With less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, thoughts are turning to who might deserve recognition for the major individual NHL awards. And no award is more prestigious than the Hart Trophy for the league's Most Valuable Player.
To hear or read some commentators, the race once again boils down to those old young rivals, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. It's a nice narrative and not without merit. Both Sid and Ovie have been dominant players -- but only to a point. Crosby's broken jaw and Ovechkin's mediocre start make both of them somewhat less than ideal selections. Each has only been at his best for about three-quarters of the season, and with the schedule already shrunken to 48 games, that must be considered when evaluating who should get the hardware.
Let's pause a moment and look back at the only comparable season in league history, the lockout-shortened 1995 campaign, to see who the voters selected that year and what the winner's season looked like.
The Hart Trophy went to Eric Lindros, the Flyers' big center who tied with the Penguins' Jaromir Jagr for most points (70), although Jagr won the scoring title by virtue of the tiebreaker: most goals (32 to 29). Lindros played two fewer games than Jagr because an eye injury he suffered in the April 30 game against the Rangers kept him out of the rest of the regular season schedule. Lindros had been leading the scoring race at that time.
Jagr played in all 48 games, and in his final three notched five points to reach 70. He remarked that if Lindros hadn't been hurt, the Art Ross Trophy would have gone to the Flyer, too.
Not counting the game in which he injured his eye, Lindros played in only six games in which he didn't register at least a point. Only once did he go pointless in two consecutive games, and he carried a 14-game points streak into that April 30 game. As the sparkplug of the most fearsome threesome in the league -- the "Legion of Doom" line with wingers John LeClair and Mikael Renberg, who each topped the 20-goal mark as well -- his value to the Flyers was unquestioned. The team finished the season atop the Atlantic Division, their first division title since 1987.
The voters gave Lindros a comfortable margin of victory for the Hart Trophy, 63 points to Jagr's 27.
So Lindros dominated for the entire schedule and the voters recognized him for it.
Now let's go back to Crosby and Ovechkin.
In Crosby's case, through his first 36 games, he was easily the league's most dominant player, with 56 points. He had more assists (41) at that point than anyone else had points. He's still the league's top scorer, even though he hasn't played since March 30.
But that's the hang-up: Crosby hasn't played since March 30 and it's very uncertain that he'll be back before the season ends. Should he not make it back, can voters justify selecting him as the player who is most valuable to his team if there were others who played the entire schedule and were valuable throughout?
Not just that, but what if the Penguins continue to play well in his absence? That's what they often do when Crosby is injured, and remember: The Hart Trophy is not given to the best player, but "the player judged most valuable to his team." This is one of the oldest quarrels in sports -- the distinction between best and most valuable, and if a team continues to win without him, what does that say about how valuable he is?
A better case for a player's value to his team can be made on behalf of Ovechkin because the Capitals' success often seems more intertwined with how well he plays. This season provides a perfect illustration.
Ovie began the season playing well below his capabilities and Washington's record reflected that. After 16 games, he had five goals and five assists and was a minus-8. Not coincidentally, the Caps sat at the bottom of the NHL with a 5-10-1 record. He was drawing criticism from various quarters for being uninspired and questions from observers (including me) who wondered whether his best days were behind him, a strange thing to ask of a world-class player who, having turned 27 in September, should be in the prime of his career.
Since then, Ovie has been -- to our delight -- the Ovie of old, somehow relocating the magic in his stick, the speed in his skates, and the fire in his belly. Let's give a shout-out to coach Adam Oates for helping fine-tune Ovechkin by moving him to the right wing for five-on-five play and helping him become a less predictable player. Let's also credit Oates for returning him to Nick Backstrom's line so the pair could resume their great chemistry.
MUIR: All's right with Ovie, with assist by Oates
The results? Since Feb. 23, Ovechkin has scored 22 goals, 14 assists and is plus-10. During that span, he's averaged 1.36 points per game, which roughly equals the pace of his two Hart Trophy seasons (2008 and 2009). His 27 goals top the league, and his 46 points rank fifth.
"Right now I'm scoring goals and I'm the king of the world," Ovechkin told reporters a month into his renaissance. "And a couple weeks ago I was almost in the toilet. So maybe you just forget to flush me."
And the impact on his club has been profound. The Caps have gone 18-7-1, risen to the top of the Southeast Division, and are riding a seven-game winning streak.
That's pretty valuable.
But, once again, as with Crosby, can and should the voters overlook a sizable portion of the season? In those first 16 games, Ovie's play was more of an anchor than a sail for the good ship Capitals. We're talking MOST valuable here not mostly valuable, and in a relatively brief 48-game season, consistency from beginning to end truly matters, as the selection of Lindros in 1995 showed.
There are some other players in the Hart Trophy discussion who have demonstrated excellence from the outset and continue to do so. Ryan Getzlaf of Anaheim, for example, has been the driving force of that team's rise in the standings this season. If the Islanders make the playoffs, John Tavares certainly deserves recognition. As Jeff Z. Klein and I mentioned in The New York Times over the weekend, the Isles' dependence on Tavares is revealed by their record when he's scored at least a point: 19-6-1; when he doesn't score, they are 2-11-3, including Saturday's 1-0 loss to the Rangers.
Allan Muir examined a few other names in his SI.com blog post over the weekend, including Tampa Bay's Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos. They are both exceptional players, but when your team doesn't make the playoffs, it's difficult to make a case for being more valuable than a player whose team does make it.
Al also suggests Chicago's Patrick Kane, who has had a terrific season. But I don't think he's more valuable to the Blackhawks than their captain Jonathan Toews, who I believe is the most deserving Hart Trophy candidate this season.
The Blackhawks have enjoyed an historic season, and while Kane may lead them in scoring, his margin over Toews is not that great and Toews leads them in every other way.
Toews' role on the club can't be underestimated. Just this past weekend, he scored a late-third-period goal on Friday to force overtime against Detroit, a game the Hawks eventually won in the shootout. That goal tied him with Kane for the team lead. On Sunday, his key face-off win while Chicago was shorthanded and clinging to a 1-0 lead against the Blues led directly to Marion Hossa's insurance tally late in the third period. That gave Toews only four fewer assists than Kane.
Plus, Kane doesn't possess his pal's all-around excellence. Toews is a plus-25, just one behind Crosby and fifth in the league. His face-off success rate is 60.8, second best league-wide to Boston's Patrice Bergeron.
Offensively, Toews is heating up at the right time. He's notched 19 points in his last 14 games and now has 42 points on the season, tied with Tavares and the Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel for the 10th highest total.
Toews plays in every situation, including both special teams, where he is invaluable. And, of course, the 24-year-old Toews remains "Captain Serious" to his Blackhawks teammates, leading by his words and his example. On Sunday, he once again showed what he is made of during one of the most physical games I've seen this season. Toews continually bumped with St. Louis captain David Backes and appeared to be hurt toward the end of the first period. It looked like a leg injury, perhaps his knee. But he came back for the second period after getting medical attention and played a shade under 20 minutes, looking as effective as ever.
Kane has matured greatly this season and for that, you have to give some props to Toews for the team standards he personifies. Towes has also been a guiding force for his impressive rookie linemate, Brandon Saad, which was evident during the game telecast after Saad committed a rushed turnover late in the game. Back on the bench, Toews explained how it should be done, then gave Saad a reassuring chuck on the arm.
Kane may be the flashier player and he could siphon off some votes from his teammate. But Toews is the beating heart of the Blackhawks. And he should be rewarded with the Hart Trophy.