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Morning Coffee: The meaning of the Hart Trophy, chaos in Buffalo, and more

Morning Coffee is a weekly column about interesting stories from around the league, brought to you by NATIONCOFFEE. 

The Hart Trophy has become a major point of contention because nobody seems to be able to agree on what it means.

The award is awarded annually to the “player judged most valuable to his team” which is a slightly more open-to-interpretation version of the simple Most Valuable Player awards we have in pretty much every other league.

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In recent years, the most valuable to his team verbiage has resulted in players who weren’t necessarily the best players in the league winning the award. Take 2017-18, for example, when Taylor Hall won the Hart Trophy. He finished with 93 points in 76 games, good for sixth-most points in the league.

But the key to Hall’s Hart Trophy nod was the value he had to his team. The New Jersey Devils posted a 44-29-9 record and made the playoffs despite a very weak roster. The second-highest scorer on that team after Hall was a 19-year-old Nico Hischier, who had 52 points. If you had taken Hall off the team, there’s no way New Jersey would have made the playoffs. Thus, logically, he was “player judged most valuable to his team.”

The following season, the goalposts seemed to shift when it came to the Hart Trophy. Rather than awarding it to a player who basically singlehandedly willed his team to the playoffs, it was given to the best player on the best team. Nikita Kucherov scored a whopping 128 points for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning.

Was Kucherov really the player most valuable to his team? If you removed Kucherov from the Lightning, they’re still a playoff team. Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point eclipsed 90 points, Victor Hedman had a Norris-calibre season, and Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Vezina Trophy. Meanwhile, you can’t tell me that the Colorado Avalanche would have snuck into the playoffs if not for Nathan MacKinnon’s 99-point season, especially given his play when Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen were injured.

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Finally, that brings us to this season. Leon Draisaitl finished with a clear lead in the league scoring race, posting 110 points in 71 games before the season was canceled. The second-highest scorer, 13 points behind Draisaitl, was teammate Connor McDavid, who had 97.

The narrative now seems to be shifting back to where it was when Hall won the award. Many have suggested that Draisaitl can’t win the Hart Trophy because McDavid was also on the team, so they share the responsibility of lifting the Oilers back to the playoffs. A popular choice for the Hart is Artemi Panarin (who had 95 points playing with Jesper Fast and Ryan Strome) because he helped a mediocre Rangers squad do better than expected. The Rangers, though, weren’t in a playoff spot at the time the league was paused.

So while Kucherov could run away with the Hart despite having Stamkos, Point, and Hedman on his team, while Draisaitl, who also led the league in scoring by a mile, shouldn’t because of McDavid. Also, Panarin deserves the Hart, but McDavid, who also made bad teams better, couldn’t win the award in 2018 or 2019 because the Oilers missed the playoffs.

I’m obviously biased, but I think Draisaitl should win the Hart because he led the league in points by a mile, he drove a very successful line without McDavid on it, he played a role on the team’s penalty kill, and he upped his game during the short stretch in which McDavid was out of the lineup.

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In 1995-96, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr finished first and second in league scoring with 161 and 149 points respectively, well clear of anybody else. Lemieux would deservedly win the Hart Trophy. Wayne Gretzky won year after year after year in the 80s and the presence of Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, or anybody else on those stacked teams detracted from his obvious value.

The issue is that the meaning around the Hart Trophy seems to be shifting year by year. One year, it’ll be which player was the best player in the league this season and another year it’ll be which player had an amazing season on a mediocre team. 

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Maybe we need two different awards. Let the Hart Trophy be the one for the player deemed most valuable to his team, so, a guy like Hall or Panarin who was a major difference-maker, and then have the Wayne Gretzky Trophy for the most outstanding player, regardless of context. Or, hell, just change the wording on the Hart Trophy to be like everybody else in sports, The Most Valuable Player, and it becomes much less complicated.

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Elsewhere…

The Buffalo Sabres are a disaster. There’s no other way to put it. They’re into the fifth season of Jack Eichel’s career and they’ve come nowhere close to making the playoffs. They’ve had three different head coaches in that span and now they’re on their third general manager.

“Team president Kim Pegula said they’re not rebuilding, right before the team did a gut renovation on its hockey operations department on Tuesday, but she says a lot of things. Such as on May 26, when she said Jason Botterill was “our GM” and “our plan is to continue with him” even though “it’s not popular with the fans” because “we have a little bit more information than maybe a fan does.”

That was three weeks before she fired him.” – Greg Wyshynski, ESPN.

A couple of days after Botterill received his vote of confidence from Sabres ownership, Eichel ranted to media about his frustration levels with missing the playoffs yet again. Having 22 teams in the playoffs and not being one of them will obviously leave you feeling a little sore. Eichel said, “Listen, I’m fed up with the losing and I’m fed up and I’m frustrated. You know, it’s definitely not an easy pill to swallow right now. It’s been a tough couple of months. It’s been a tough five years with where things have gone.”

Looking at the team’s roster and salary cap situation, it’s difficult to imagine the Sabres turning things around quickly. With that in mind, it’s difficult not to wonder how much longer Eichel will want to stick around in Buffalo. He’s just two years into an eight-year deal worth $10 million annually with the playoffs nowhere in sight.

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Earlier this week, former NHL defenceman Kevin Bieksa appeared on Sportsnet’s Tim and Sid to talk about, among other things, the NHL returning to play. Here’s the full interview…

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Bieksa said that, based on the players he’s talked to, the league’s announcement caught a lot of players off guard and that many players believe the league should just start fresh in the fall. According to Bieksa, a key issue for the players is how all of the momentum from the regular season is gone so getting up and playing after such a long period of time being stagnant will make the playoffs a mess.

I understand the worry around health and safety and the skepticism around being quarantined away from family, but discussions about the format, momentum, and this and that making the playoffs illegitimate seems misguided.

The entire notion of cancel the season and start fresh in the fall is a puzzling one for me. Take a look at Major League Baseball and the difficulty they’ve had getting an entire season started in the wake of the pandemic. It’s much easier to complete a post-season in a window of time than it is to start, execute, and complete something close to an entire season.

We also have no clue what the fall is going to look like. Is the standard flu season in the fall and winter going to result in a big, second wave of the virus? If that’s the case, will playing and traveling even be feasible? There seems to be a window right now to execute the playoffs and not capitalizing on it could be disastrous for the sport. I don’t think coming back ready in the fall is a given, no matter how well everything is planned.

Next week will be the announcement of the 2020 Hockey Hall of Fame class. The obvious one in this year’s class is Jarome Iginla, who will surely be elected on his first ballot. But who else might we see?

It’s odd to me that Alexander Mogilny isn’t already in the Hall. This will be his 11th year of eligibility. Mogilny’s 473 goals rank him 53rd all-time, tied with Hall of Famer Denis Savard. His 76-goal performance in 1992-93 with the Sabres is one of the best single seasons for a goal-scorer of all-time. Mogilny also won a Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 2000, an Olympic Gold with the Soviet Union in 1988, and a World Junior Gold in 1989. Mogilny is also a key historical figure in hockey as the first player to defect from the Soviet Union to play in the NHL.

Sportsnet put out a nice, short documentary on Mogilny defecting from the Soviet Union (which I posted above) in order to join the Sabres that’s worth a watch.

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