time to shift our focus to evaluating the NHL awards. This is the first part of a five-part series examining the award races for the major awards (Hart, Selke, Calder, Vezina & Norris) as the season comes to a close. The first volume in the series is evaluating the Hart Trophy race. Along with the winner and two finalists, there will also be an honorable mention section.

It is important to note that this series will emphasize analytics and take into account other critical elements. In this shortened season, there are some clear frontrunners while some races are very close. Unless something dramatically changes in these final games, this is my final ballot for each award.

The Hart Race

The award is given to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team

Connor McDavidEDM Winner
Auston MatthewsTOR Finalist
Nathan MacKinnonCOL Finalist

Connor McDavid deserves to win the Hart Trophy as he has cemented himself as the clear frontrunner this season which is nothing new. He continues to amaze everyone with what he has been able to accomplish this season. Despite the shortened season, he has the opportunity to do the unthinkable by reaching the feat of 100 points. It would be a mistake for anyone to win other than McDavid.

McDavid has 31 goals and 62 assists for 93 points in a mere 51 games. His 3.46 points per hour at 5-on-5 is the highest mark in the league, which comes to no surprise. His offensive game continues to evolve as he showcases his extraordinary talent. A huge reason behind his insane goal-scoring rate – 1.25 goals per hour at 5-on-5 – which is the 2nd highest of his career, is his finishing ability which is the best of his career according to Hockey-Viz.

Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

This all goes without mentioning his defensive game, which has improved considerably. A defensive liability his entire career before this season, McDavid has made significant strides defensively, which has resulted in his defensive game being above-average league-wide. He’s just above-average by Evolving-Hockey’s RAPM expected goals against per hour. In terms of overall value, he leads the league with 4.2 wins above replacement – a comprehensive metric that considers all factors of the game into a single number – which is over a win higher than the second-place player.

While McDavid should win the Hart Trophy, Auston Matthews’ incredible season should not be overlooked. He has displayed that this season that he is arguably the third-best center in the league. The 23-year-old center has notched a league-leading 39 goals and has accompanied that with 24 assists giving him 63 points in just 48 games.

Matthews holds a strong 53.66 Corsi for percentage and 59.87 expected goals for percentage. Not only is he a prolific finisher, but he is among the league’s best at generating offense and scoring chances. His 2.92 expected goals per hour at 5-on-5 is 8th in the league. His defensive game has been considerably better than McDavid with 1.96 expected goals against per hour, which is significantly stronger than McDavid’s 2.3.

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

Matthews’ 2.7 wins above replacement rank fourth among forwards and his 4.8 expected wins above replacement rank first with a considerable lead over McDavid in this regard. There is no doubt that he has at the very least made the Hart race interesting despite McDavid being the clear frontrunner.

The third spot is definitely the biggest debate in the Hart race as several candidates are qualified to finish as finalists. It is hard to argue against Nathan MacKinnon as a runner-up. He continues to showcase his generational talent with his unbelievable offensive game. One interesting element in this year’s Hart race is that the three finalists have very similar underlying numbers. All three are at the top of the league offensively but have significantly improved defensively.

MacKinnon has 20 goals, 45 assists, and 65 points in just 47 games. His 4.03 goals per hour at 5-on-5 rank 6th. In terms of generating offense and driving play, he is second with 3.02 expected goals per hour which are higher than the likes of McDavid and Matthews. His offensive game is next to none and his tantalizing shot is a huge reason he has so much success offensively.

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

On the defensive side of things, he’s been better defensively than the likes of Barkov and Stone, which is an impressive feat. His 1.73 expected goals against per hour rank 20th. His 2.6 wins above replacement rank 6th in the NHL. There is no doubt that he deserves to be a finalist and has even been under the radar this season.

Honorable Mentions

Andrei VasilevskiyTBL
Mikko RantanenCOL
Mark StoneVGK

Andrei Vasilevskiy was a favorite to at least be a finalist for the Hart Trophy. He’s had an incredible season, but his numbers have dropped, thus taking him out of the race in my books due to MacKinnon’s – once again – unbelievable season. Marc-Andre Fleury dethroned Vasilevskiy in goals saved above expected, which is a superior goaltending metric because it considers the quality of shots a goaltender faces. He has saved 16.23 goals above expected, which is good for second in the league, which is impressive given his history of criticism from the analytics community.

Mikko Rantanen is somewhat hidden behind MacKinnon due to the latter’s generational talent. Rantanen deserves from Hart hype as he’s been an incredible two-way force. Not only has he been an offensive threat, but he’s been better a legitimate Selke-caliber defensive player. He boasts a 62.76 percent expected goal share to go with 59 points in 46 games.

Mark Stone is once again an impactful two-way force that is reliable defensively while being a significant offensive threat. He didn’t make the cut to be a Hart finalist because his defensive game hasn’t been as strong this season. He has been carried by his reputation – in terms of defensive impact – this season in this regard. He has been a powerhouse offensively, though with well over a point-per-game rate.

Final Thoughts

In my opinion, McDavid is the winner, with Matthews and MacKinnon as the two runner-ups. The honorable mentions who just missed the cut were Vasilevskiy, Rantanen, and Stone. Despite the season being shortened to 56 games, the race has been full of surprises and has been entertaining.

It will be very interesting to how this unfolds as there are plenty of candidates who could receive Hart buzz depending on how the voters value each element of the game.

(All Data As Of May 5th; Via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick & Hockey-Reference)

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