Who Deserves The Hart Trophy?

After releasing the list of finalists for this year’s Hart Trophy honors, hockey fans must be wondering who will win this year’s award. While Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, and John Tavares were all named as finalists for the Hart Trophy, only one of the aforementioned players will walk away as the individual considered to be most valuable to their respective team.

Of course, a solid case can be made for each player that was nominated, but as it stands right now there is a better chance (66.6%) that this year’s victor emerges from the Atlantic Division. There is no doubt that Crosby, Tavares, and Ovechkin each helped their respective team accomplish some of their goals, and judging who provided their team the most value during an abbreviated NHL schedule won’t be a simple task.

Top Honors for the East’s Top Dog?

Pittsburgh Penguins – Sidney Crosby

Sidney Crosby Penguins
Sidney Crosby is one of three finalists for this year’s Hart Memorial Trophy. (Icon SMI)

Sid the Kid missed the last month of the season, and every hockey fan knows the pace that the superstar center was performing at before he caught a puck to the face. In 36 games played, Crosby recorded 56 points (15 Goals, 41 Assists) and was on a torrid point-scoring spree – one that would have probably seen the forward finish the ’12-’13 NHL season as the league’s leading scorer.

Many will mention the fact that Crosby is surrounded by talent in Pittsburgh and that the Penguins were doing just fine without their center for the last month of the season. Not only did the Penguins manage to finish the season without their captain, the team was able to keep the East’s top seed throughout his absence.

Despite the fact that the Penguins were able to sustain momentum without Crosby being in the lineup, one must not dismiss the fact that Crosby essentially put his team in position to be a dominant number one seed before suffering a broken jaw. Without Crosby, Pittsburgh might not have been so thoroughly entrenched in the East’s number one spot by the time that April 1st rolled around.

If Crosby had not gotten injured, it would be a safe bet that the Pittsburgh captain would skate away with this year’s honors unchallenged. Crosby certainly deserved to be nominated for the Hart Trophy, but given the fact that he missed that last portion of the season, and his team held down the fort while he was gone, the center’s Hart Trophy case might not be as strong as it was back on March 30th.

Capital Punishment in the Southeast

Washington Capitals – Alexander Ovechkin

Some believe that Alexander Ovechkin’s chances at winning the Hart Trophy might be

Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby will have to battle it out with John Tavares for this year's Hart Trophy. (Tom Turk/THW).
Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby will have to battle it out with John Tavares for this year’s Hart Trophy. (Tom Turk/THW).

hindered by the fact that the Russian forward only broke out for a tremendous second half of the season. Even though some believe that Ovechkin’s unbalanced scoring pace might prevent him from winning the Hart Trophy, the left winger’s second half production cannot be discounted.

After all, the Washington Capitals have gone through three coaches in two seasons. While Bruce Boudreau was fired during the 2011-2012 NHL season and the Capitals bought into Dale Hunter’s system right in time for last season’s playoff push, the team was thrown another curve-ball when Hunter said that he would not return to coach Washington. Instead of having a coach whose system of play was familiar, the Washington Capitals had to adapt to Adam Oates’ coaching style this season – something that I believe was evidenced by the team’s tale of two seasons in the first and second half.

Adapting to a new coach’s style of play should certainly not be an excuse for a forward’s lack of production, but there was undoubtedly a learning curve involved for Ovechkin and the rest of the team when Oates took over. Much like the New York Islanders, the Washington Capitals stepped their game up during the latter half of the season – with Alexander Ovechkin leading the way by scoring 23 goals in Washington’s last 23 games played.

Since many were starting to doubt Ovechkin’s abilities during the first half of the season, it is all the more fitting that the forward’s efforts were rewarded in the form of a finalist nomination. Without Ovechkin playing at such a high level during the second half of the season, there might have been a different victor in the Southeast Division. Ovechkin’s slow start should absolutely be factored in when judging his worthiness for such an honor, but one must also ask themselves if Washington would make the Stanley Cup Playoffs without the league’s leading goal-scorer having such a dominant second half of the season.

Long Island’s Leading Candidate

New York Islanders – John Tavares

Josh Bailey John Tavares Islanders
John Tavares was a huge part of New York’s return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

There is no doubt in my mind that John Tavares deserved to be nominated as a Hart Trophy finalist this year. Tavares’ importance to the Islanders cannot be understated as the center’s 47 points (28 Goals, 19 Assists) in 48 games played propelled New York to its first postseason berth since the 2006-2007 NHL season.

While Tavares put the Islanders on his back at certain points of the season, he also exerted more influence off of the ice. Mark Streit is currently the captain on Long Island, but Tavares led by example throughout the season as his determined play helped the Islanders get to the playoffs for the first time in a long time.

Many might point out the fact that Tavares did not have a strong finish to the season when New York was making its playoff push, but it is not as though the center completely disappeared when the Islanders needed him most. Islanders fans certainly know what John Tavares has meant to their hockey team, but others could be wondering if his efforts will be enough to win the hearts and minds of the voters.

Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby both finished with the same spectacular point totals (56 Points – Tied for third in the NHL). In contrast, John Tavares’ 47 points placed him 17th overall in terms of scoring – something that might work against the center when being judged alongside two established offensive juggernauts. Despite the fact that Tavares’ point totals might not reflect his overall value to his team, his nomination as a Hart Trophy finalist speaks for itself as the Islanders would likely have been in the Eastern Conference cellar without their superstar center buoying the team.

Snub Jobs?

Since all three Hart Trophy finalists were Eastern Conference players, there were certainly some Western Conference players that could have easily made the final cut. Players such as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Sergei Bobrovsky all helped their teams out immensely, and at least one of them should have drawn consideration for the Hart Memorial Trophy.

Selecting either Kane or Toews as a finalist for the Hart Trophy honors would only have been right considering the fact that the two aforementioned players were the driving forces of the Chicago Blackhawks’ success this season. Matters could have been complicated by the fact that both players each had tremendous peripheral statistics, and it is certainly surprising to see that neither the efforts of Kane nor Toews went recognized by the voters this year.

On the other hand, had Sergei Bobrovsky and the Columbus Blue Jackets made it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there would undoubtedly be a case to be made for the Russian netminder. Given the fact that nobody gave the Blue Jackets a chance this year, Bobrovsky’s play in net (.932 Save Percentage, 2.00 GAA) and his 21-11-6 record should speak volumes about how the goalie aided his team. Bobrovsky received his due respect by being named one of the finalists for this year’s Vezina Trophy honors, but if Columbus had managed to sneak into the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff race, then there might have been a goaltender in the running for this year’s Hart Trophy.

Who Is Most Deserving?

Bias tends to cloud judgment sometimes, but I must say that I wholeheartedly believe that John Tavares is the most deserving candidate for the Hart Memorial Trophy. All fandom aside, the Islanders would not be remotely close to the playoffs without Tavares’ presence on and off of the ice.

Point totals might tell one side of the story as Tavares slightly missed being a point-per-game player this season. However, the center’s ability to lead by example and make his voice heard in the New York locker room is an invaluable asset to the Islanders. Mark Streit might have the captaincy for now, but there is not question that Tavares is being groomed for that title – something that the young forward has taken very seriously over the last few years.

John Tavares might not be completely refined as an NHL player just yet, especially since the center is always looking to improve any and every aspect of his game, but he has meant everything to his team and its fans. There is a reason why Islanders fans erupted into chants of “M-V-P” after Tavares scored the opening goal in Saturday night’s contest (and after the Isles’ season was ended in OT), and it is likely that the rest of the league has taken notice of the center’s value to New York.

If you don’t believe me just take a look at this clip after Tavares’ game-deciding goal in game four (the MVP chants can barely be heard but they start close to the one-minute mark):

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVg2PQgW_G8]

Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin were both instrumental in their team’s success this season, but Tavares’ strong play throughout the 48 game schedule made the playoffs a possibility for a team that fans and critics alike had written off before the start of the ’12-’13 NHL season. Whether or not Tavares walks away with this year’s Hart Memorial Trophy honors remains to be seen, but one can’t say that the center hasn’t played his way into consideration for such a prestigious award.