Lots of talk about Hart Trophy nominees in recent days. My pick would probably be Alexander Ovechkin, though I have time to listen to cases from John Tavares and Martin St. Louis and Jonathan Toews. Probably Sergei Bobrovsky as well.
For a player who sits 6th in NHL scoring and helped lead his big-market team to the playoffs breaking a nine-year drought, there’s surprisingly not too much buzz for Phil Kessel.
Let’s run over some definitions. I googled “Hart Trophy” and then clicked the “News” feed and filtered for the last week to see some definitions for the trophy. (Unfortunately, Neil Greenberg’s case for Tavares didn’t make it to Google. You need an Insider account to check it out) Jeff Capellini, a writer for WFAN.com wrote an article hosted on CBS New York that argued Tavares’ case. Tavares is pretty compelling, and Capellini’s case boils down to one argument:
Would the Islanders be anywhere right now without Tavares?
And while you can probably make a very good argument that each of Joe Thornton, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin (twice), Henrik Sedin, Corey Perry and Evgeni Malkin were deserving of the Hart for more reasons than simply scoring, at the end of the day they did lead those offensive categories. I look at the six prior winners and see incredible offensive players. I see players on that list on teams with multiple star players. I see some massive payrolls. I see teams that, more or less, are usually in the playoff conversation.
I don’t see the Islanders. Trust me, you don’t see the Islanders either.
The Maple Leafs aren’t a cap team either. They’re spending in the top half of NHL salary bucks this season, but that’s more so because they’ve overpaid for stars than have a lot of talent. Coming into the season Kessel was expected to play alongside Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul. Lupul has been injured for most of the season with various ailments, and has been replaced at one time or another by James van Riemsdyk and Clarke MacArthur.
van Riemsdyk is a good player, but he’ll never be in a major NHL awards conversation. Bozak was a college free agent who is less heralded as Tavares’ linemates of Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes; Tavares’ linemates.
The Leafs don’t have a massive payroll or a lot of other stars. Nazem Kadri’s dream came and faded in the late season. Joffrey Lupul has managed to score nearly a goal a game when he’s been in the lineup, but he’s only played 15 games.
More importantly… where would the Leafs be without Kessel? The same place they are without James Reimer — out of the playoffs. Even in a season where it took him forever to get going, Kessel is still 6th in points and has 19 goals to his name. When I count scoring chances each night, he’s factoring in on four or five scoring chances, and is either taking or setting up every single chance the Leafs get when he’s on the ice. I can’t say that last bit about Henrik Sedin.
Kessel is a zone entry king, turning possession in the neutral zone into a burst of speed in the offensive zone that has a defender on its heels. He’s so strong at shooting off the rush, and when he doesn’t, he pulls up and has all kinds of space to work with, finding a trailer coming into the zone and rarely ever having to just dump the puck in and give up possession because he’s played his way into a spot he can’t play out of.
He’s a hard player to appreciate because he doesn’t latch onto the spotlight, give a lot of interviews, do a lot of commercials and isn’t particularly handsome (although he looks exactly like my friend Tony, and Tony is a real hit with the ladies). His star in Toronto has an asterisk next to it considering what the Leafs eventually gave up to trade for him. But Kessel can’t control that, all Kessel can do is play well when he’s on the ice. The Leafs have more unblocked shots with Kessel on the ice than any other player. At last check, the Leafs had more scoring chances with Kessel on the ice per 20 minutes than any other Leaf as well, and in the last two weeks I think it’s safe to say he’s cleared James van Riemsdyk in that regard.
Everything on this play is spectacular:
DAT PASS, THO!
An elite offensive talent who is by far the best player at his position on his team… and his team made the playoffs. I think the criteria that applies to Tavares applies to Kessel.
If you need any more proof of Ovechkin’s Hart Trophy credentials, consider this: After a 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils Feb. 21, the Capitals sat dead last in the NHL with 11 points in their first 16 games and Ovechkin had just five goals and 10 points. In the 23 games since then, the Capitals have gone 15-7-1 to lead the Southeast Division and Ovechkin has 20-13-33 totals. His empty net goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning Sunday night, his second goal of the game, put him in a tie with Steven Stamkos in the Rocket Richard Trophy race.
Simply because Ovechkin started off slowly shouldn’t cement him as a surefire winner. Kessel, like Ovechkin, had a slow start, going goal-less in his first ten games despite generating tonnes of opportunities. He has scored 19 in his last 37 games, but his standout performances were likely those two games in the back-to-back against the Rangers. He scored a pair of goals in each as the Leafs took three of four points from a New York team chasing them in the standings. It was those three points that solidified the Leafs’ playoff berth.
Whether you measure a Hart Trophy candidate by the benchmark of being the best player in the league or most valuable to his team, Ovechkin hits the standard on both. No player in the league has been as offensively dangerous over the past six weeks as Ovechkin. And as far as the worth to his team, consider that since the Capitals found themselves, Ovechkin has been held scoreless six times. Washington lost five of those games and won the sixth only because Ovechkin scored the decider in a shootout.
It’s true. Ovechkin has been wild in the last six weeks and in context with the rest of the season, those last six weeks solidify his standing. He has 21 goals in the last 20 games, which is patently absurd. The team was six point out of a playoff spot on March 18, and are now Southeast Division champions.
But… in those last six weeks, Toronto was just three up on 8th and there were no post-season guarantees. Kessel has 24 points in the 18 games since (Ovechkin has 31 in 20) and has really done it without a whole lot of support from percentages.
Still, by the criteria that’s been floated about, while I don’t think Kessel should win the award, I think he definitely has a case. There’s little buzz considering what Kessel accomplished with so few players surrounding him, and he’s the 6th leading scorer in the NHL, seemingly doing it quietly. Again, he shouldn’t win, but I’m surprised he isn’t mentioned along with Tavares or Toews as a secondary candidate to Ovechkin, who ultimately ought to win the thing.
Reimer takes Masterton nomination:
In other Leafs Trophy news, James Reimer is the Toronto nominee for the Masterton Trophy for “perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey”. It’s no longer a “come back from a gruesome injury” award, although I feel like Reimer fits both criteria.
He won’t, and shouldn’t, get a Vezina nomination. While Reimer’s been great and instrumental to the success of the Leafs there have been better goaltenders in the world this season, notably Antti Niemi, Henrik Lundqvist, and the odds-on favourite Sergei Bobrovsky. The mid-season injury likely hurt his cause but even without national recognition, I think it’s safe to say that Toronto has its goaltender for at least a couple of years.
James Reimer’s career even strength save percentage after 2567 shots against? .926. All other Leaf goalies over the same time span? .906. James Reimer’s career save percentage after 3080 shots against? .916. All other Leaf goalies over the same time span? .901. Kid is for real, dedication to hockey or not.