The Hart Trophy race is probably already over.
Having registered a league-best 82 assists and compiled a scoring-race leading 117 points counting, Nikita Kucherov is having himself a dream season on a nearly historically dominant Lightning team. Thus, chances are when the votes are tallied at season’s end, Tampa Bay’s star winger will be accepting his first MVP award after a pair of seasons in which he has finished eighth and sixth in voting. Furthering this idea that Kucherov is bound to take home the hardware is that the same body that decides the winner, the Professional Hockey Writers Association, selected the 25-year-old as the mid-season Hart favorite. Nothing he’s done in the time since should realistically change that. He's been as good, if not better, since those ballots were tallied at the all-star break.
Just because Kucherov is the likely recipient of the honor, though, doesn’t mean we can’t debate the merits of others in the Hart race, and if there’s anyone who can steal some votes from the league scoring leader and MVP frontrunner, it’s Sidney Crosby.
As with any forward in Hart contention, Crosby finds himself in the conversation for the award because he meets some of the undefined-yet-ever-present parameters that seem to separate the true contenders from those on the periphery. First and foremost, Crosby has Pittsburgh en route to the post-season. The Penguins, despite some earlier concerns, have the final spot in the Metropolitan Division locked down at the moment, with three points separating Pittsburgh from the Carolina Hurricanes and the Penguins are nearly out of the weeds when it comes to the wild-card race altogether, with seven points between Pittsburgh and the Montreal Canadiens, who are currently the final Eastern Conference club on the outside looking in.
More importantly, however, Crosby is chasing down second runner-up status – which is about all anyone could possibly hope to reach this season given the veritable chasm between Kucherov and Connor McDavid paired with McDavid's healthy lead on the rest of the pack – in the hunt for the Art Ross Trophy. Crosby’s 33 goals are tied for the 18th-most in the NHL, while his 92 points put him alone in fourth among all skaters. This is the part where we should note that Crosby has also been far and away the greatest offensive force in Pittsburgh, 19 points clear of the next-highest scorer, Phil Kessel, and 21 points ahead of Evgeni Malkin.
It’s also worth mentioning that Crosby’s contributions have meant an awful lot to the Penguins’ offense. All told, Crosby has factored in on 37.1 percent of Pittsburgh’s goals this season, which is the eighth-highest contribution percentage of any player in the NHL. Better yet, though, Crosby has a primary point on 31.1 percent of Penguins goals, tied for the fourth-most in the NHL and dead-level with Kucherov’s percentage entering Monday’s action. That Crosby has done so when his two most common 5-on-5 linemates have been Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust – Kucherov has spent the bulk of his 5-on-5 time with Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson – should be noted.
But what really elevates Crosby as a Hart contender, and one worthy of potentially stealing a few votes away from Kucherov, is how complete his game has been this season. In many ways, Crosby has been more than an unstoppable offensive juggernaut. He’s also been a reliable two-way pivot and a vastly underrated contender for the Selke Trophy.
Illustrating how effective a player has been at both ends of the ice is by no means an easy feat. However, one way in which we may be able to do so is by measuring Crosby’s numbers against those of Patrice Bergeron, who is one of the most decorated defensive forwards in NHL history and roundly accepted as a two-way dynamo. And compared to one another, Crosby stacks up remarkably well. In fact, there’s only one major underlying five-a-side statistic – Corsi percentage, where Bergeron holds a 1.3 percent edge over Crosby’s rate of 54.9 percent – that the Bruins center has the upper hand. After that, Crosby outshines Bergeron in shot, scoring chance, high-danger chance and goal percentages. And lest anyone make the argument that Crosby gets more offensive opportunity, rest assured that carries very little water. Crosby’s offensive-zone start percentage (64.1) is only slightly higher than Bergeron’s (61.6).
Crosby’s 5-on-5 numbers don’t just stack up well against Bergeron, though. They measure incredibly well against the field. There are 165 forwards who have played at least 600 minutes at five-a-side this season, and among those Crosby ranks top-10 in every notable category. He is 10th-ranked in shots percentage (56.2), fifth-ranked in scoring chance percentage (57.1) and ninth-ranked in high-danger chance percentage (59.2). But best of all, Crosby is sixth-ranked in goals percentage (66.4) among that group of forwards. It also shouldn’t be overlooked that the Penguins’ 5-on-5 goal differential with Crosby on the ice is plus-37. Without Crosby? Minus-10. That’s a 47-goal swing between the times Crosby is and isn’t on ice at five-a-side, which is the second-highest among all forwards. (New York Rangers winger Chris Kreider ranks first with a 53-goal swing.) By comparison, Bergeron’s presence accounts for an 11-goal differential in Boston. The Lightning are dead even in goal differential with and without Kucherov.
Of course, the reality is that Crosby’s defensive efforts and the way in which he’s guided the Penguins won’t be enough for him to win the third Hart of his career. The award is likely bound to land on Kucherov’s mantle. That was probably decided around the time he hit the 100-point plateau, and the image of him holding the award comes into greater focus with each successive point that pushes him closer to the single-best offensive season of the post-lockout era. But taking a broader approach to the MVP conversation, Crosby has been every bit as good as Kucherov, and if defensive contributions could be quantified as easily as their offensive counterparts, we might have ourselves a much tighter race.