What We Learned: The MVP race is heating up

Taylor Hall has gotten a lot of Hart Trophy buzz lately? But is he really the frontrunner?

At this point it’s pretty easy to see where the battle lines are drawn.

The Taylor Hall for MVP people are encamped along a Maginot Line of “look how bad everyone else on his team is,” and to be sure the fact that he has 31 more points than linemate Nico Hischier is pretty telling in this regard. Hall basically has to play with everyone on an underwhelming offensive team (the Devils score a little below the league average in goals per game) and have been without some key offensive contributors for big stretches of the season.

So the fact that Hall – who’s now pointless in his last two games – had a stretch of 38 points in 26 games is pretty incredible. Is it MVP-worthy? Well, you definitely have to put him in the conversation. Even if you don’t think he’s The Guy, if he’s not in your top-three you’re Universal-Braining a Galactic Brain argument. I’m not and never will be one of those “you gotta make the playoffs to be up for an MVP award” guys — I’m also not an awards voter, so the point is ultimately moot — but while Hall’s help hasn’t really been there this season, let’s not act like Nico Hischier (who I seem to recall being a first-overall pick somewhat recently) and Kyle Palmieri are, all of a sudden, offensive slouches. Palmieri is on a 30-goal pace but missed a bunch of games, and Hischier is likely to clear 50 points with some ease as a teenager.

Hall’s lack of help is basically the only indicator of why he’s in the MVP argument; his points- or goals-per-game numbers are extremely high-end, but neither would otherwise qualify him for serious consideration. Among the “only guys who push their teams into the playoffs are worthy of consideration” crowd, there is a disquieting fact behind Hall’s MVP candidacy: They’re basically a coin-flip to make it at this point, with Florida charging hard and their own performances falling apart even as Hall kept up his hot hand; the Devils have just four wins from their last 10 games and face a nightmare West Coast road swing before coming back to the East with games against Pittsburgh (twice) and Tampa before the end of March.

Should they miss the playoffs, even by a single point,  the party-line voters will suddenly flip from touting him to espousing the idea that Hall’s scoring ended up being counterproductive to what the Devils should have been trying to do all year; the obvious counterargument to that is, “If you need an MVP to get you into the playoffs on a tiebreaker (or whatever), you should probably be trying to tank anyway.”

The thinking behind the Hall candidacy is especially troubling when viewed in the context of what Nathan MacKinnon is doing in Denver. He’s scoring at the 11th-highest rate in the cap era (1.35 points per game, significantly better than Hall’s 1.16) and, like Hall, is the solitary reason his team is in the playoff conversation. Like the Devils, the Avs are in a tenuous playoff position (they entered Sunday a point up on Los Angeles) but the Hall boosters would say, “Well look at Miko Rantanen, because he’s only 12 points back of MacKinnon and not 30.”

Rantanen has 69 points, but MacKinnon has been in on 41 one of them, and 21 of them were secondary assists on primary MacKinnon points. The idea that everything somehow isn’t running through MacKinnon here simply has no footing; MacKinnon has just eight secondary points on anything Rantanen has done this season.

Put another way, MacKinnon is on a team that basically has the same chances of making the playoffs at this point as Hall’s does, but he has five more points in four fewer games; if he’d stayed healthy and kept scoring at this pace, he would be just the ninth player to clear 110 points in the cap era. One point three five points per game, 81 in 60. That’s remarkable.

Simply put, if people are going to make the case for Taylor Hall, anyone who does so while saying he’s having a better or more valuable season than MacKinnon is selling you something.

But the other two legitimate candidates right now are, of course, not going to be seriously considered for this award because their teams aren’t total trash otherwise. Yup, the fact that Nikita Kucherov and Evgeni Malkin (the former of whom has cooled somewhat in the past several games, while Malkin has only heated up) have other competent NHL scorers on their teams. They are “only” scoring at a pace to tie the 14th-highest points per game number in the cap era.

Kucherov has 24 points in his last 16 games, but there are a lot of one-point nights mixed in there that will make some prognosticators frown at his inefficacy in the face of Hall’s assault. Obviously the Lightning have been the best team in the league for the bulk of the season (having only recently been overtaken by Boston and, arguably, Nashville) but the fact that Kucherov was scoring almost 1.3 points per night through the end of January seems to me like a fairly big reason why.

I know we’re supposed to think other guys on the Lightning are driving the bus for their success, but Kucherov is in much the same boat as MacKinnon; he’s scoring a ton, and his linemate (Steven Stamkos) is certainly helping, but after that the next-closest scorer on his team is 31 points back.

(Point of order on this: Were we punishing Sid Crosby for getting help from Evgeni Malkin back when he won two MVPs? Which, by the way, how does Crosby only have two MVPs?)

As for Andrei Vasilevskiy, he’s been very good but if he’s not even a top-10 goalie in the league in terms of goals saved above average (which examines a goalie’s performance versus what an average goalie would be expected to stop while facing the same workload); in fact, among goalies with at least 2,000 minutes in all situations, he’s 12th behind……….. Taylor Hall teammate Cory Schneider. So that argument, simply put, does not hold water.

There is a case to be made, too, for Evgeni Malkin, who has 85 points in 65 games and is therefore scoring at the same points-per-game pace as Kucherov. He, of course, has both Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby there to keep the team going when he’s off the ice (in theory) but the goaltending in Pittsburgh has been so bad they’ve absolutely needed it. Malkin is having his best since season 2011-12, when he won the Hart, and third-best ever. Moreover — and this is more of a refutation of the Hall argument than anything else — Malkin has a lot more points in his last 28 games (47!) than Hall (38), but has gotten none of the recognition for it because he was held off the scoresheet a few times.

None of these guys would be a totally wrong choice for MVP this season — none approach the Eric Staal multidimensional-brain takes that were brewing a while back — but some are more-right than others, and right now I think you’d have to go MacKinnon, Hall, Malkin, Kucherov as your Nos. 1-4. The gap between MacKinnon and Hall’s output coupled with their more-or-less-similar underlyings tell the story as to why.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks want to host an All-Star Game, and one imagines the response from players and media will be like “Hmm, yes, that’s better than Edmonton or something.”

Arizona Coyotes: Now they’re looking to bring on more investors. Good lord, just move the team already.

Boston Bruins: Since Patrice Bergeron went down with his injury, Brad Marchand has 11 points in five games. He’ll never get MVP consideration for obvious reasons, but he’s been the Bruins’ best player this year and only hoopleheads could disagree.

Buffalo Sabres: Did Terry Pegula run over a witch’s cat or something?

Calgary Flames: With Mike Smith finally about to return, one wonders if the Flames can put together a little run to get back into the playoffs. I kinda doubt it at this point but Smith has been shockingly good this year.

Carolina Hurricanes: Can we please, for the love of god, stop fawningly taking every word this guy says as the absolute gospel?

Chicago Blackhawks: Not the best penalty-killing performance I’ve ever seen out of this group. In fact, the last time they allowed four power play goals was November 2011. Kind of a long time ago.

Colorado Avalanche: Yeah but it’s pretty easy to win when three of your first four shots go in.

Columbus Blue Jackets: These guys have four wins in a row and are now back in a playoff spot. Do you call that peaking at the right time or something? I dunno, just don’t look at the last four teams they played if you want to remain impressed.

Dallas Stars: Tough not to see this as a playoff team at this point. They haven’t sewn it up, exactly, but they gotta be close.

Detroit Red Wings: Man what are these young guys supposed to do? Look how many bums they gotta tote around.

Edmonton Oilers: Unmentioned in the above MVP discussion, probably unfairly, is the fact that Connor McDavid is probably gonna score 100 points again this year.

Florida Panthers: Eight in a row at home. That’s a team record. Imagine if this team gets past New Jersey for a playoff spot? A lot of media guys are gonna be looking up Sasha Barkov’s stats for the first time all season.

Los Angeles Kings: Probably not good to lose to the post-deadline-selloff Blues by five. Just my opinion.

Minnesota Wild: Y’know, sometimes you just run into Connor McDavid.

Montreal Canadiens: I love to get a point for a moral victory.

Nashville Predators: At least the Preds earned a loser point, right?

New Jersey Devils: This is a sad, sad headline.

New York Islanders: I flatly refuse to believe there are any people alive blaming John Tavares for the Islanders’ struggles. They cannot exist.

New York Rangers: Remember how last week people were trying to say the Rangers were back in the playoff race? Oops.

Ottawa Senators: Man, this is bleak.

Philadelphia Flyers: Winnipeg is probably not a bad team to beat to snap your losing streak.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Imagine Bryan Rust gets hurt and you’re like, Uh oh.” That’s another Malkin MVP argument.

San Jose Sharks: Hold on, how did I not know Alex Ovechkin was a Sharks fan growing up?

St. Louis Blues: My mediocre forward who was almost scratched but then scored a goal is also named Bortuzzo.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Kucherov was involved in driving another Tampa comeback, you say? Interesting.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Nazem Kadri is some kinda second-line center, boy. Real strong player.

Vancouver Canucks: Second Canucks/Coyotes game in less than a week. Please don’t be the kind of person who watches both of them.

Vegas Golden Knights: Huge road win… in the shootout……. at Buffalo………. in a comeback………….. to win for just the third time in the last seven games.

Washington Capitals: This is an interesting extension for Bryan MacLellan considering what’s probably going to happen to this team over the next few years.

Winnipeg Jets: Maybe another MVP candidate is Patrik Laine, who’s up to 40 goals for the year. Or at least, he would be if he didn’t only have 23 assists.

Play of the Weekend

Love the vision on this pass from Patrik Berglund.

Gold Star Award

Here’s how much of a heater the Bruins are on: Brian Gionta has six points in five games since joining the team, and that’s after he was deeply bad at the Olympics. This team can do no wrong right now. Amazing!

Minus of the Weekend

Lately a lot of people have been complaining about how bad the NHL’s goaltender interference rules have been this season. The NHL’s answer to the criticism? You guessed it: “Please stop criticizing us.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “mikeg” did, to be fair, preface this by saying it’s a trade proposal.

Mtl trades 1st pick in 2018 and Max Pacioretty
Edm trades 1st pick in 2018 and 2019 and RNH

Signoff

Really? Well I’m from Utica and I’ve never heard anyone use the phrase “steamed hams.”

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)