By Stu Hackel
Should a player whose team fails to make the playoffs get consideration for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP? That’s a question voters for the award may be faced with this season because Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning has been so valuable player to his club.
It’s possible that the question won’t need to be asked, though, because Tampa Bay’s improved play during the last six weeks has given them a shot at the postseason. A main reason they have, however, it is Stamkos.
Regardless of how this race turns out, the season is shaping up as a winner for the Tampa Bay center. The Lightning host Ottawa on Tuesday night and Stamkos is a hat trick away from the 50-goal mark. His closest pursuer for the Rocket Richard Trophy is the Penguin’s Evgeni Malkin, who has 38 goals.
Stamkos and Malkin are neck-and-neck in the race for the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s scoring champion. Malkin held a one point lead going into Tuesday’s action. The Penguins center has had a remarkable campaign and he’s provided the offensive power that has allowed Pittsburgh to survive the extended loss of Sidney Crosby (who has again been cleared for contact) and remain in playoff contention all season long. He’s been prominently mentioned for the Hart Trophy. So has the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, whose goaltending is one of the major reasons why New York has stayed at atop the conference and league this season. Others will get consideration as well, but their teams are far more certain to be playoff clubs than Stamkos’ Lightning.
The Ottawa game will be the 66th match of 2011-12 for Stamkos, who was the NHL’s only 50-goal scorer last season. Corey Perry got his 50th in the Ducks’ 80th game, which shows you the kind of pace that Stamkos is now on. In the past 15 seasons, only Alex Ovechkin has hit the 50-goal mark before his team’s 70th game. He got it in the Capitals’ 67th match of 2007-08 and finished that season with 65. It was also the only time in the last 15 seasons that someone has hit 60. Stamkos has a legitimate shot at that plateau.
And what he’s done for his team is impressive. It’s true that the Lightning have gotten better goaltending in the second half from Mathieu Garon, compared to the leaky netminding they received from Dwayne Roloson earlier in the season. That has mattered a lot. But when Vinny Lecavalier went down with a broken hand on Feb. 21, the Tampa Bay’s prospects were expected to dim.
Not so. Coach Guy Boucher threw together a new first line with Stamkos between Marty St. Louis and Teddy Purcell and they’ve propelled the offense, scoring 16 of Tampa Bay’s last 21 goals. Stamkos got seven of them and another six assists. He was already playing well and now has 18 points in his last nine games. Not coincidentally, his team is 7-2-0 in that stretch.
But assuming the Lightning don’t qualify for the playoffs, should a player from a team that misses the spring tournament be considered for the Hart Trophy?
There is nothing in the instructions given to voters that says a player must be on a playoff team to be considered the league’s MVP. The Hart Trophy is presented annually “to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team” by a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, which is largely made up of the newspaper reporters who cover the 30 NHL clubs. And each team has their own MVP, so it’s a decision about which of those guys has been more valuable to his team compared to the others for their team. It’s not as easy as just selecting the best player, although sometimes that’s the same person.
For the most part, the voters have excluded players whose teams don’t make the postseason, the thinking being that those players couldn’t be all that valuable if their teams didn’t do that well. So there must be a player more valuable to his club than one on a team that does not at least extend its season past early April. The very act of making the playoffs, then, gives players an advantage.
Only three players from non-playoff clubs have won the Hart Trophy: Black Hawks goalie Al Rollins in 1953-54, Rangers right wing Andy Bathgate in 1958-59, and the Penguins’ Mario Lemieux in 1987-88. Rollins, who had previously won the Vezina Trophy with the Maple Leafs,, was a valiant performer on hockey’s worst team — its worst by a mile. He had backstopped a previously terrible Hawks club into the playoffs the year prior to his Hart Trophy season and was runner-up for MVP. Chicago collapsed the next season, won only 12 games — five by Rollins’ shutouts — and finished last with 31 points, a whopping 43 out of the playoffs, but the goalie’s heroics so impressed the voters that they awarded him the Hart.
Bathgate’s Rangers looked like a playoff team in his Hart Trophy campaign, reaching as high as second place by mid-season until collapsing at the end and losing out to Toronto on the last day. His 40 goals and league-best 48 assists beat out Gordie Howe for First Team All-Star honors, which was a feat in itself.
In Lemieux’s case, he scored 70 goals and 168 points in his first Hart Trophy season, ending Wayne Gretzky’s grip on both the Hart and the scoring title. The Pens missed the playoffs by just one point.
The closest anyone has come since then was Jarome Iginla, who won the Art Ross for the non-playoff Flames and was runner-up to Jose Theodore in the 2002 Hart voting. They actually tied in the voting totals, but Theodore got more first-place votes and that was the tiebreaker. The Flames missed the postseason by 15 points, but that didn’t stop voters from writing Iggy’s name on their ballots.
In 2008, Ovechkin won the Hart and his Caps almost missed the playoffs. Had they not finished first in the Southeast, they would have had an early tee time. No other team in their division played after the regular season. But Ovie’s spectacular campaign — still the best statistically of his career — had lots of voters ready to cast their ballots for him regardless of whether the Caps beat out the Hurricanes for the top spot in the Southeast or not. As it turned out, they did and it didn’t become an issue. Had they missed, Ovie might have gone down with Mario, Bathgate and Rollins.
So there is precedent for a player like Stamkos – should his club miss the spring ball — to capture the Hart. He has the same qualifications as Bathgate and Lemieux, a big scorer for a team that certainly would have fallen far shorter without him.
Left for dead by mid-January when they were 10 points south of a playoff spot in the East basement, the Lightning went on to snare 30 of a possible 42. Stamkos has had 10 multi-point games and five game-winning goals since Jan. 31. By Monday, Tampa Bay had closed to within two points of eighth. However, the Jets’ impressive 3-1 win over the Sabres on Monday made the gap four, with the stumbling Capitals wedged in between Tampa Bay and Winnipeg, which plays nine of its final 15 on the road while the Bolts play eight of their next nine at home. So the picture at the bottom of the playoff pile could look much different in a couple of weeks.
Of course, if the Jets could find the energy they get from their home crowd away from the MTS Center, or if the Capitals can somehow find some degree of consistency, the Lightning could be left on the outside looking in. And then the Hart Trophy voters would have a big decision to make.
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