Reevaluating the Hart Trophy Part 1: Introduction

Welcome to our series on the NHL’s Hart Trophy, its MVP award.

The MVP trophy is the most important trophy for any league; for better or worse it is how we determine who was the “best” player and, when we look at league history, it’s one way we use to judge players against each other, and, ultimately, it’s part of how we decide whether or not someone belongs in the greatness canon (whether that is the Hall of Fame or something else).

Listen to our first episode in the series:

Part 1

But there are some obvious problems with any MVP trophy and the Hart is no exception. Some people strongly believe the MVP trophy belongs to the “best” player in the league, and some people believe that the MVP should indeed go to the “most valuable player” in the league. And some of the supporters of either definition change their minds from year to year. And, adding to the inconsistency of interpretation between “best” and “most valuable”, we are not even sure what “best” and “most valuable” mean.

To take the NHL, ‘best’ could mean best overall player, or best skater, or best offensive player. (It is most often, though not always, taken to mean ‘best offensive player’.) But more problematically, ‘most valuable’ could mean anything: If we take it literally it means, more often than not, a goalie, as goalies are the most valuable player for any decent hockey team that doesn’t score an absurd number of goals.

But goalies have had their own awards since 1927 (though the award has only been given to the “best” goalie since 1981). And just like in baseball with a pitcher, or football with a quarterback, the goalie is a unique position that cannot compare with any other position in the sport.

But even if we interpret it as “most valuable skater” we still have many issues:

  • Is the most valuable skater the best or most valuable player on the best team? 
  • Is it the skater who is “most” responsible for a team making the playoffs and having a chance at the Cup? 
  • Is it the skater who plays the most minutes in the league? (Obviously this definition is problematic because the NHL didn’t start tracking minutes until the late ’90s.) 
  • Etc.

If we take the Hart seriously, here are the most frequent “best” or “most valuable” players in NHL history:

  • 9 wins: Wayne Gretzky
  • 6: Gordie Howe
  • 4: Eddie Shore
  • 3: 
    • Bobby Clarke
    • Mario Lemieux
    • Howie Morenz
    • Bobby Orr
    • Alex Ovechkin
  • 2: 
    • Jean Beliveau
    • Bill Cowley
    • Sidney Crosby
    • Phil Esposito
    • Dominik Hasek
    • Bobby Hull
    • Guy Lafleur
    • Mark Messier
    • Stan Mikita
    • Nels Stewart

So, at least by the standard of dominating your competition, those are the best players in NHL history. And maybe that’s correct.

But maybe it’s not. Because the problem with the way the Hart trophy has been awarded is that various criteria appear to have guided the members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association to award the Hart. And so we can’t trust the PHWA and the way it has awarded the Hart trophy since the award was introduced in 1923 just like we can’t trust the record on Norris trophy wins. And we can’t trust the record on Conn Smythes either.

If we omit goalies, I think we can come up with three reasonably good interpretations of what the Hart could mean: ‘best player’, ‘most valuable’ as in the best skater on the best team, and ‘most valuable’ as in the most “important” skater on a playoff team.

Best Player

Who’s the best player (skaters only) in the NHL in a given season?

More often than not, it’s the player with the highest points per game, provided they played enough games that season. Why?

The most important (and usually best) defensive player on any hockey game is the goalie. So awarding a “best player in the league” award to a defenseman seems to make sense to me only in very exceptional circumstances. (Such as the player just plays an insane amount of minutes, see Chris Pronger, or the player puts up numbers not even expected of a forward, see Bobby Orr.) And points per game is always more telling of skill than total points because injuries happen, and injuries are not the moral failing of the player, no matter what stupid hockey traditionalists will tell you. If one player barely out scores another, but that first player did so in 10-15 more games, does anyone seriously believe that the player who played less but scored more frequently is the weaker player?

So for this series we will interpret “best” to mean the player who leads the league (or team) in PPG except in some very exceptional circumstances, such as a D nearly eclipsing all forwards, in the entire league, in PPG.

Most Valuable Means the Best Player on the Best Team

So, ‘best team’ means the best team by results, i.e. the team with the most points. Let’s not worry about shots for and shots against, in part because the NHL hasn’t tracked these things all that long, and in part because awards are about actual results, not expected results.

But “best player” on the best team is fraught with difficulty: is it the ‘best’ player, i.e. the team leader in PPG? Or is it the most valuable player, i.e. the team leader in point shares?

Well, I would say it’s sometimes the former and sometimes the latter. Fortunately, point shares include a reference to goal differential, meaning that the leader in PPG on the team usually leads the team’s skaters in point shares when that team is a stronger offensive team than defensive team. But when that team is stronger defensively, the point shares leader should be a D. So hopefully this won’t become too problematic…

Most Valuable Means the Most Essential Player to a Playoff-Bound Team

This is the interpretation we prefer on its face, however it is really, really problematic.

Let’s say we use point shares (problematic in and of themselves): The most valuable player is the skater who, were he removed from his team, would cause that team to miss the playoffs that season.

Since we don’t have a Point Shares Above Replacement, this method involves making the idiotic assumption that this player would not be replaced.

But there are at least two other gigantic problems with this interpretation (putting aside the issue of the unreliability of point shares):

  1. The first problem is that sometimes the bad teams in the NHL were so bad that a trophy based on this criterion could never be awarded. Especially when the league was 7-8 teams (prior to the “Original Six” era), the worst teams in the league were often so bad that you would have had to remove 2-3 players from even the worst playoff team to give them a record as bad as the second worst team. This disparity actually happened, frequently. By my count, there were approximately 30 NHL seasons in which a clear “Most Valuable Skater” does not exist based on this criterion. That is a problem.
  2. The second problem is that this interpretation elevates the best player on often mediocre (or even bad) teams to the status of “most valuable.” That’s because, for many seasons throughout its history, the NHL playoffs have been very, very easy to get into. This was true prior to league expansion in 1967 and became (particularly) true again after the merger with the WHA. (It was certainly easier to make the playoffs than miss the playoffs in some divisions in the ’80s in the NHL.) So using this criterion awards the MVP to some great players and some very marginal ones (Darren Veitch???).

But just for fun, lets try all three interpretations and see how the PHWA fares.

If we accept those three definitions, we can breakdown the way the trophy has been awarded into a number of categories:

  • The PHWA got it right! There is simply no debate.
  • The PHWA sort of got it right! The player fits one or more of the above interpretations.
  • They awarded it to a goalie.
  • The PHWA picked someone who didn’t deserve it (who wasn’t a goalie). The player is not the ‘best’ or ‘most valuable’ in any sense.

It’s those categories we’ll cover in our last episode of this series. In the meantime, stay tuned for a breakdown of every trophy.

One thought on “Reevaluating the Hart Trophy Part 1: Introduction”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *