How do you leave Nathan MacKinnon, of all people, that open?
It was the opposite of the meme-worthy photo circulating this week of five skaters converging on Connor McDavid. MacKinnon, arguably McDavid’s toughest competition in the 2019-20 Hart Trophy race, found himself chillin’ by his lonesome in the left circle in front of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ net on a Colorado Avalanche power play during Wednesday’s game. He received a pass from right winger Mikko Rantanen, charged up a shot like a video-game character and scored, obviously.
“I was looking around for a pass, and I had so much time that I just shot it, going high glove, and managed to catch the bar a little bit, and it went in,” MacKinnon said. “I wasn’t even expecting the seam. They might have gotten a little too aggressive on Mikko, and you can’t really do that on him. He’s such a good player. It was a great pass by him.”
It was rare to see MacKinnon neglected during a season in which he’s been anything but by the public. The Avs have endured lengthy injury absences to his two star wingers, Gabriel Landeskog and Rantanen, and MacKinnon has soldiered on, elevating whoever has replaced them and rocketing up the league’s scoring charts. With Rantanen and Landeskog finally back, MacKinnon’s 44 points place him third in the NHL in points, seven back of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. When Rantanen was out 16 games with an ankle injury, he gained a unique bird’s-eye appreciation watching MacKinnon from the press box.
“The way he stood up and took some leadership, it’s fun to watch,” Rantanen said. “He’s a great leader and great player.”
Leadership is the key word. MacKinnon is an offensive juggernaut, virtually impossible to contain with the puck on his stick, but his focus this season has been on stepping up the intangible side of his game.
“The biggest thing for me is, I’m just trying to be a better leader,” MacKinnon said. “With Gabe out, he’s such a good vocal leader, and I’m not a vocal leader historically. I’m trying to do that a bit more. I think it’s keeping me more engaged in the game and more positive. I have more jump when I’m talking more and being more positive. I feed off it. I think my teammates feed off it a little bit, too.”
Asked if he thinks he’s reaching a career peak at 24, he says he’s not sure but that, if he is, he just hopes he can sustain it for a while. If he does, the Avs will continue to rise as Stanley Cup contenders. Across the past three seasons, only McDavid and Nikita Kucherov, a.k.a winners of the past three scoring titles, have more points than MacKinnon, and he ranks eighth in points per 60 minutes and ninth in shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.
“When you look at his stats, the numbers he’s put up in the last couple weeks without Mikko and without Landy, it’s incredible,” said Avalanche goaltender Philipp Grubauer. “He’s one of the fastest guys, one of the most skilled guys in the league. You give him time and space, and he’s going to make something happen. Same with Connor McDavid. Those guys are so fast. He’s been huge for us and can change a game. It’s what he loves doing, it’s what he does best, and it’s been really good so far.”
So yes, “MacKinnon is good” fits as a story. That’s obviously not in question. What is in question, however, is whether his all-world efforts this season will culminate in his first Hart Trophy as league MVP after he finished second in the 2017-18 vote and sixth in 2018-19.
As seems to be the case almost every season now, it’s a matter of deciding how closely we voters, a.k.a. members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, want to follow the literal definition of the Hart Trophy. It goes to the player judged as most valuable to his team. At least, it’s supposed to. Given what MacKinnon has accomplished despite the injuries to his teammates, it’s difficult to argue against his Hart case. McDavid literally has the other NHL scoring leader by his side in Leon Draisaitl. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand have each other. MacKinnon’s case in this still-young season is similar to that of Taylor Hall’s in 2017-18. He beat out McDavid, the scoring champ, largely because Hall outscored his closest teammate by 40-plus points and lifted the New Jersey Devils to the playoffs. I had Hall first on my ballot that year. I’m an awards-definition purist. If we don’t follow the award’s definition, why did we bother to define it?
At the same time, every year in which we don’t vote McDavid as the league MVP feels a certain degree of icky. He won it in 2016-17 but missed out the next two seasons largely because his Edmonton Oilers missed the playoffs. The last player to win the Hart after missing the post-season was Mario Lemieux in 1987-88. That said, if we took the past two MVPs, Hall and Kucherov, and replaced them on their teams with McDavid, he likely would’ve been deemed the league’s most valuable player, as he would’ve made the playoffs (and posted even better numbers). He’s the best player in the world. He won the scoring race twice by age 21 and, if he holds off Draisaitl this year, will have won it three times by 23. The only other player ever to do that is Wayne friggin’ Gretzky. McDavid is a living legend relative to his age.
And yet, if the 2019-20 statistical leaderboard plays out as it currently exists, McDavid could wind up missing out on the Hart yet again, possibly because he splits too many votes with Draisaitl. MacKinnon, to me, is the MVP frontrunner even if he’s only the second-best player in the world at the moment. McDavid will likely win the Ted Lindsay Award for the most outstanding player as voted by the players for a third time in four years. That will highlight the discrepancy between the Hart and Lindsay and incite anger among certain fans.
Why, then, do we have to keep giving ourselves migraines, as PHWA voters and fans, over the best-versus-most-valuable debate? It’s time to introduce a new award for the NHL’s best player. Call it the Gretzky Trophy. My campaign for a Gretzky award to crown the league’s annual assist leader has fallen flat, so I’ll donate the name for this new best-player award. Per some background research, there would have to be league appetite at the board-of-governors level to get a new award launched, so we’ll assume for this hypothetical exercise that the owners love it and approve it, deciding it doesn't step on the Lindsay's toes too much because a peer-awarded honor is a different entity.
With a new PHWA accolade for the best player, we’d no longer wring our hands over whether the best player in the game gets robbed of the MVP because the team around him couldn’t get him to the playoffs – or because he had too many good teammates to support him. If you’re the best, you’re named the best. A new award would also expand the MVP race, reducing pressure to hand it to the game’s top player and opening up some exciting new discussions over which player did the most to help his team. For instance, Kucherov would’ve won ‘The Gretzky’ last season, but maybe Jordan Binnington would’ve scored the Hart. No one changed his team’s fate like Binnington did last season, right?
Food for thought. Let’s stop wasting time on best vs. most valuable. Let’s introduce another award.
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