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Washington Capital forward Alexander Ovechkin is a strong candidate to win this year’s Hart Trophy. (file photo) (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Washington Capital forward Alexander Ovechkin is a strong candidate to win this year’s Hart Trophy. (file photo) (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

NHL Weekend

The NHL’s Hart monitor Add to ...

This is how controversial the debate has become over the Hart Memorial Trophy, given to the most valuable player: Last week, even the coaches for two of the leading candidates inserted themselves into the discussion.

First, the Washington Capitals’ Adam Oates made the case for Alex Ovechkin on two fronts: his contributions during the team’s second-half push to the playoffs, and because the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby hadn’t played since breaking his jaw on March 30.

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According to Oates, Ovechkin should “absolutely” win the Hart because with Crosby, “you’ve got to factor in the fact he’s missed a lot of games.”

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma disagreed, saying Crosby’s absence in April should in no way undermine what he did for the Penguins between January and March, when he was the runaway leader for the NHL scoring title and led the Penguins on a 15-game winning streak.

The problem is the same every year.

By definition, the Hart goes to “the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.”

Those 11 words have tripped up voters frequently in the past because the “most valuable to his team” is not the same as being the best player in the league.

Accordingly, how do you quantify what Crosby did – 56 points in 36 games and a plus-26 rating on a team that also played without his running mate, Evgeni Malkin, for long stretches of the season – and compare his contributions to Ovechkin’s second-half goal rush, or to John Tavares’s role in the New York Islanders’ renaissance, or to Sergei Bobrovsky’s value to the previously moribund Columbus Blue Jackets?

For that matter, how do a pair of Blackhawks players, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, factor into the discussion, given that Chicago went 24 games in a row to start the season before suffering a loss in regulation, and has won the Presidents’ Trophy for the best overall record?

Kane leads the Blackhawks in scoring and has been in the top five for most of the year. Toews is their acknowledged leader and contributes more in different areas – in the faceoff circle, defensively, and as one of the most well-rounded players in the game. Is Toews any less important to Chicago’s success just because Kane made significant contributions as well? Joel Quenneville, the Blackhawks’ coach, might have a thought or two about that.

Two years ago, there was a similar conundrum involving Crosby when he was the runaway Hart leader at midseason after scoring 66 points in 41 games. Then he was concussed in the Winter Classic and didn’t play again. It took a long time before Crosby relinquished the scoring lead, but by the time the ballots were in voters’ hands, they had determined that playing 41 games in an 82-game season disqualified him from consideration. The trophy went to the Anaheim Ducks’ Corey Perry in a tight race over the Vancouver Canucks’ Daniel Sedin (1,043 points to 960). Crosby didn’t even crack the top 10.

This year, the percentages line up more favourably for Crosby. Even if he doesn’t play again in the regular season, he will have played 36 of 48 games – three-quarters of the season as opposed to just half two years ago. Despite missing all of April, Crosby still held the overall scoring lead until the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Martin St. Louis finally overtook him last Wednesday night.

If consistency for the full 48 games is the primary criterion, then Toews might be the most logical candidate for the award, given how well he and his team have played from start to finish. Ovechkin has been exceptional of late, but it wasn’t so long ago that he was struggling.

As well as Bobrovsky has played in Columbus’s unexpected run toward the playoffs, the Blue Jackets were a 5-12-2 team out of the gate, and 19 games in looked destined for another finish near of the bottom of the standings. Can a player win the MVP award because of how well he played in the next 25 games, when a 16-4-5 surge put the Jackets into the playoff mix?

It would be easier to dismiss Crosby as a viable candidate if all he contributed to the Penguins was scoring. But he has helped to create a winning environment in Pittsburgh, his leadership and presence roughly akin to what Toews does for the Blackhawks.

Nowadays, NHL trophy ballots require a 1-to-5 ranking of candidates as opposed to 20 years ago, when only three names were permitted. It’s likely that Crosby, Ovechkin, Tavares, Bobrovsky and Toews will all feature prominently on the majority of ballots. But how they sort out a winner is anybody’s guess. And neither Oates nor Bylsma get to vote.

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