Heading into the last twelve games of the season, the Tampa Bay Lightning are in great shape as a team. They’re playing well and still in position to enter the playoffs with favorable seeding. As fans, we don’t have much have to complain about theses days. So, I’m going to do my job as a blogger and give us a reason to get mad online: Trophies!
Should Nikita Kucherov win the Hart? Probably not! Should Victor Hedman win the Norris? Definitely not! Does this make me a heretic and will Acha ban me from the site forever for posting this while she’s on vacation? Maybe!
Let’s start with the Hart Trophy race. I’ve selected ten forwards who I think should be in the discussion for the Hart. To select these ten forwards, I used an extremely scientific process known as the “because I said so” method.
The ten players I’ve chosen are: Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, Blake Wheeler, Taylor Hall, Nathan MacKinnon, and Claude Giroux. You probably disagree with some of these names and would add others. Too bad! These are the names.
To compare these players, I’ve made a heatmap using data from Corsica as I am overwhelmingly wont to do. As you can probably guess from looking at it, blue is good and orange is bad. Because we’re looking at the best players in the league, we’re going to be looking at a lot of blue here.
If you’re a Lightning fan, you probably went right to Nikita Kucherov to see what the heck would make me even suggest that he might not be my choice for the Hart. And lo, you saw his shot share and expected goal share impacts, and knew that I was right.
Listen, Kuch has had a great season. He’s definitely in my top top three. But for me to just pick the scoring leader while ignoring the rest of his on-ice impacts would be grossly hypocritical.
I see four players along with Kucherov who stand apart to form a top five: Nathan MacKinnon, Taylor Hall, Connor McDavid, and Claude Giroux. Once we get down to five players, the only way to make decisions is to nitpick.
Working my way backwards, I have Hall in fifth. He’s having the year in New Jersey that everyone has been waiting from him to have since the Oilers drafted him first overall. If I based my vote on which narrative was most appealing, he’d win easily. Watching the Edmonton media meltdown after the former whipping boy wins the Hart would be wonderful. But alas, I can’t make much of a case for him considering the other options.
Giroux is in fourth and he isn’t getting nearly enough attention from the national media. He’s scoring at a high rate. His two-way impacts are outrageous. He’s by far the most well-rounded player on this list. For him to be this high in the discussion after his struggles last season must be quite a relief to Flyers fans. He’s having one of the best years of his career after transitioning to wing alongside Sean Couturier. Any Hart list that doesn’t include Giroux is making a mistake.
Third and second are almost impossible for me to choose. I’m confident that MacKinnon and Kucherov are the next two on the list but they’re almost dead even. Their scoring rates are similar. MacKinnon has better on-ice impacts. The only real separator is the amount of ice time. Kucherov has been healthier and played more minutes, which has allowed him to rack up slightly higher counting stats. He also has a slightly higher game score. Because of that I’m going to give him the edge, but I couldn’t argue much with MacKinnon in second.
The debate over second place is fun but, ultimately, it’s still only second place. The player who would be first on my ballot is Connor McDavid. Comfortably. He’s among the leaders in scoring. His on-ice impacts are second only to Giroux on this list. His offensive impacts are so extreme that even giving up a little defensively still results in huge gains overall.
The main arguments against McDavid focus on his team’s results. “You can’t win the Hart on a bad team” they say. But if that’s the criteria, then MacKinnon shouldn’t be in the discussion because the Avalanche are worse than the Oilers. Colorado is 25th in the league in expected goal share. They’ve been one of the most fortunate teams in the league in terms of shooting and save percentage. They’re not very good. If the award has to go to a player on a good team, then Kucherov should walk away with the award. The other serious contenders play on middling teams at best.
If you hated my opinions on the Hart Trophy, well then good news everyone: I have even worse opinions on the Norris Trophy!
Victor Hedman has gotten some discussion as a contender for the Norris, but he’s not a serious contender for me. The Norris race this year is cluttered and I’m not sure where I’d rank him exactly but probably somewhere in the three to five range.
The reason I’m not going to dive too deep into ranking Hedman is because I see two clear leaders for the Norris and neither is a name getting much attention. The typical leaders in this discussion have been Hedman, Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban and even John Klingberg as an outsider. But for me, Dougie Hamilton and Seth Jones should be the clear favorites.
Picking between them is difficult. Both have had great all-around seasons. Hamilton has slightly better impacts on shot share and expected goal share. Jones is a better scorer. One other notable difference is how they’re utilized. Jones plays in all situations and is utilized like a true top pairing defender. Hamilton doesn’t play on the penalty kill. Jones also plays about four minutes more than Hamilton.
Taking everything into consideration, Seth Jones would get my vote for Norris. His results are impressive in all aspects. He drives play for his team. His defensive impacts are outstanding. He scores at a high rate. In a field stacked with more popular names, I doubt Jones gets much attention. Instead, we’ll probably hear more about Hedman, Doughty, etc. But Jones deserves to be in that discussion and, for me, he’s at the top of the ballot.
Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman have each had a great season, but those seasons weren't quite good enough to win the Hart and Norris respectively. Kucherov has a better shot to bring home hardware than Hedman according to the evidence. But the lack of big name defenders having great years could mean Hedman is in better position than he would be if Hamilton and Jones were more well established. The media’s bias toward stars on good teams could easily result in both players winning.
As a fan, I would be excited to see both win the awards. But as an “objective” analyst, I can’t say I would agree with either decision. Fortunately for me and everyone reading this, I don't get to make the decision. So, tell me how wrong I am in the comments before Acha sees this and fires me for writing it.