Much of the fun (or madness, depending on your perspective) when it comes to debating the Hart Trophy every NHL season stems from the vague definition of the award. It's that ambiguity that lends itself to colorful debate, with opinions on what actually constitutes "most valuable" varying wildly depending on whom you ask.
In the eyes of many, you need to be on a good team. But the team can't be too good, or you risk being docked points for receiving too much help. Nikita Kucherov bucked that trend with his preposterous 128-point 2018-19 season, but it certainly played a role in the 2017-18 race, when Taylor Hall took the award home largely because he didn't have Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen as running mates.
You get bonus points for being a solo act who single-handedly carries his team, but that's not enough on its own, because of the fine print in the unwritten rules that states you must also make the playoffs just to qualify for consideration in voters' minds.
On one hand, this logic is understandable in the sense that a great individual on a team that misses the playoffs didn't ultimately accomplish much (except for arguably decreasing the odds of netting a high draft pick). But it's still quite strange that the same people who unabashedly prop up the team nature of the sport will move the goalposts when discussing the merits of just one individual.
As we glide into the stretch run, the discussion should get particularly interesting and convoluted. We're especially flush with deserving candidates, in large part thanks to a game that's catered toward individual skill more than ever before. Just five years ago, Jamie Benn won the scoring title with 87 points, one of just five players to exceed the 80-point plateau. For perspective on how things have changed, we're in the first week of February, and Leon Draisaitl already has 83 points. He's hardly the only one at that mark, with at least a handful of other stars who will surely join him there in the coming weeks.
Scoring is up across the NHL, and we're seeing all sorts of video- game numbers as a result. That's a great thing, but it also means there's more to consider when it comes to quantifying who's having the biggest impact and who's going to make the cut for the award.
Let's try to make some better sense of it by outlining both the case for and against each viable candidate, in no particular order. Data in this piece is current through Tuesday afternoon, and is courtesy of Evolving Hockey and Natural Stat Trick.
The case for McDavid
This one is fairly self-explanatory. He's once again unequivocally the best player in the world. He's on pace for 46 goals and 125 points, which would represent a jump in production for the fourth consecutive season.
The singular impact he has on the team is just as notable. With McDavid on the ice at 5-on-5, the Oilers are outscoring opponents 51-45 in 860 minutes. In the 1,660 5-on-5 minutes they've played without him, they're getting caved in 73-54.
At times it looks like he's playing a different sport, or at least playing at a different speed than anyone else. He's such a unique player that it feels like NHL referees don't quite know how to officiate him, reminiscent of Shaquille O'Neal in his NBA prime.
He's so fast that opposing players need to obstruct him as a survival mechanism just to somewhat level the playing field, putting the officials in a tough position where they almost need to strategically pick and choose what they call and what they let go in lieu of turning the game into a penalty sideshow (a la the 2005-06 NHL season). If they're not going to call everything, then it turns into a numbers game for opponents to see how much they can get away with.
It's the most plausible theory for explaining how McDavid has drawn only 21 penalties all season while playing an obscenely high volume of minutes (15 players have drawn more), when there have been single games this season where he's seemingly been hooked and held 21 times moving up and down the ice. Considering that no team scores more frequently with the man advantage than the Oilers do, this is a pretty big deal and something to monitor moving forward.
The case against McDavid
The relatively recent development of splitting McDavid and Leon Draisaitl up at 5-on-5 has been a great one for the Oilers as a team, but has somewhat complicated matters for the purposes of this particular conversation.
The case for doing so has always been that it ultimately doesn't matter who's playing with McDavid, because he's going to get his production, and he's also going to elevate the performance of whoever is riding shotgun. You and I could be his linemates and he'd still get a 20-plus-goal season out of us. He's most recently been flanked by Zack Kassian and Josh Archibald, and he's been doing just fine.
Where things get interesting is with Draisaitl, because he's finally starting to show flashes of taking his game to the final level by carrying his own line without the help of McDavid. That has conveniently coincided with the promotion of Kailer Yamamoto, with the two of them and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins finally giving Dave Tippett a reliably productive second forward unit. The three of them have been dynamite in their 11 games since being put together; in 125 even-strength minutes they've outscored opponents 13-2, while controlling 55.7% of the shot attempts, 58.2% of the shots on goal and 54.1% of the high-danger chances.
Beyond giving Edmonton some much-needed depth and another source of scoring, it's also another check mark on Draisaitl's résumé. Whereas his impressive production used to be greeted with scoffs and eye-rolls from people who would discount it as a byproduct of playing with McDavid, he's now earning appreciation for his jaw-dropping offensive numbers around the league on his own merit.
Draisaitl currently leads the league in both primary points (61) and total points (83), which is a notable dent in the argument that McDavid has had to carry the Oilers by himself. It's hard to envision Draisaitl leapfrogging McDavid in the MVP discussion regardless of what he ultimately does himself, but if he keeps producing like this on his own it could be enough to siphon some votes away from his teammate and toward others who are perceived to be receiving less help. That's the cruel irony of the MVP award at its finest.
The case for MacKinnon
Here are MacKinnon's 82-game paces in all of the notable categories, and where he ranks among the league leaders:
49 goals (fifth)
118 points (fourth)
66 5-on-5 points (third)
380 shots on goal (third)
633 shot attempts (third)
plus-25 penalty differential (fifth)
Sixth in goals above replacement
The numbers really do speak for themselves. All of those would also represent career highs, and it's scary to think that MacKinnon could realistically still be getting better. Beyond just the raw offensive production, this season has undoubtedly been his most complete performance.
With his linemates Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen out for a monthlong stretch earlier in the season, MacKinnon was asked to do it all by himself, and boy did he ever. In those 14 games he had 10 goals, 24 points, and shot the puck a jaw-dropping 130 times. While I'm sure that both he and the Avalanche would prefer not to have to endure a stretch like that without two top-line players again, it was special to see MacKinnon be up to the task. Especially after he lost out on the 2017-18 MVP largely because he never got the opportunity to carry his team single-handedly like that.
The case against MacKinnon
MacKinnon checks the most boxes and looks to have the most unassailable case of anyone, assuming things keep going the way they have. The only thing he really has going against him is that he's not Connor McDavid, but he's about as close a carbon copy as we're going to get.
He passes the eye test with flying colors, with no one being able to match the force and frenetic pace with which he plays. His numbers similarly check out, as he's cemented himself as not only one of the best goal scorers and point producers, but the only person who can challenge Alex Ovechkin for shot volume.
He's the undisputed best player on one of the most fun, young and high-scoring teams in the league. He's fallen just short in the past, and his coronation atop the league feels like a matter of when and not if. The way things are lining up this season, this could be as good of an opportunity as any.
The case for Eichel
We need to follow in the footsteps of legendary WGR caller Duane, and put our collective energy and resources together to start an online petition to finally get Eichel some help. It's amazing that he's already in his fifth season, and in those five years, the Buffalo Sabres organization hasn't been able to put together any real sustained support for him outside of when they have top-two picks in the draft.
With Eichel on the ice, the Sabres have outscored teams by a plus-12 margin at 5-on-5. Without him on the ice, they've been outscored by 10. To put that goal share difference in perspective, they're basically the equivalent of the Tampa Bay Lightning with him, and the Ottawa Senators without him.
Everything Eichel touches turns into gold. He's eighth in goals above replacement, and on pace for 50 goals and 105 points. Just as representative of his greatness as his own production is the continued effect he's had on his linemates.
Last season, Jeff Skinner played with him roughly two-thirds of the time, and scored 40 goals. He was rewarded for it with a $72 million contract, which would be fine if that's who he was. But with Skinner playing just 10% of his 5-on-5 minutes with Eichel this season, he has 11 goals in 42 games, and people are already questioning the investment.
While Skinner has been relegated to playing with players such as Marcus Johansson and Conor Sheary, it's been Victor Olofsson and Sam Reinhart who have been riding shotgun with Eichel this season. Guess who's up for new deals this summer and will presumably be compensated quite handsomely for their production on the top line this season? Olofsson and Reinhart.
The case against Eichel
The Sabres are unlikely to make the playoffs, for a stunning ninth consecutive season. If the Coyotes and Canucks make the playoffs -- as they're currently positioned -- that'll leave the Detroit Red Wings with the next-longest drought, at just four seasons. That's quite a remarkable feat in an era of parity, where the salary cap and loser points make it awfully difficult to remain where you are in the standings for an extended period of time.
That's ultimately going to be too much for Eichel to overcome here, especially if the past voting trends are any indication. In 2017-18, Connor McDavid was far and away the most productive and impactful player in the game, and he managed just six of 164 total first-place votes. Last season, he didn't win the scoring title, had bigger on- versus off-ice splits than anyone else because of how hopeless the Oilers were, and he managed just one first-place vote. It's equally fitting and tragic that the top two draft picks from 2015 seemingly remain forever linked in that way.
The case for Hellebuyck
In our midseason analytics awards column, we gave Robin Lehner the prestigious "John Gibson Award" as the goalie who plays well with the least help. But when you factor in raw workload, there's a case to be made that no one at the position has done more with less than Hellebuyck has this season. The Jets have unsurprisingly been a complete mess in front of him, having notably lost four of their five most heavily used defensemen from last season.
Despite coach Paul Maurice's assertions to the contrary, those losses have been directly reflected in how particularly abysmal the Jets have been in their own zone. They're currently conceding the third-highest rate of shot attempts against, fourth-highest rate of shots on goal and expected goals against, and only the Rangers surrender more high-danger chances.
It's somewhat of a miracle that they're 19th in goals against, and that's entirely due to Hellebuyck's miraculous individual efforts. He's second in goals saved above expected (plus-7.9) and sixth in goals saved above average (plus-12.7) because of the quality of looks the Jets surrender in front of him, but just as impressive is how he's held up in terms of quantity.
Hellebuyck and Carey Price are currently leading the league with a pace of 67 appearances, and therefore Price is the only goalie who has faced and stopped more shots than Hellebuyck. In today's game that's a whopping total, completely bucking the unambiguous direction in which the league is headed with regard to splitting starts evenly between two goalies. To put it into further perspective, there are only five goalies trending toward north of 60 games, but because of their situation, the Jets haven't really had the luxury of embracing the load-management trend themselves. They're going to go only as far as Hellebuyck drags them this season, and so far he's been good enough to keep them alive in the playoff hunt.
The case against Hellebuyck
There's something of an unwritten rule when it comes to goalies and how they're represented in the MVP conversation. In reality, the goalie position is unquestionably the most important one in the sport, and if we were doing this voting process in earnest, it would just be a list of the best goalies in the game from that given season. Goaltenders really are the ultimate equalizers, and it's remarkable how big of an impact a goalie can have on covering for the flaws of those around them, with Hellebuyck's 2019-20 campaign just the latest example.
But in practice, we rarely see goaltenders actually garner legitimate support for the award because of the domino effect including one of them would have on the rest of the ballots. So instead, we simply clear the path for skaters, and allow the best goalies to duke it out among themselves for the Vezina Trophy. That's why Carey Price in 2015 and Jose Theodore in 2002 are the only goalies to have won the award this century. If you include Dominik Hasek's back-to-back victories in 1997 and 1998, that's the full list of goalies who have been proclaimed league MVPs since the 1960s.
The case for Panarin
The unrestricted free-agent market is often filled with far more land mines than gems, and splashy big-money signings typically result in some combination of disappointment and regret. Panarin has clearly been the exception to the rule, which shouldn't be a surprise because he was never your typical big-name free agent. The Rangers received him with far more left in the tank than you'd normally get from a 28-year-old, thanks to his combination of limited NHL wear and tear along with innate ability to avoid significant contact over the years.
Panarin has not only been exactly as advertised in his first season under the bright lights of the New York market, but has taken his game to even greater heights. He's on pace for 44 goals, 116 points and 72 primary points, all of which would easily be career highs. No player has added more value than he has based on Evolving Wild's goals above replacement model, and no player has more 5-on-5 points than his 46.
Beyond just the offensive production, he's resumed his territorial dominance as a puck possession hound. The Rangers are comfortably a net positive in every single underlying shot, chance and goal metric with him on the ice, despite being one of the worst 5-on-5 teams in the league overall. It's doubly impressive considering that his deployment has been much less forgiving than it's been in the past, and that his most common linemates have been Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast.
His presence has not only gotten the most out of players the Rangers might be able to flip at the trade deadline, but it's taken the burden off Mika Zibanejad to not have to do everything himself. Panarin has been so good and so exciting that he's almost single-handedly made people around the league wonder whether the Rangers rebuild might be getting fast-tracked and throwing the team right back into the mix as a contender. The future always looked bright based on the way they shrewdly handled the past 18 months, but the surprising part is that it could be here sooner than we had any reason to believe it would.
The case against Panarin
See: Eichel, Jack.
The case for Pastrnak
Pastrnak's career arc is basically how every fan thinks their favorite team's best prospect will develop, but in reality it's quite rare that it actually works out so neatly for the majority of young players.
He's essentially taken another step in his development every season he's been in the league, coming back from each offseason with another weapon in his arsenal. Each season, he's been rewarded for it by playing slightly more, shooting slightly more, and turning a slightly higher percentage of his shots into goals.
That growth is shown in the offensive burden he's carried for the Boston Bruins, and the piece of the pie he's taken for himself when it's come to creating goals. Here's his primary point production (goals and first assists) and the percentage of the team's total offense it accounted for since he's entered the league:
2014-15: 18 in 46 games, 15.8%
2015-16: 21 in 51 games, 14.1%
2016-17: 56 in 75 games, 25.7%
2017-18: 62 in 82 games, 23.2%
2018-19: 66 in 66 games, 32.4%
2019-20: 62 in 53 games (on pace for 96), 35.1%
As potent as he's been in the past, what he's done thus far this season is next level. He's currently on pace for just shy of 60 goals, and has been the front-runner for the Rocket Richard all season. Watching him battle it out with Auston Matthews and Alex Ovechkin for the honor is going to be one of the most fun subplots of the final weeks of the regular season.
It's fitting that he's in the same discussion as Ovechkin, because he's emerged as a devastating marksman with the man advantage from that left circle "office" - a favorite spot of the best goal scorer ever.
The case against Pastrnak
As dominant as Pastrnak has been, it's tough to see him getting recognized for it with the MVP award because of the talent that surrounds him. He's frightening on his own, but what makes the Bruins and that top line of theirs special is that he's just a part of a three-headed monster.
While he's clearly established himself as the man through whom the play flows in the offensive zone, there's still something to be said for the work Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand do when it comes to helping get it to him in the first place. Whether that line of thinking is ultimately right or wrong, it's working against him in this conversation. Especially when there are so many deserving candidates and we're forced to nitpick.
The case for Pettersson
Pettersson isn't technically in the top 10 in goals or points, but he undoubtedly belongs in this conversation because of the singular impact he's had on a Canucks team that is quietly leading the Pacific Division. There are two primary reasons he's all the way up to fourth on Evolving Wild's goals above replacement model:
1. His penalty differential. He's already drawn 24 penalties this season, while taking just six of his own. That plus-18 is good for the third-best margin in the league, behind just Jack Eichel and Nikolaj Ehlers (each of whom is at a whopping plus-20). That continues an early-career trend for Pettersson, who is now plus-46 since entering the league at the start of 2018-19, tying him with Nathan MacKinnon for the best clip in that time. It's an especially useful trick for a Canucks team that's in the top 10 in power-play scoring efficiency.
2. At 5-on-5, there are few players who have the kind of on- versus off-ice splits that Pettersson does. Part of it is because of how tactfully Travis Green deploys him (both in terms of getting him out for offensive zone draws and partnering him up with Quinn Hughes whenever he can), but it's still a stunning disparity nonetheless:
Canucks with Pettersson on the ice:
29 goals against
55.9% shot share
57.0% high-danger chance share
Canucks without Pettersson on the ice:
76 goals against
46.5% shot share
47.2% high-danger chance share
The case against Pettersson
The counting stats unfortunately won't be there to make a viable argument in the grand scheme of things. Pettersson has undoubtedly been tremendous, on pace for 36 goals and 85 points in just his second season in the league. But as mentioned in the intro, there are players who have already hit -- or are about to hit -- those totals, and there are still 30 games left. The sheer volume of some of those offensive résumés is going to be too hefty for voters to overlook, despite Pettersson's more nuanced brilliance otherwise.
The case for Malkin
There were a lot of questions about how much Malkin had left in the tank and whether he might have lost his fastball after a down season (by his standards), but he's firmly put any of that chatter to rest with a vintage campaign. In the 29 games Sidney Crosby missed due to injury, the Penguins really didn't miss a beat. In fact, they went 19-6-4 in that time, which marked the best point percentage of any team in the league.
They were able to do so because of countless lesser-known contributions throughout the lineup, but the one constant was Malkin, who not only stepped up to fill the void but put the team on his back as he's done over the years in similar situations. Here are Malkin's stats during Crosby's absence:
40 total points
26 five-on-five points (second behind just Panarin)
95 shots on goal, 149 shot attempts
Penguins outscored opponents 31-20 with him on ice at 5-on-5
Penguins had 57.7% shot share and 61% chance share with him on ice
His overall numbers lag behind the video-game numbers of some of his peers who didn't miss time with injury like he did in October, but since he's been back, Malkin has been as dominant as anyone -- and as dominant as he's ever been. It's a constant reminder that his A-plus game stacks up favorably against anyone in the world -- even Crosby and Ovechkin -- whenever he can crank it up to that level. He doesn't do it as often as they do, and he's got some warts in his game (like those head-scratching sloppy penalties), but you take the good with the bad.
What's been especially impressive is that he's been playing a 200-foot game, not excelling just in the offensive zone. There have been countless times when he's gone back and used his size and reach to dislodge the puck from opponents. When he's going like this he's incredibly fun to watch, and the Penguins are nearly unbeatable.
The case against Malkin
Crosby is back, which has historically meant that Malkin's individual production will drop back down from "superhuman" to just "great." The other thing he has working against him is that he's been around for so long that we've almost come to expect this kind of performance from him. It's unfair, but it's also human nature. Everyone gravitates toward the shiny new toy, and Malkin is being outshined by a few this season.
I'm sure both Malkin and the Penguins will gladly play the long game instead, smartly managing minutes and workload down the stretch with their eyes once again fixated on more important trophies.
The case for Matthews
Matthews is a classic case study of how NHL coaches can sometimes get in their own way by overthinking things. Sometimes it can be as simple as playing your best players, putting naturally complementary skill sets together, and getting out of the way to let them do their thing. That's precisely what Sheldon Keefe has done in his time running the Maple Leafs after Mike Babcock's firing, and he's unsurprisingly gotten the most out of Matthews.
After years of questionable usage that was being almost spitefully suppressed by Babcock, Matthews is finally being used to the degree a star of his level should be. He's now playing 16 minutes, 49 seconds per game at 5-on-5 (up from 15:12 under Babcock), and 20:57 across all situations (up from 19:49).
Most important, Keefe has displayed a better understanding of the moment, and has been willing to ramp up Matthews' usage when the situation has called for it, either in close games or when the Leafs need goals. That's why all eight of Matthews' highest single-game ice time totals for his career have come since Nov. 29, which is pretty remarkable considering that he had been in the league for three full seasons prior to this one.
Matthews has rewarded the coach with a sparkling stretch of play, fully realizing his endless potential as a goal scorer and vaulting himself into the Rocket Richard race with Pastrnak and Ovechkin. Here are his numbers as a shooter and scorer in the 30 games since the coaching change:
23 goals (leads the NHL)
126 shots on goal (fifth most)
215 shot attempts (eighth most)
The combination of Matthews and Mitch Marner has been simply terrifying together, wreaking havoc on opponents. In the 24 games that they've been in the lineup at the same time under Keefe, they've played 262:01 together at 5-on-5. In that time, they're outscoring opponents 21-14, and have controlled 55.4% of the shots and 63.4% of the high-danger chances. To think they'd shared the ice for only 231:22 combined minutes in the 225 games they'd played together under Babcock prior to this stretch.
The case against Matthews
The young American is still viewed as something of a one-dimensional goal scorer, presumably because of the lack of playoff success the Leafs have had as a team during his short time in the league. It's certainly unfair and a lazy critique, but it's also hardly a new thing for someone with his skill set to be labelled that way. That's the cruel way this league tends to operate from a narrative and storytelling perspective until you finally break through in the postseason. Just ask Alex Ovechkin.
The bigger issue for Matthews is that it's not exactly a given that the Leafs will have a chance to redeem themselves and get over the playoff hump this spring, given the early hole they dug for themselves and the way things currently stand. They find themselves in a tightly packed race with the Panthers and a medley of Metropolitan Division counterparts for the final few remaining playoff spots, in an Eastern Conference that is packed with strong teams compared to the West.