Breaking down the 2018 Hart Trophy Finalists

Tonight is the NHL Awards ceremony in Las Vegas and, while I’m sure people are itching for some Lady Byng talk, the Hart Trophy for the league’s MVP usually garners the most interest. This year you will be shocked to not see a Crosby, Malkin or McDavid (actually I’m really surprised to not see a McDavid) on the finalist list for the award. All three of the 2018 candidates have never been a finalist for the award before and all three have an equally legitimate claim to win the thing. In what should be the most open race for the MVP in years, here’s the case for Taylor Hall, Anze Kopitar and Nathan MacKinnon to each win the Hart.

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The Case for Taylor Hall

Kopitar had Drew Doughty to lean on. MacKinnon had Rantanen and Landeskog riding shot gun and putting up numbers. Hall had… a decent season from rookie Nico Hischier? 21:07 minutes per game from Andy Greene? A .907 save percentage in 40 games from Cory Schneider? Taylor Hall was truly the straw that stirred the drink for an over-performing New Jersey Devils team this season. I’d argue that if you were to take the best player away from each playoff team, the Devils would be hurt the most since the drop off from Hall to the next man up is staggering. Of the three Hart trophy candidates, Hall has scored the highest percentage of his team’s goals:

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The fact that Hall put up these crazy numbers despite being the focal point of the opposing team’s game-planning and shutdown pairings for 76 regular season games is astounding. Given his weak supporting cast, I would say that there is nobody better in the NHL at creating their own offense (except probably McDavid). I’m a huge fan of Hall and just hate the Oilers organization so it would give me a weird level of satisfaction to watch Hall lift the Hart right in Chiarelli’s face.

The Case for Anze Kopitar

I’m personally a bit of a Kopitar stan. A lot of people think that since Kopitar is the likely Selke winner that it means he shouldn’t win the Hart. The way I see it, Kopitar and Hall’s overall point production is so close that the tie should go to the two-way center over the scoring winger. And while MacKinnon had the most dominant scoring year of the three, MacKinnon was force-fed power play time and was eighth among forwards in PP TOI per game. All the while the Kings used Kopitar 178:05 total TOI on the penalty kill which was 13th among NHL forwards.

While I alluded to the fact that Taylor Hall had the weakest team around him above, Hall played 42.6% of his even strength minutes with 2017 first overall pick Nico Hirschier (and Bratt Jesper). MacKinnon played 82.1% of his even strength minutes with Mikko Rantanen who had 84 points and Landeskog with 62. Kopitar played 63.6% of his even strength minutes with Dustin Brown and Alex Iafallo. Hardly a dynamic supporting cast, yet Kopitar led all three Hart candidates with 28 even strength goals.

In my mind Kopitar makes sense to win the Hart because there isn’t enough of a scoring disparity between the three to automatically hand the award to MacKinnon. I think that the value the Kopitar brings to all areas of the ice, while being a top-notch penalty killer, while still filling the net should give him the edge between the two centermen. It looks like it’s a race between Hall and MacKinnon for the Hart while Kopitar seems to have the Selke locked up. For a player to win both the Hart and the Selke is, for whatever reason, extremely rare:

“The only Selke-Hart winner in the past 40 years was Sergei Fedorov in 1993-94, when he ranked second in points (120), third in goals (56) and first among forwards with a plus-48 rating. Since then, the closest anyone has come to winning both awards was Pavel Datsyuk (32 goals and 97 points), who finished third in Hart Trophy voting in 2008-09, and Jonathan Toews (23 goals and 48 points in 47 games), who was fourth in the lockout-shortened 2013 season.”

— Michael Traikos in the National Post, “It’s rare, but the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron has a chance to do the Hart-Selke double this season” February 25, 2018

The Case for Nathan MacKinnon

MacKinnon was the driving force responsible for turning around a historically bad Colorado team and leading them to a surprising playoff berth. MacKinnon is only fifth in the NHL in total points, but would be higher had he not missed 8 regular season games. MacKinnon was second in the NHL to McDavid in points-per-game with 1.31 to McDavid’s 1.32. Among the three Hart Trophy candidates, MacKinnon leads with an absurd 4.0 points per 60 minutes. Also, not for nothing, but Cole Harbour’s candidate for the MVP in 2018 also led the NHL with 12 game-winning goals. His total production was off the charts and, unlike TaylorHall, he plays the most demanding forward position on the ice.

From what I read and from the general buzz around the award it looks like MacKinnon is the favourite to win. Even though I’m vying hard for Kopitar to win the award, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of New Jersey or LA that would actually be upset with this selection.

It’ll be interesting to see how the voting shakes out. It’s crazy to me that nobody in the top 4 in points–McDaavid, Giroux, Kucherov, Malkin–made the final cut for the award. I guess what made Hall, Kopitar and MacKinnon such popular options was the fact that all three were on playoff teams (sorry McDavid) and all three stood out and thrived despite a sub-par supporting cast (which seems weird that some players are overlooked because their team is too good, but then we get into dangerous territory with the never-ending debate of “what it means to be the most valuable).

When it comes down to it, Hall could be selected because of how irreplaceable he is to an otherwise mediocre Devils team, Kopitar could be selected because of his elite season on both end of the ice, and MacKinnon would be selected for racking up the most points of the three and finally cementing himself as an elite scorer. I’d put my money on MacKinnon winning, but would be pumped if Kopitar or Hall won.

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