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Hart Finalists Revealed: Who Will and Who Should Win?

Recently, NHL fans, analysts, and even players have made arguments for several different players to win the Hart Trophy this season. It has even gotten to the point where the league’s top candidates have been making the case for their competitors to win the award. David Pastrnak advocated for Leon Draisaitl. Nathan MacKinnon advocated for Artemi Panarin. While it is truly wonderful to see the genuine comradery among the league’s top players, the somewhat unfortunate reality is that only one of these players will win the Hart Trophy. Who will it be? Who should it be? To conclude our awards series, let’s make our picks for the Hart Trophy.

The NHL’s Finalists: Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin

Who Will Win:

To some, the Hart Trophy is the NHL’s MVP award. To the voters, however, it truly seems as if the Hart Trophy is the same award as the Art Ross Trophy, which is awarded to the NHL’s leading scorer. This is a slight exaggeration, but it is supported by statistical evidence. Of the 15 skaters who have won the Hart Trophy since 2003, 11 of them have led the NHL in points. Not to detract from the fantastic campaigns put together by Nathan MacKinnon and Artemi Panarin, but we do not see that narrative changing this season given that Leon Draisaitl has 13 more points than any other player this season. Draisaitl has put together a truly spectacular offensive season, which is why we expect him to take home his first Hart Trophy this season.

Who Should Win the Hart Trophy:

Aidan’s Finalists: Connor Hellebuyck, Brad Marchand, Artemi Panarin

Aidan’s Winner: Connor Hellebuyck

What exactly does it mean to be the most valuable player? How do you quantify value?  For many voters, analysts, and fans, the phrase “most valuable player” is simply synonymous with “best player.” For many other voters, analysts, and fans, value is exhibited best when the player’s impact makes a clear difference in the team’s success. For instance, many are quick to rule out an elite player who misses the playoffs because his impact did not make a clear difference in the team’s success. Personally, I equate “value” with “impact,” so the most valuable player is the player who had the greatest impact on his team. The success of the team does not necessarily matter; the only thing I look for is the isolated impact of the individual player.

REGINA, SASKATCHEWAN – OCTOBER 26: Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck #37 of the Winnipeg Jets reacts after giving up a second period goal to Elias Lindholm #28 of the Calgary Flames (not in photo) during the 2019 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic between the Calgary Flames and the Winnipeg Jets at Mosaic Stadium on October 26, 2019 in Regina, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Therefore, when it comes purely to isolated impact, the most valuable player this season was Connor Hellebuyck. The starting goaltender for Winnipeg Jets put together one of the most spectacular individual seasons by a goaltender in recent memory. Granted, it is very rare that a goaltender puts himself in a position to win the Hart Trophy given that goaltenders directly impact only one end of the ice. Given that most of the other legitimate candidates for the Hart Trophy are primarily offensive-minded forwards, Hellebuyck has a realistic and quite strong case this season. This season, Hellebuyck leads all goaltenders in Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx), a statistic that measures a goaltender’s performance when isolated from all external factors by a substantial margin. In fact, the difference between his 19.86 GSAx and the second-greatest GSAx is greater than the difference between the second-greatest GSAx and the 47th-greatest GSAx. As shown in Figure 1, Hellebuyck, the outlier all the way on the right of the histogram, blew away every other goaltender this year in terms of isolated production. In each of Hellebuyck’s co-league-leading 58 games played, the Winnipeg Jets had the luxury of feeling overwhelmingly confident regarding the goaltending matchup, which speaks volumes for Hellebuyck’s 2019-20 Hart Trophy-caliber season.


Figure 1

If it weren’t for Hellebuyck’s unmatched season, Artemi Panarin certainly would be the top candidate in my opinion. To say that Panarin has capitalized on his offensive opportunities this season is an understatement. In fact, Panarin’s Even-Strength Offensive Goals Above Replacement (EVO) is more than three goals greater than the second-highest (EVO). It is extremely rare to see a player dominate the offensive end at even-strength to this extent. The aspect of Panarin’s game that propels him to number two on my Hart Trophy rankings is his versatility. He has been a very productive asset on the power play, as evidenced by his top-30 ranking in Power-Play Goals Above Replacement (PPO) and he has been above replacement-level on defense, as evidenced by his positive Defensive Goals Above Replacement (Def). It remains to be seen whether or not Panarin can perform at the level of $11.6 million per year in his mid-thirties, but the NHL leader in Goals Above Replacement (GAR) among skaters is certainly exceeding that value now.

My third candidate is one of the most underappreciated players of the past decade, Brad Marchand. Fifth among skaters in GAR and second among skaters in Expected Goals Above Replacement (xGAR) are the statistics to describe Marchand’s holistic brilliance this season, but diving into the individual aspects of his game makes his production look even more impressive. Marchand finished top-ten in EVO, top-20 in PPO, while also killing penalties very well. Usually, coaches prefer to save their top offensive players for offensive situations, but the fact that Bruce Cassidy views Marchand as one of the top penalty-killers on the team exhibits his two-way prowess. His even-strength defense has not been great, but his overall production warrants the third Hart Trophy spot.

While many of the voters, analysts, and fans will pick Leon Draisaitl, there are many better options. Draisaitl ranks outside of the top-25 in GAR this season, despite his second-place Offensive Goals Above Replacement (Off) ranking. His Def was the fourth-worst among all skaters this season, which is why he does not deserve significant Hart Trophy consideration. Nathan MacKinnon, Elias Pettersson, Brayden Point, David Pastrnak, Roman Josi, and Auston Matthews all have much stronger cases than Draisaitl to win this award. Altogether, the NHL never fails to impress with its star-studded talent, as all of the players mentioned above have put together truly spectacular seasons overall.

Kush’s Finalists: Brad Marchand, Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin

Kush’s Winner: Artemi Panarin

The Hart Trophy, given to the most valuable player, is the most prestigious award each year. In the 2019-2020 season, New York Rangers star winger Artemi Panarin outshined everyone else, rendering him the deserving recipient. One of the crucial statistics to look at when evaluating the significance of a skater is their Wins Above Replacement (WAR), and Panarin leads all players with a 4.4 WAR. Also, as far as offensive success, he leads all players in EVO with 19.8, and he leads all players in Off with 23.4. Panarin has fit perfectly with the Rangers’ offense and has produced mightily, and due to his tremendous offensive success both at even strength and on the powerplay, he is my pick for the Hart Trophy.

Nathan MacKinnon had a phenomenal season, in which he was a top 2 skater in Goals For (GF) and Corsi For (CF) at even strength. Overall, he was an extreme offensive threat, as he was three standard deviations above average in GF and more than two standard deviations above average in Expected Goals For (xGF) and CF. MacKinnon’s replacement-level defense was one of the main reasons for my pick of Panarin over him. Additionally, Panarin was more successful offensively both at even strength and on the power play. My other nominee is Brad Marchand. On arguably the best line in hockey alongside Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak, Marchand has been a nightmare for opposing goaltenders. He was rated a top-four forward in WAR and a top-seven skater in Off with 16.7. Also, unlike MacKinnon and Panarin, he was a great penalty killer, as he played 110 minutes shorthanded. That said, Panarin was my pick ahead of both MacKinnon and Marchand due to the magnitude of his offensive success both at even strength and on the power play.

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon skates against the St. Louis Blues during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020, in Denver (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

The other primary option is Connor Hellebuyck. He has been the best goalie this season by far and is definitely the leading nominee for the Vezina, as he has the highest GSAx at 19.86. A candidate whom many people think will win is Leon Draisaitl, but although he has been incredible offensively, he is one of the worst defensive players in the NHL. Due to his lackluster defensive production, he falls below the other candidates. The choice was tough, but overall, Panarin seemed to be the most deserving of the award.

What better way is there to conclude our awards series than to reward the top players in the NHL for their fantastic performances this season. As superstars such as Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby missed time due to injury this season, a plethora of forwards capitalized on the opportunity by putting together remarkable campaigns. Although this award will go to only one player, this article should serve also as a reminder of the unbelievable talent in today’s NHL. We would not be surprised to see any of the aforementioned players win the Hart Trophy in the future, as we can say very confidently that the NHL is in great hands.

This article was written in collaboration with Kush Malhotra

All stats are from Evolving-Hockey unless otherwise indicated

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