Wednesday April 2nd, 2008

As the ballots for this season's awards arrive at the inboxes of hockey's deepest thinkers, the Great 8 is stirring up a great debate: Does a player whose team fails to make the playoffs deserve to be recognized as the NHL's MVP?

The case for Alexander Ovechkin as a worthy winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy is fairly easy to make. The Washington sniper leads the league with 63 goals, the most by any player in a single season since Mario Lemieux netted 69 back in 1995-96 (a time, it should be noted, when goals were as easy to come by as cheap gasoline). Ovechkin's 110 points give him a comfortable six-point cushion over the hard-charging Evgeni Malkin, so the Art Ross Trophy is all but in the bag, headed for a place on A.O.'s mantle alongside the Rocket Richard Trophy.

Ovechkin's candidacy, as if it needed it, took on an additional air of legitimacy on Tuesday when the NHL announced that he was the league's first star for the month of March -- a time when teams lean most heavily on their superstars. He outshined them all, leading all scorers with 26 points in just 14 games. It's worth noting that the Caps went 10-4 in the month, keeping alive the playoff hopes that appeared dead back in November. And don't overlook the fact that he was a very healthy plus-17 over that span. Say what you want about the validity of that stat, but you don't rack up that number in so few games unless you're personally making things happen.

The debate may be moot by Sunday. Thanks to an impressive 4-1 win over the Hurricanes last night, the Caps are statistically tied with Carolina for first place in the Southeast division, although the tie-breaker would leave them out of the playoffs. Both teams have a pair of games remaining to settle the score, but even if the Caps' bid does fall short, that's hardly a deal buster.

Despite what some wags might suggest, there's nothing in the definition of the award that stipulates that a player has to be part of a team that earns a postseason berth to qualify for the silverware. A playoff bystander has captured the award four times in the past -- most recently by Lemieux in 1987-88 -- so it would hardly be a precedent-setter to hand it to Ovechkin this year.

Of course, there's one way to end the debate right now, and that's by awarding it not to the most glamorous choice, but the best possible one.

That would be Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom.

Because they have a position-specific award in the Norris Trophy, the Professional Hockey Writers Association seems to require that an almost irrefutable case be built before a defenseman is honored as MVP. Chris Pronger couldn't be denied the hardware after a career-defining season in 1999-2000. But before that, you had to go back 28 years to 1972 and the final of Bobby Orr's three consecutive nods before you found another blueliner whose game had swayed the voters.

Considering that only one other defenseman, the legendary Eddie Shore, has taken home the Hart, it's obvious that the bias against blueliners runs as deep as it does against goalies. But as the best player on the league's best team, Lidstrom deserves the full consideration of the voters.

Granted, the numbers Lidstrom has put up aren't quite as intoxicating as those conjured by the wizardry of Ovechkin, but taken in context, they're just as compelling.

Lidstrom's 66 points and 58 assists are both tops among blueliners. He's tied for the NHL lead with teammate Pavel Datsyuk at plus-41. And Lidstrom has generated those stats while tasked primarily with shutting down the most explosive players in the game. Fair to say his average of nearly 27 minutes of ice per night, fourth most in the league, may be the hardest minutes accrued by anyone in the game.

Of course, his value goes beyond numbers into other, less easily defined but equally critical contributions of the sort that requires a more thorough viewing of his game than can be provided via a cursory glance through the boxscores.

Lidstrom is, by far, the best defensive player in a league that remains defined by defensive play, and few would argue that anyone else was the most poised player in the game. With expert positioning and a preternatural understanding of the opposition's options, he performs his job with near flawless precision. On the rare occasion that he makes a mistake, the ease with which he recovers belies the skill level required to do so. He's seldom out of position, which means he rarely puts his team at a disadvantage.

His slick passing, ability to read the play and find an open teammate up ice is the key to Detroit's defining characteristics: the transition and puck possession game. He is the quarterback of the league's third-most effective power play, and the workhorse of the sixth-best penalty kill. He ranks, ever so quietly, as the game's best on-ice leader. The calm Lidstrom exudes stabilizes his teammates, and allows them to play at their best by staying within their own games. And when they do make the occasional fumble, it's Lidstrom who's there to pick up the ball. You think Chris Osgood became an All-Star simply on his own merit?

Take a vote among Lidstrom's peers and he'd likely be recognized as the game's most consistent player. Regular observers marvel at his ability to perform at his highest level not only night to night, but shift to shift. There's virtually no down time in his game.

But as sublime as he is, it's the very ease with which Lidstrom performs his duties that may be his downfall. In fact, the biggest strike against his candidacy is the near complete lack of sizzle. Operating at whisper quiet efficiency, he is as vanilla as they come. He's like a trip to grandma's house. Ovechkin is a two-day park hopper at Disney World.

For a league desperately hoping for better ways to market itself, the spicy Ovechkin and his highlight reel offensive assault clearly rank as this season's Most Valuable Assets. You couldn't fault anyone for giving him the nod.

But Lidstrom is the game's Most Valuable Player.

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