The playoff spots are settled in the NHL as a tight race at the bottom of the East was settled (Washington in, Buffalo out) and a wild race at the bottom of the West is sorted out (goodbye Dallas, Calgary and Colorado, hello Phoenix, Los Angeles & San Jose). There are some modest changes regarding seeding that will hinge on the final day of play today, but we know the 16 teams who will fight for the Stanley Cup. What we don’t know is who should win the Hart Trophy, the honor given to the NHL’s MVP, so taking a look at that order of business is how TheSportsNotebook will wrap up the hockey regular season.
Let’s begin by taking the broadest view of MVP candidates and eliminating some of them right away. One of the stats I hate the most in both hockey and the NBA is plus-minus, wherein a player’s value is supposedly measured by the number of points his team is up or down while he’s on the floor—as though he’s an isolated actor, able to control this entirely on his own. So even though I love the Boston Bruins and Zdeno Chara, his leading the NHL in this category doesn’t really overwhelm me. And even if I loved this stat, we’d have to note that the next three players on the list are all his teammates and all close behind, so the “Most Valuable” criteria is lost fairly quickly.
There are four goalies who’s save percentages merit their mention. But two of them—Brian Elliot in St. Louis and Cory Schneider for Vancouver—split time with other goaltenders. In fact, if this team’s meet in the Western Conference Finals, there’s no guarantee it would even bee Elliot-Schneider in goal for Game 1. So much for the Most Valuable idea. I don’t dismiss New York Rangers’ goalie Henrik Lundqvist and Phoenix’s Mike Smith. Between the two I give the edge to Smith, as the defenseman for the Coyotes are atrocious, and there’s no such thing as an easy night for their goaltender.
If you love assists, then your favorites would be Henrik Sedin for Vancouver and Claude Giroux for Philadelphia. Giroux gets the edge. He’s only two assists behind Sedin, and Giroux lights the lamp himself—28 goals to the more-heralded Sedin’s 13. We’ll consider Giroux the winner of the “Assists Side Of The Bracket” in this debate and move him to the finals.
Finally we come to the two big candidates, and that’s Evgeni Malkin for Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos. The Lightning scorer has had an extraordinary season, needing just one goal today to reach the 60 plateau and while his team didn’t make the playoffs, it’s fair to wonder just how hopeless they would have been without him. But I like Malkin’s case better—he’s got 49 goals himself and when you bring assists into the equation Malkin leads the league in offensive production. Along with James Neal, he kept the Penguins as a decent contender while Sidney Crosby was out, and now that the latter is back, the Pens are a legitimate Cup contender.
Thus, different arguments bring Smith, Giroux and Malkin to the finals. I’d dismiss Giroux first. He’s the best of the players who can build their argument around assists, but that’s still the equivalent of being the best college football team in the Mid-American Conference—we applaud it, but we don’t consider you for the national championship. Especially not when Malkin’s offensive play is so complete. But now consider Phoenix—this is a team whose defenseman, as noted above, leaves him ruthlessly exposed to a heavy shot load, whose offense is terrible and whose power play is inept. Yet this team is in first place in the Pacific Division heading into the final day. Is it not reasonable to conclude that Mike Smith basically put the team on his back singlehandedly and pushed them into the postseason? And if we can conclude that, is that not the very definition of an MVP? I think it is, and it’s why the vote of TheSportsNotebook for the Hart Trophy, symbolic of the NHL MVP goes to Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith.