In the brief period during which the regular season draws to a close but the playoffs have yet to begin, we have time to voice our opinions on who the NHL’s annual award winners should be. I will save my comments on the other awards for the final edition of the power rankings; in many cases GVT, augmented by a few other stats, can anoint a winner. The really interesting race this year concerns league MVP, where the emergence of Henrik Sedin has caused many hockey writers to argue that he is the most worthy Hart winner and that if he doesn’t win, it is because of East Coast bias. I disagree. While Sedin has been very good, he has not been the most valuable player in the NHL this season. Nor, for that matter, has Alexander Ovechkin, the perennial favorite. The title belongs to Sidney Crosby.
Let’s establish a few ground rules first. I’m neglecting goaltenders in this analysis because they’re different animals than skaters and head-to-head comparisons are hard to make. If you want to count goaltenders, obviously Ryan Miller would be a strong candidate. Sticking to skaters, Sedin, Ovechkin and Crosby are the most popular finalists; I would agree, and would controversially add Pavel Datsyuk to that mix. I will explain why shortly.
Even strength performance: Sedin has put up the best even-strength offensive numbers of the 4 players, with 25.5 goals created versus 25 for Crosby, 24 for Ovechkin, and only 17 for Datsyuk. Advantage Sedin. But these numbers mask a huge gulf in both quality of linemates and quality of competition, all of which argue in favor of Crosby. In terms of linemates, Ovechkin shares the ice over 80% of the time with Nicklas Backstrom, no slouch himself, while Sedin has his twin brother Daniel. Yes, Daniel missed 18 games, and Henrik performed at a point-a-game pace during that time, but that’s a small sample and, either way, would only put him on pace for 82 points, which he achieved last year when nobody talked about him as a Hart candidate. Also note that both Henrik and Daniel are +34, which means Henrik alone is +0. More importantly, the Sedins are not used against the opposition’s top lines: that role is reserved for Ryan Kesler, usually with Mason Raymond. Sedin’s DeltaOpp is -0.1, indicating barely average opponents. In contrast, Ovechkin is used against strong competition, with a DeltaOpp of +1.3, although since he plays in the Southeast even the best opponents aren’t that strong. Crosby and Datsyuk, however, are used against the best of the best. It’s amazing how much of the heavy lifting Crosby does on the Penguins, with easier work for Jordan Staal and much easier work for Evgeni Malkin; Crosby’s DeltaOpp is +2.7 and so is Datsyuk’s. Crosby is also paired will Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz, good players, but neither of them will be confused for Daniel Sedin or Nicklas Backstrom. With Franzen out of the lineup, Datsyuk has typically lined up with Tomas Holmstrom and Todd Bertuzzi, so it’s Datsyuk who is driving the bus.
The bottom line is that Sedin has had an easier job than Ovechkin and much easier role than Crosby, with better linemates than Crosby. Datsyuk, like Crosby, has faced tough opposition with ordinary linemates, but these factors alone won’t work him into the MVP conversation just yet.
Power play: As offensive superstars, you would expect all of these guys to produce on the power-play, but they’ve been less dominant than one would assume. I wrote a very controversial article earlier this year berating Crosby for the Penguins’ power-play woes, and indeed since then they’ve turned the ship around. Crosby’s 1.6 goals created per 60 minutes is slightly above-average given his considerable power-play ice time (anything above 1.5 is decent). Ovechkin has had the best raw totals, 2.0 goals created per 60 minutes, although he plays on a much stronger unit; indeed, the Capitals power-play suffers more from the absence of Backstrom than Ovechkin: it scores 9.14 goals per 60 with Ovechkin on the ice, but 10.8 with Backstrom! Datsyuk’s numbers are also great, scoring 2.0 goals created per 60 and with the team scoring 7.64 per 60 minutes of ice time. Sedin’s numbers have been the worst of the four on the power-play, achieving only 1.5 goals created per 60 minutes (GC/60) and with his team scoring 6.71 goals per 60 minutes with him on the ice. The best power-play man in the NHL? None other than Joe Thornton.
Penalty killing: Ovechkin kills no penalties, but all three of the others spend slightly under a minute per game, on average, on the penalty kill, and they have been good. Crosby has the best 4-on-5 DeltaSOT at +2.7, with Datsyuk at +2.1 and Sedin at +1.1, and Crosby and Sedin have also each added 2 short-handed goals. How good have they been? In the 69 minutes Crosby has spent killing penalties, the Penguins have only been outscored by 1 goal, and the Canucks have actually been even in Sedin‘s 51 shorthanded minutes. Give bonus points to everyone but Ovechkin.
Net penalties: We’re not used to accounting for net penalties in player value, but they can have a large impact. The best penalty drawer in the NHL, Dustin Brown, has drawn 50 more penalties than he’s taken, accounting for roughly 10 goals of value over that time. However, none of our top three candidates, Crosby, Ovechkin and Sedin, has excelled in this respect. Crosby started out the season very poorly, taking many penalties (again, see this article), but is now about even on the season. Ovechkin is also even; he draws many penalties, but takes his own share, including a few majors. Sedin is below average for a forward; forwards tend to take fewer penalties than defensemen because of their role, so a forward who breaks even isn’t carrying his own weight. Datsyuk, however, has drawn 28 penalties and taken only 3, an amazing net differential of 25, which means he has created 5 goals of value for his team.
Faceoffs: Ovechkin is a winger, but the other three are all centers and are responsible for winning faceoffs. Sedin is average at this, with a faceoff percentage of 49.2%, while Crosby and Datsyuk are both excellent. Because of his considerable ice time, Crosby has taken the most faceoffs in the NHL this season, 1708, and has won an impressive 56.1% of them, meaning he has won 200 more faceoffs than he has lost. Datsyuk has taken fewer draws, but his success rate is a comparable 55.5%. While faceoffs tend to be minor events in the great scheme, gaining possession an extra three times per game over the course of a season is valuable. Datsyuk is also the NHL’s leader in takeaways for a third season in a row.
Shootout: While the shootout is mostly luck, it isn’t at the extremes, and 8 goals in 10 attempts is not a fluke, especially coming from a player already renowned for his hands and his shot. Crosby has been the NHL’s best shootout scorer this year, which has helped his team go 8-2 in the extra round. Datsyuk has been above-average at 6-in-13.
Padded stats: It’s important to note that 5 of Ovechkin’s 48 goals and 3 of Sedin’s 29 have been empty-netters, in each case over 10% of their total. Only 1 of Crosby’s 48 and none of Datsyuk’s 27 have been empty-net goals. While empty-net goals are legitimate for the Rocket Richard trophy, since they do count on the scoreboard, they should be at least discounted when looking at a player’s offensive contribution, as they rarely affect a game’s outcome and are much easier to score. To those who say that empty-net goals require work since the team is playing short-handed, I would remind you that teams playing against empty-net opponents score roughly 13 goals per 60 minutes, twice the rate of a power-play and over five times the rate at which teams score at even-strength. It’s just not that hard for an NHL superstar to score into an empty-net.
Overall, you can see that while Crosby’s raw numbers don’t compare that well to Ovechkin’s (less games) or Sedin’s (more points), there are many other ways in which he contributes to his team, from winning faceoffs to facing top lines to killing penalties. Datsyuk’s game is equally well-rounded, and if his scoring stats were better he might be the front-runner for the award. Ovechkin doesn’t kill penalties, doesn’t take faceoffs, and even as a goal-scorer has been outdone by Crosby this season. Sedin has certainly piled on the points, but has done so against middling opposition and with another player on his line who is his equal. The actual most valuable player in the NHL this year has been Sidney Crosby.
For my readers further interested in Delta, full Delta numbers for the last three seasons can now be found on Google Docs here.
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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