Thursday, March 22, 2018

What does "Most Valuable Player" mean, anyway?

The definition of "Most Valuable Player" in sports might seem made up and not matter, depending on who you talk to, but considering this award in its many forms is the highest individual honor that can be bestowed upon a player short of going to the Hall of Fame, the definition of this term certainly is paramount. "Most valuable" seems a simple enough two word phrase to parse out. But in those three words, almost anyone can find what they want in them to twist the definition of the phrase to suit an argument about who is either the best player or, by definition, most valuable.

As the debate for the NHL's Hart Trophy this season goes on, and cleaves a divide in the hockey world not seen since the analytics debate, the definiton of the Hart Trophy, the NHL's "most valuable player", wages on with no end in sight. Because the race is so wide open this season, and there are so many candidates based on whatever definition of the "player judged to be most valuable to his team" is to any individual, the debate of what that phrase means has almost superceded the debate over who should actually win the award. Everyone has an opinion, and if you've read the tagline of this blog, that means I actually do too (what a shocker).

Most of this civil war centers around Connor McDavid, the Oilers superstar who has been his usual fantastic self this season, with 90 points in 73 games while his Oilers sputter and stumble to another inevitable draft lottery win. He's behind Kucherov, MacKinnon and Malkin in the Art Ross race, and it's safe to say without McDavid's points, or the way he dominates puck possession with his line on the ice, the Oilers may well be challenging for the moniker of "worst team since the 04-05 lockout", which MacKinnon's Avs had last season locked up. Considering the Oilers historically bad special teams (though McDavid plays a major role in that), McDavid's season looks all that more impressive, particularly when you watch him continue to dominate when he's on the ice without looking at all incredulous or burnt out by playing on a glorified AHL team for the second time in three NHL seasons.

No player has won the Hart when missing the playoffs since 1987-88 when Mario Lemieux lapped the league in winning the scoring race but his Pens missed the postseason by a point. McDavid is going to get nowhere close to that, but with a literal definition of the "most valuable" phrase, McDavid must be considered, right? Certainly. But with so many other potential contenders in this wide open field, with many of them potentially having that Lemieux type season, it seems that McDavid's candidacy has thrown chaos into what normally is a sane debate.

Nathan MacKinnon and Taylor Hall essentially have the same argument for their Hart candidacy: take an incredibly awful team, dominate when on the ice, lead the team in scoring and take moribund teams to playoff contention. MacKinnon's numbers are gaudier with his 91 points as of this writing, and his incredible form recently to take the Avs to almost playoff locks. But Hall is playing on a team with demonstrably less talent, and he's had to do more of the heavy lifting. Both Colorado and New Jersey are not very good puck possession teams at even strength, but with those superstars on the ice, they are at least better. Knowing who votes on the Hart, the PWHA, the player whose team makes the postseason probably ends up taking the lead in the horse race, though what happens if both, or neither, make the playoffs, which is still possible on March 22nd?

Then you have the superstars on loaded teams, like Kucherov and Malkin, who have been absolutely dynamite, but have the benefit of playing on really good teams already, which normally wouldn't matter, however in this weird Hart race, it might matter more than ever this year. Malkin has been uber good, but the Pens seemingly don't miss much when he's off the ice because of that Crosby fellow, and their struggles might be down more to their d-zone and goaltending than anything Malkin et al can't outscore. Tampa is much the same way, so Kucherov's hot start has faded from mind a little.

There are players like Patrice Bergeron who were crazy dominant but injuries derailed part of their season, likely taking them out of the race (which is silly to me because Bergeron would easily be in the conversation without the injury, though his candidacy is much like Malkin and Kucherov's). There are players like Anze Kopitar, who are clearly better than the rest of his team, but the disparity isn't quite the same as it is with MacKinnon and Hall, which also contributes to the idea that he may win the Selke as a "consolation prize". That could hold too for Aleksander Barkov, who is a huge reason why the Panthers have the second best record in hockey since the All-Star break, but he falls into a muddled mesh of the Kopitar and MacKinnon/Hall situations where his team isn't great, but not nearly as bad without him as Hall/MacKinnon, and with Kopitar's ability to easily walk away with the Selke.

Before we forget, and the goaltender's union comes after me while we collectively spill bottles and bottles of internet ink, aren't goalies technically the most valuable players to their team every year? The adage, "show me a good goalie and I'll show you a good coach" certainly applies here, but has there been any goalie in this season that fits this description and the idea behind it enough to win the Hart, a la Jose Theodore in 2002? Probably not this year, though the Predators are championing Pekka Rinne's candidacy as they should, and Andrei Vasilevsky's Vezina waltz has found a few hiccups as of late. John Gibson in Anaheim probably deserves a nod for keeping his Ducks team that had more injuries than almost anyone together with his personal spit, gum and scotch tape performances that may well get them into the playoffs, but that's a hard argument to win even at this stage where we know more about how good goalies are and their importance to their teams seems heightened. Connor Hellebuyck deserves at least a nod here, because he's helped backstop a Jets team that obviously needed a save into being one of the best in the league, but with his team, that's another hard argument to parse out.

With all of that said, this "race" is a dumpster fire, even as the entire world of hockey swallows itself debating the definition of the Hart Trophy instead of actually debating who should win the award. A convincing argument could be made for up to maybe 10 players if you wanted to, and most of the hockey world has basically tried to do that already. In other sports, the MVP often goes to the most outstanding player, and in some sports, this award is simply termed "player of the year", which cleans up some of this nonsensical debate to begin with.

Putting all of that and more into a blender, if I had a vote for the Hart trophy this year, this is where I'd probably end up:

Nathan MacKinnon would probably be my number one. His season is every bit as amazing as Connor McDavid's, and while he's doing much the same thing that Taylor Hall is doing in New Jersey, he is taking a worse team in terms of play and elevating them to dominant when he's on the ice. He's also clearly elevating other players too, such as Mikko Rantanen, which is something Taylor Hall and even McDavid have not been able to, even in their spectacular seasons. Hall would be second because of this, and McDavid would be third. Connor McDavid is the best player in hockey, and should not be punished for Peter Chiarelli's sins, but what Hall and MacKinnon are doing is what McDavid in an ideal world should be doing, but because luck and other factors, he's just not able to.

This decision more comes down to rewarding a season that deserves to stand out in hockey history as much as acknowledging the obvious with McDavid. He won the Hart last year with a crazy good season, and will win the award many, many more times in the future. MacKinnon and Hall may not have that luxury. For the record, spots four and five would go to Evgeni Malkin and Anze Kopitar on my imaginary ballot.

The 2017-18 Hart race is the most crowded, confusing and crazy race for this award in years, and this is the way that one big hockey fan and journalist attempts to parse it out. That's what we're all trying to do in the end, using our own prisms and viewfinders to twist this season to our notions of hockey and impressive performances.

Maybe when the NHL had six teams and everyone made the playoffs awarding the Hart trophy was easier, but in a league filled with parity and with new ways of viewing the sport, figuring out who should win hockey's most prodigious award has become a debate that goes beyond hockey itself and more comes about how the sport is viewed from individual pairs of eyeballs.

But no one ever said judging someone's "value" was ever going to be easy.

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