Today, we’re returning to the last week’s assertion that “Marian Gaborik will be MVP”, to cover the question that many of you have to be thinking: “Can a Hart Trophy winner come from a non-playoff team?” – because it’s a sure bet that many of you don’t believe in the New York Rangers’ chances.
As discussed, the oft-injured Gaborik seems to have found a new level of performance. Over the equivalent of half a season now––following his latest hip surgery––the 27 year old Slovakian forward has markedly improved his shooting percentage, goals per game and points per game, indicating that newfound health has enabled him to ascend to the top tier of the NHL’s elite scorers. Never before imagined levels of 50 to 60 goals and 110 points are within reach for the Blue Shirts’ winger. Before this season, no one would have imagined a Hart Trophy possible for Gaborik. Now it does seem possible, but will the mediocre Rangers help or hurt his cause?
Before we begin to answer that question, let’s orient ourselves. The first thing to realize is that skaters are almost always favored in Hart Trophy voting; the difference in performance between the top goaltender and the top skater needs to be vast for the goaltender to win. In fact, since Hall Of Famer Jacques Plante won way back in 1961-62 (42-14-14, 2.37 GAA), the award has only been won three times by goaltenders: Dominik Hasek in 1996-97 (37-20-10, 2.27 GAA, .930 save percentage) and 1997-98 (33-23-13, 2.09 GAA, .932 save percentage) and Jose Theodore in 2001-02 (30-24-10, 2.11 GAA, .931 save percentage). The Dominator won the honor with utterly ridiculous seasons worth 54.0 GVT and 54.1 GVT, while Theodore earned the award with an impressive 43.1 GVT, the second best goalie-season this decade (Roberto Luongo’s 47.1 GVT in 2003-04 went unrewarded for the Vezina Trophy as well).
So putting the top goaltenders aside, we can concentrate on the top skaters by Goals Versus Threshold (GVT). Observing the table below, we can see that Alex Ovechkin was a deserving winner of the Hart last season:
Hart Trophy candidates' GVT: All skaters, 2008-09
Name Team Pos Overall Rank Skaters' Rank GVT Playoff Team?
Alexander Ovechkin WSH F 4 1 27.1 Yes
Pavel Datsyuk DET F 5 2 26.9 Yes
Zach Parise NJD F 6 3 26.3 Yes
Mike Green WSH D 7 4 25.9 Yes
Evgeni Malkin PIT F 10 5 24.1 Yes
Alexander Semin WSH F 12 6 22.8 Yes
Jeff Carter PHI F 14 7 21.6 Yes
Marian Hossa DET F 15 8 20.9 Yes
Mike Richards PHI F 16 9 20.9 Yes
Rick Nash CBJ F 17 10 20.7 Yes
Nicklas Lidstrom DET D 18 11 20.5 Yes
Sidney Crosby PIT F 19 12 20.3 Yes
Simon Gagne PHI F 22 13 19.6 Yes
Joe Thornton SJS F 24 14 18.8 Yes
David Krejci BOS F 25 15 18.8 Yes
We also see that all of the top 15 skaters were on playoff teams! Coincidence? Not really. Think about it – if you have an elite skater providing 25-30 GVT, it should be enough to ensure that your team is playoff-bound in most cases. It’s not to say that you can’t make the playoffs otherwise (like Carolina, New York, Montreal, Vancouver, Chicago, Calgary, St. Louis and Anaheim), but it’s hard to miss the playoffs if you have such a top performer. One thing leads to the other, almost always.
Looking back over the past ten seasons, there were only six cases where a top 5 skater came from a non-playoff team, a small but significant percentage (10%):
Hart Trophy candidates on non-playoff teams: 1997-08 to 2008-09
Name Team Pos Season Overall Rank Skaters' Rank GVT
Alexander Ovechkin WSH F 2005-2006 11 4 24.2
Jarome Iginla CGY F 2001-2002 3 1 29.5
Mike Modano DAL F 2001-2002 10 4 21.3
Paul Kariya ANA F 1999-2000 11 4 22.0
Teemu Selanne ANA F 1997-1998 5 2 26.3
Pavel Bure VAN F 1997-1998 8 5 25.4
Of particular interest is that top skater Jarome Iginla suffered “a broken Hart” to Jose Theodore in 2001-02. While Theodore’s 43.1 GVT significantly exceeded Ignila’s 29.5 GVT, team circumstances were key to the voting: Montreal snagged the eighth seed only through the contributions of Theodore, while the Flames finished 13 points out of the playoffs, even with Iginla’s contributions. The other skater-season of note was Teemu Selanne’s 1997-98 for the dismal 26-43-13 Ducks. Selanne’s 26.3 GVT came in second to Jaromir Jagr’s 26.4 GVT and was another case where team success provided a tiebreaker for voters.
You need to go back to 1987-88 to find a Hart Trophy winner from a non-playoff team, when a 22 year old Mario Lemieux tallied 70 goals, 98 assists, 168 points and 34.9 GVT on a Pittsburgh squad that was last in the Patrick Division but only one point out of a postseason berth. That’s one immortal Hall Of Famer who did won the Hart, and over 20 years ago. So it has been done before, but you may have trouble convincing folks that Marian Gaborik is Mario Lemieux.
So how do things stack up this season?
Hart Trophy candidates' GVT: All skaters, 2009-10
Name Team Pos Projected GVT Playoff Team?
Marian Gaborik NYR F 32.3 No
Zach Parise NJD F 32.2 Yes
Alexander Ovechkin WSH F 31.7 Yes
Sidney Crosby PIT F 30.0 Yes
Henrik Sedin VAN F 24.9 No
Patrick Marleau SJS F 24.1 Yes
Mikko Koivu MIN F 23.1 No
Mike Green WSH D 22.6 Yes
Duncan Keith CHI D 22.0 Yes
Anze Kopitar LAK F 21.9 Yes
A quick and dirty look at GVT’s to date in 2009-10––extrapolated through the regular season––indicates that three of the top ten skaters may not be on playoff teams (based on each team’s current points per game). That’s misleading, though. First of all, the Rangers (and Canucks) are certainly in the playoff picture, only marginally off the pace of teams like Ottawa and Tampa Bay. If New York does qualify for the postseason, it will make a strong argument for Gaborik. Second, there is a great divide between the top four of Gaborik, Zach Parise, Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby and the others, both in GVT and proven talent. We can look at the top four and give them a legitimate shot of sustaining a 30 GVT pace.
If the Hart Trophy came down to a close race between these four forwards, with New Jersey, Washington and Pittsburgh easily qualifying for the postseason, while the New York Rangers snuck in for a seventh or eighth seed, there would be no question that voters would consider Gaborik’s contribution to be much more critical to his team. But even if the Rangers narrowly missed the playoffs, could Parise, Ovechkin and Crosby be considered critical for their teams making the postseason? With all three teams on pace to exceed 110 points, the answer is no. With roughly 2.7 GVT corresponding to one point in the standings, these three juggernauts might even qualify for home ice advantage in the first round without their top guns. Given no otherworldly goaltending performance this season, Marian Gaborik will deserve to win the Hart Trophy if can stay on pace for a 55 goal, 110 point season, even if New York falls short of the playoffs with a 90 point campaign. But given a contribution of 30 GVT towards the Blue Shirts’ postseason push, Gaborik will likely not have to worry about that contingency, as the MVP-caliber season should bring the team some success as well.
Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.