By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
Where John Tavares sits in the conversation of the NHL’s elite players this season comes down to a series of questions and answers. He fits nearly all the criteria to be at least a finalist for the Hart Trophy.
But whether or not he should win the award goes back to the age-old argument of “most valuable” versus “best” player that hockey writers face every year.
So, let’s ask the questions that should be asked:
Is Tavares currently the best player in the NHL?
No. One day he may very well be, but right now he’s just knocking on the door. Please remember, he’s only 22.
Are the Islanders the league’s best story this season?
With the exception of the Blackhawks’ record start, I’d like someone to name one that has been better. Please, take everything into consideration before you answer. If you’re having trouble, just ask yourself this: coming into this season could you have imagined the Islanders being one of the NHL’s best teams over what has amounted to half the schedule? That’s what they currently are — 16-5-4 since March 1. It makes no difference that this season is just 48 games. Anyone feel like taking away the Devils’ Stanley Cup championship from 1994-95? No? I didn’t think so.
Would the Islanders be anywhere right now without Tavares?
In the playoffs? Absolutely not. Ask anyone.
And that’s what this should be about.
Winning the Hart Trophy cannot be about reputation, individual skills and statistics all the time. Just because a player leads the league in goals or points doesn’t mean he should get the award basically every season. Yet, that’s what tends to happen in the NHL. Since 2005-06, the Art Ross Trophy winner, given to the league’s leading scorer, or the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner, awarded to the player with the most goals, has also won every Hart Trophy.
And while you can probably make a very good argument that each of Joe Thornton, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin (twice), Henrik Sedin, Corey Perry and Evgeni Malkin were deserving of the Hart for more reasons than simply scoring, at the end of the day they did lead those offensive categories. I look at the six prior winners and see incredible offensive players. I see players on that list on teams with multiple star players. I see some massive payrolls. I see teams that, more or less, are usually in the playoff conversation.
I don’t see the Islanders. Trust me, you don’t see the Islanders either.
Now some could say the season Crosby won it he did play a major role in turning around a once-great franchise, but he also had the benefit of a rookie named Malkin, who ended up winning the Calder Trophy with 85 points.
The Islanders are a franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs or finished at least .500 since 2006-07. They haven’t won a playoff series since 1992-93. They had been largely laughed at not only by the league, but also by their municipality. If ever there was a no-man’s land for hockey players, for quite a while Long Island was it.
But now things are decidedly different. And while you cannot pin the Islanders’ dramatic about-face entirely on Tavares, you better believe he deserves the lion’s share of the credit. The next-most productive player on the team is Matt Moulson, and while he is a very good player, a rookie Malkin he is not, even on his best day.
That said, though, Tavares, who currently has 46 points in 46 games, will definitely end this season without a scoring title and probably without the “Rocket” Richard Trophy, that is, barring him going crazy over the final two games.
So what are the voters to do?
Depending on who you read and trust, the leading candidates for the Hart right now are, in no particular order, Tavares, Crosby, Ovechkin, Chicago center Jonathan Toews and Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Having weighed the factors illustrated earlier, as in overall team success based on one player being the driving force, I look at this at this second as a two-man race between Tavares and Ovechkin.
Crosby is arguably the league’s best player. One need only watch the guy for five minutes and you’ll see his abilities are remarkable, night after night, year after year. He’s a true playmaking center and he does it all. He leads the NHL in scoring this season with 56 points, but here’s the thing: he’s missed the last nine games due to a frightening jaw injury and the Penguins are 7-2. It kind of helps to have All-Stars at every position, doesn’t it?
Toews has 46 points in 45 games and is a great captain, but the Blackhawks are nearly as loaded as the Penguins. While his absence would hurt, Chicago is built to win championships for years. Case in point, teammate Patrick Kane (51 points) has put together quite a bounce-back season and could easily take votes away from Toews.
Bobrovsky’s case is interesting in that he has carried the Blue Jackets to within an eyelash of making the playoffs for just the second time in their history. However, the NHL has an award for individual excellence in goaltending. It is called the Vezina Trophy, so while Bobrovsky’s 2.06 goals-against average and .930 save percentage are amazing statistics, he has to get his team into the postseason to at least get a shot at joining the rare recent Vezina-Hart winners. They are Jose Theodore, who willed the Canadiens into the eighth spot in 2001-02, and Dominik Hasek, who pulled off the double feat in both 1996-97 and ’97-98, and got the Sabres into the playoffs both seasons. If nothing else, Bobrovsky’s situation warrants another look later.
Then there’s Ovechkin, who has totally remade himself following an enigmatic 2011-12 season and first third of this season’s lockout-shortened campaign. The “Great 8” has been amazing since the beginning of the last week of February, registering 43 points in 30 games while carrying the Capitals to 21-8-1 record and the Southeast Division title. He is much more than simply a goal scorer. He’s an elite player in every sense of the word, one that also has a physical game you don’t often see from guys challenging for the “Rocket” Richard Trophy every season.
Ovechkin would be my choice if there wasn’t one that’s more compelling.
Tavares is that choice.
He has shouldered an enormous responsibility on a team with a payroll at the salary cap floor. And while being tied for 13th in the league in scoring doesn’t exactly boost his credentials, the Islanders are 20-6-2 when Tavares registers at least one point and 4-10-4 when he’s held scoreless. His 27 goals are third overall in the NHL. He has been the Islanders’ lone marked man every night, yet has managed 13 multi-point games. His perseverance while the Islanders searched for secondary scoring was admirable and now that it seems every one of his teammates is finding the back of the net, Tavares has transitioned into the player that does all the little things you don’t see, in addition to those you do.
At the end of the day, Tavares has taken a group of players that only the most ardent of optimists thought had a chance to make the playoffs and has guided them into a position of being the team that nobody wants to face, be it for one night or over a seven-game series.
It’s high time the voters look beyond the status quo of criteria. Tavares may not be the “best” choice, but he’s the right choice, the “most valuable” of all choices for the Hart Trophy.
He’s taken a perennial bottom-dwelling franchise on quite a ride, one that may not end for some time.
And if you still can’t see his worth, you simply have not been paying attention.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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