It was a west-coast trip in early November that had Tampa Bay Lightning fans concerned. A bruised foot and the consecutive-games streak was in jeopardy, but ultimately wasn't.
A month passed, and once again the streak was at risk - this time it was illness that kept him from even traveling with the team on a post-Christmas road trip to Atlanta. And yet, he laced them up and played that night, notching two assists in the effort.
Martin St. Louis' endurance and grit cannot be questioned, nor his importance to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
What can be questioned, but ought to be debated, is if he is the National Hockey League's top player in 2010-11. While the Sedin twins, Corey Perry and team mate Steven Stamkos are just some of the competitors for 2011 Hart Trophy, it's Marty - one of the leading point scorers this season and perennial offensive wunderkind - who should be looked at seriously as the league's most valuable player.
Before I go any further, let me acknowledge my shortcoming in opinion: I'm in the East. Yep, that's my major malfunction in talking about the 2011 Hart Trophy contestants. I don't see or hear as much about Daniel Sedin. Corey Perry, to me personally, seems to have come out of nowhere in both his point production and his Richard Trophy win. Anaheim Duck and Western Conference fans alike would know better, though. Perry has been a force in the West several years now, and this is his coming out party of sorts: Getting the attention of the East Coast biased media.
So, I admit that fault. I will not, however, say it makes my opinion or reasoning moot.
Marty scored 99 points in 82 games in 2010-11. That's five points below Daniel Sedin's total of 104. That's five points more than St. Louis' own 2003-04, Hart Trophy winning total. He marked his sixth season with the Tampa Bay Lightning where he scored 30 goals or more, his sixth season of notching 80 points or more as well, and his 5th playoff berth as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. That's a pretty solid resume.
His individual production (31 goals, 68 assists) only tells you part of the story. His ability to stimulate offensive production from others is part of why the Lightning are in the playoffs.
Witness one of the other fellow Tampa Bay Lightning players who you would think would be in consideration for the Hart trophy: Steven Stamkos. Stamkos success, since 2008-09, has been greatest when St. Louis has been on his wing. Steve Downie, Ryan Malone, Simon Gagne, and other players have been interchangeable cogs for Stamkos. His greatest catalyst, however, has always been St. Louis. He has not been able to generate the same kind of offense without Marty on his wing.
St. Louis, on the other hand, has been helping others strive and accomplish for the entirety of his career with the Bolts. Brad Richards, Fredrik Modin, Vincent Lecavalier, Vinny Prospal, Stamkos, Malone, Downie... They've all seen successes when paired up with St. Louis in the past and present. That's a fact that cannot be stressed enough: St. Louis makes his linemates better, and has for his career. It's not the other-way-around (the pro-Stamkos, "He's only got high numbers because Stamkos is so good" argument).
Of course, the pairing of Stamkos and St. Louis can't entirely be dismissed. It's part of the reason why both players have amassed the number of points they have in 2010-11. Just as the tandem of Henrik and Daniel Sedin have been a prolific force for the Vancouver Canucks in the past and present.
On numbers alone, of course, Daniel Sedin is the unquestionable winner of the Hart (to go along with his Art Ross Trophy win). But on versatility of production - producing points with any combination of linemates?
Daniel Sedin didn't display the same versatility as St. Louis. While he and his brother are both near the top of the league in point production - they accomplished this togethereven more than St. Louis/Stamkos. Daniel and Henrik Sedin played on the same line combinations at even strength more than 88.6% of the time for the Canucks in 2010-11, according to Dobber Hockey's line combination chart.
By comparison, Martin St. Louis played at even strength with Stamkos somewhere above 72.25% of the time, according once again to Dobber Hockey's line charts.
What's my point? The Hart Trophy isn't awarded to a tandem. It's awarded to an individual for his contribution and importance to his team. I don't doubt the importance of the Sedin twins to the Vancouver Canucks. I do wonder just how potent they (the twins) would be without playing with one another.
Something else I have to wonder is if the Hart Trophy debate should be Sedin / St. Louis or if it should be Perry / everyone else? Would Anaheim have gotten where they are without Perry's contributions? It's a stronger debate than what the Lightning or Canucks would do without Marty/Daniel (respectively). It's not like Anaheim is exactly devoid of skill. My point is more that Perry puts the Ducks in a better position and makes them a better team. His 98 points (50 goals and 48 assists) are part of what led to the Ducks late season surge into the playoffs.
I'm not much of an advanced stats fan, nor do I think many of the Pro Hockey Writers Association members (the group that will vote on NHL player awards) are either... At least I don't think they cling to them that tightly. That being said, Jonathan Willis at Houses of the Hockey presented a statistic that I found quite interesting: Offensive zone starts and how Daniel and Henrik Sedin rank extremely high in this category:
Zone starts are a simple measure of how often a player starts in the offensive zone versus the defensive zone. If we look at every single player in the National Hockey League (with certain sensible minimums: 20 games played, an average of at least 5:00 even-strength minutes per game), we find that the Sedins have been gifted with an incredibly advantage: their line starts in the offensive zone more than any other in the entire league.
By "starts", Willis means faceoffs. Of course, there is always a defensive perspective to a faceoff, no matter what zone you are in (defend your zone by winning control of the puck). But for most of the NHL, players have to take faceoffs on both sides of the ice contribute at both ends (offensively and defensively). Henrik (71.1% offensive zone starts) and Daniel (74.2% offensive zone starts) were not asked to do that as much as compared to St. Louis (48.8%), Perry(47.5%), and Stamkos (49.9%).
Is it an unfair advantage, with scoring on a complete-season scale, to get so many offensive zone starts? Only if your team can control the puck.
In the end, it might not be an offensive player at all who wins the Hart Trophy - Tim Thomas has been the übermensch this season for the Boston Bruins, and it'd be a crime to not select him a finalist for the Hart.
But in matters of recognition, at least of those players highlighted on this post, Martin St. Louis deserves to once again be in consideration for the league MVP award.