Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Handicapping the Hart Trophy Race

As I mentioned earlier today, the MVP race has become a definite hot topic as the NHL season starts to wind down. Crazy to think about, but there's just 8 games left in the Pens' regular season. 8! Where the hell have I been all season? I feel like there should be still be 20 games left in the season. At least. The good news is, thanks to the recent scalding hot streak of our beloved puck club, we are sitting in a good position to snag a playoff berth and continue this season onward. In fact, our magic number over 9th seeded Florida is 13 points. (Technically you could say it's 13, but we figure to have the edge in wins if there is a tie, so I'm calling it 12) So any combo in which we pick up 13 points on Florida (either by us gaining a point or them missing out on points) gives us a bid in the post-season.

So with all that in mind, I wanted to run down the lead candidates for the Hart Trophy, two of which just so happen to wear a flightless winter bird on their jersey.

The Candidates (in order of chance to win)

Alex Ovechkin: One of the most hated opposing players the Pittsburgh area has seen in recent memory. Whatever you think of AO, you've got to admit, the guy is goal-scoring savant. And to many voters, it seems like the things that matter the most are media coverage, ridiculous highlight plays and goals. Well, AO is one of the two most hyped players in the league (see if you can guess who the other one is), several of his goals are downright jaw-dropping, and he is far and away the leading goal scorer in hockey. Personally, I can't see how he's had a better all-around season than Geno, though. He is flashier, sure. And he's definitely the better goal-scorer despite the fact that he does shoot a ton more than Geno. You've got to concede that Malkin is the better playmaker, regardless of what team you root for. And I've watched several Caps games this season, and I just am not impressed much by Ovie's defense

Evgeni Malkin: Geno and AO are really the only two acceptable candidates for MVP this season in my mind. There are others I'm gonna discuss, but it boils down to these two. Geno has turned into a very good defender. I'd argue he's only a notch below a Datsyuk now. He's definitely the best defensive forward on the Pens. And somehow I've yet to even mention the fact that he's leading the NHL in scoring by a fairly comfortable measure, a distinction that often gives a big leg up in the race for the Hart. Unfortunately for Geno, the biggest setback to his campaign is something he really can't control too much. You see, the Hart is voted on by Hockey Writers. And what do hockey writers like most and therefore are most likely to vote for? Interesting stories and players. And while Geno is brilliant on the ice, his off-ice demeanor is still very much a work in progress. While he has made tremendous strides in the last 3 years in that regard, he pales in comparison to Ovechkin in this one regard. That, ultimately, will be what costs Malkin the trophy. And to me, that really isn't fair.

Okay, those are the two lead horses, let's take a look at a couple long shots, just for fun.

Sidney CrosbySid the Kid has had a truly excellent season, no question about it. And over the Pens' recent hot streak, he has been at least as valuable as Geno. Which, by the way, is the same period of time when he finally got himself a couple of wingers who aren't best described as "muckers and grinders" and when he finally started playing in a system that takes advantage of the fact that he is the most dangerous playmaker on the planet Earth. Coincidence? I think not. Others may not believe so, but I still think the Sid/Geno debate is still very much alive despite the fact that Geno has definitely been better this season. If Sid gets 82 games with Kunitz and Guerin (if they re-sign him, which I hope they do) next year then we can really start talking about who is the better player.

Zach Parise
One of the most underrated players in the entire sport of hockey. If you were to ask the casual fan of the sport who is second in the league in goals, how many guesses would they need to get it right with Parise? 10? 15? Would they even guess Parise? Would they even know what team Parise is on? Well, hopefully they'd know that last one. Because he plays for the Devils, I think a lot of people are assuming he is a defense-first, trapping guy who is more concerned with preventing goals than scoring them. While he is certainly a very, very good defensive forward and should get a Selke nom, he's definitely not a defense-first guy, either. He's a terrific combo player, and with Marty Brodeur going on the shelf for much of the season, Parise has been nothing short of marvelous when his team needed him the absolute most.

Steve Mason
This kid has been unreal this year for Columbus. He came absolutely out of nowhere and, at just 20 years of age, he is carrying an otherwise mediocre Columbus BJ team into the playoffs in the excellent Western Conference. Two things go against him, though, and guarantee he won't win this thing even though he is as deserving as anyone. He is a rookie and he is a goalie.

Tim Thomas
Thomas was a decent but not spectacular goalie for the past 3 seasons. But now, at the ripe old age of 34 (soon to be 35) he is making the leap into one of the best netminders in hockey. I'm not sure he'll get it because he lacks the history and the pedigree, but this guy deserves the Vezina for being the rock that turned this Bruins team from very good to great. A .931 save % and a 2.11 GAA? Those are insane numbers.

Pavel Datsyuk
I'll never get why Datsyuk isn't mentioned along with the Big 3 when it comes to the best players in the world. The guy is a ridiculous talent, and it's not like all his work comes at the defensive end, either, as I think some would have you believe. He has 360 points in 308 games over the past 4 seasons. That's only a shade below the Sid/Geno/AO triumvirate, and Pavel is without question a better defender than any of those three. Certainly, having a spectacular team around him makes it seem like he is less important than he really is. That guy is a superstar.

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