NHL should look to CFL when defining Hart Trophy criteria

NHL insider Doug MacLean knows super villain Brad Marchand won’t win the Hart trophy, but thinks he should be considered, says he hasn’t had one bad shift this entire season.

As the NHL season dwindles, the chants rise up in a number of cities.

MVP! MVP!

The letters hit with undeniable oomph, the acronym itself giving some insight into the weight of the award. Most Valuable Player talk in any sport drives discussion like no other trophy. But in the case of hockey, there’s often a two-part conversation happening. In addition to arguing about who deserves the Hart Memorial Trophy, there’s often a secondary debate raging that centres on what, precisely, the trophy is meant to honour.

It’s the rare instance of major sport problem with a CFL solution.

Yes, the three-down league takes more than its share of guff, but whoever penned the language for the circuit’s highest award nailed it: The person who should receive the highest honour at the end of the year is the league’s Most Outstanding Player.

It’s a vital distinction because the world “valuable” is vulnerable to a semantics nightmare.

If you’re taking the most literal definition, a goalie should probably win the Hart about every third time they give it out. Quite simply, the nature of the position is such that a goalie stands to impact the game far more than any other participant. Is Connor Hellebuyck more valuable to the Winnipeg Jets than Nikita Kucherov is to the Tampa Bay Lighting?

I’m not sure it’s even close.

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Hellebuyck, though, will be hard-pressed to get a single high-ranking Hart vote because while he’s having himself a wonderful season, a handful of goalies can best his .925 save percentage and a half-dozen more are right on his heels.

Kucherov, meanwhile, is likely to garner votes based purely on the fact he could lead the league in scoring. That’s a huge achievement, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s more valuable to his club than any one of about eight high-end puckstoppers.

The approach we should take is the one applied at Westminster Dog Show, where judges don’t compare a poodle to a Rottweiler. Instead, they determine how each dog stacks up to the breed standard. If a goalie is having an exceptional showing relative to those turned in by masked men in the past, then he’s the most outstanding player. Nobody need rap on Dominik Hasek’s door and ask for his Harts back.

The idea, though, is to highlight truly noteworthy performances.

There’s absolutely a scenario where Kucherov could have continued his early-season scoring tear, netted 60 goals and — by the letter of the law — still not been as valuable to his club as five goalies who had very solid years. I bet it’s a rare Toronto Maple Leafs backer who’d rather lose Frederik Andersen than Auston Matthews for the entire playoffs. Or, for that matter, a Jets fan who’d rather stare down a seven-game series without Hellebuyck as opposed to potential Rocket Richard Trophy winner Patrik Laine.

But had Kucherov become just the third guy in 20 years to reach the 60-goal mark, he should take home the most prestigious hardware for doing something so rare.

Football, basketball and baseball also feature an imbalance in terms of certain positions having more to say about the outcome of a game, but it comes with a caveat in each case. In the former two sports, the players who most impact the game — quarterbacks and whoever the offence runs through on a given NBA team — also tend to put up the most gaudy, easy-to-fawn-over numbers. That makes them obvious candidates for glamorous awards. With baseball, nobody can alter the complexion of a night like a lights-out pitcher, but that person also only appears in every fifth contest, meaning he’s got to do something truly exceptional over a six-month stretch to convince people he’s the one guy the squad couldn’t live without.

Goalies, it turns out, really are a different breed. And for the record, I don’t buy for a second that they have their own trophy and should be left to battle for the Vezina while only skaters are considered for the Hart. (And if you don’t believe people think this way, explain why no puckstopper won league MVP between Jacques Plante in 1962 and Hasek in 1997.) Goalies play the most stressful position and are the most frequent objects of scorn: You’re damn right they deserve to be considered for the league’s signature award.

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While we’re on the topic of other trophies, let’s tackle the Ted Lindsay Award, given annually to, yep, the “most outstanding player” as determined by the 700-odd men in the National Hockey League Players’ Association. Here’s the thing; the distinction between the Lindsay and the Hart — which is voted on by the members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, including this one — isn’t so much about finely parsing definitions as who’s doing the honouring. Listen to any Ted Lindsay/Lester Pearson winner and it’s, understandably, about the feeling of being recognized by your peers. My guess is that most of the NHLPA membership thinks they’re voting for the MVP as determined by the people who actually know best.

Beyond that, the Hart is the trophy that’s been handed out for nearly 100 years. It’s the NHL’s biggest deal on awards night and that demands clarity in terms of the criteria for winning it.

Additional murkiness can form when team success becomes a significant factor in the mind of voters. It’s sort of the micro version of the broader and misguided “How great a player was he if he didn’t win a Cup?” notion.

When determining value, think less about how high an athlete was able to drag his team and more about how far they’d crash down the mountain without him. You can’t tell me Taylor Hall and Anze Kopitar — two players who lead their teams in scoring by 31 and 27 points, respectively — are any less valuable to their clubs if both the Devils and Kings slip out of the playoff spots they presently hold. Regardless of how the chips fall, those are fantastic seasons that should be in the running to be recognized with a trophy. If the word valuable muddies the waters, get it out of the mix.

Naturally, there will be numerous instances where the most outstanding season doubles as the most valuable, leaving the appropriate player to put on a Bond suit, kiss the person sitting next to him, and work his way through an acceptance speech. The bottom line, though, is that while there’s never been a truly outstanding season that didn’t inherently hold a ton of value, every year there are probably a dozen critically valuable performances that don’t necessary warrant a new trophy in the case because a handful of other players — quite likely goalies — turned in roughly the same work.

Does the flip from “valuable” to “outstanding” eliminate all room for interpretation? Of course not. But a little latitude is different than wondering who’s working off what definition every year.

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