With the NHL season winding down and the Stanley Cup Playoffs in sight, it’s time to turn our attention to some of the NHL Awards that are handed out for the regular season. Recently, some debate has surrounded the Hart Memorial Trophy and how it should be awarded. The award is given to the player that’s judged to be the most valuable to his team. Seems simple enough, but also vague enough to create confusion on who is eligible to win the award.
Historically, the award has gone to a player that’s heading to the playoffs, with there only being a few times that it hasn’t. This season, Connor McDavid seems to be the obvious frontrunner with his league-leading 102 points, but is he actually the best choice and should he even be in contention for the award of most valuable player to his team when the Edmonton Oilers have missed the playoffs?
Winning the Hart Trophy and Missing the Playoffs
Only a few times in NHL history has a player won the Hart Trophy and not made the playoffs in the same season. The last and most notable time this happened was back in the 1987-88 NHL season when Mario Lemieux won while the Pittsburgh Penguins missed the playoffs.
The 1987-88 Pittsburgh Penguins Comparison
Now, there are some comparables to McDavid’s season to Lemieux’s 1987-88 season. If McDavid wins the Art Ross Trophy, which looks certain, then they will have both won the scoring title while their team missed the playoffs. But there are some differences too.
Pittsburgh was a playoff team, no doubt about it, but Pittsburgh had two factors going against them. Firstly, the top four teams in each of the four divisions made the playoffs. The problem was that each division had five teams except for Pittsburgh’s Patrick Division, which had six teams.
The second problem was that the Patrick Division was full of great teams all within a few points of each other. Pittsburgh finished last in their division with 81 points, while the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils finished ahead of them with 82 points. New Jersey grabbed the last playoff spot in the division, which meant that Pittsburgh missed the playoffs by one point.
To really drive home the point that Pittsburgh was a playoff team, look no further than the point difference in each division. The Patrick Division had only a seven-point difference between the division-leading 88-point New York Islanders and the 81-point Penguins. Meanwhile, in the Norris Division, there was a point difference of 42 points between the division-leading 93-point Detroit Red Wings and the 51-point Minnesota North Stars.
Ironically, the Toronto Maple Leafs took the last playoff spot in the Norris Division with just 52 points.
Edmonton missed the playoffs this season but wasn’t nearly as close as Pittsburgh was all those years ago. McDavid looks like he will win the Art Ross Trophy with 102 points in 77 games, but there are a couple of players close behind. Lemieux, meanwhile, had 168 points in 77 games with Wayne Gretzky trailing behind with 149 points.
Although the circumstances look the same, it’s totally different. Lemieux deserved to win the Hart Trophy that season because of how totally dominant he was in the points race and how absurdly close Pittsburgh was to making the playoffs.
How Should the Hart Trophy Winner Be Decided?
McDavid looks to finish the season as the top point scorer in the NHL and is arguably the best player in the world. But that’s not what the Hart Trophy is about. McDavid will get his recognition as the best player with the Art Ross Trophy, but the Hart Trophy is for the player that made the biggest difference in his team completing its goal.
Now, the goal of every team during the regular season is to make the playoffs. So why should a trophy for the most valuable player go to someone who didn’t make the playoffs?
McDavid is clearly the most valuable player to Edmonton but has he been more valuable than Taylor Hall has been to New Jersey or Nathan MacKinnon to the Colorado Avalanche? No.
The way of measuring each player’s value to his team and others is if that team could still make the playoffs without that player. Neither New Jersey or Colorado would even be in the playoff picture without Hall and MacKinnon as they are dragging both their teams into the postseason.
This is not the best player or most points award; it’s about being the most valuable to one’s team in making the playoffs. That’s why we have to go back 30 years just to find a player that’s an exception to the rule.
McDavid is one of the best in the NHL, but he shouldn’t win the Hart Trophy. The goal of every team is to win the Stanley Cup and the first step is making the playoffs. Unfortunately, even McDavid’s talent wasn’t enough to pull the Oilers into the postseason, so it makes no sense labeling him the most valuable player in the NHL.
Toronto Maple Leafs contributor for The Hockey Writers.
I’ve been a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs since I was a kid and have always had an interest in writing. At The Hockey Writers, I get to enjoy both of my passions as well as writing about small convoluted details in player contracts and stats.