McDavid vs. Matthews: Two-man race for the Hart?

Is it really possible to start debating the league MVP just 20 games into a shortened, COVID-riddled, season? If you ask the folks in Toronto and Edmonton, a simple Vince Carter “it’s over”, might be a common response. Fortunately, a decision carrying so much pedigree is not decided by biased fans. Rather, biased media members with a seemingly conflicted list of prerequisites. No system is perfect when electing an individual – we can all attest to this. I mean, who left Jeter off the ballot!? Among other important decisions which have been determined by a vote.

Social media has heightened the intensity for Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid. Opposing fan interaction has never been easier, igniting the most discussed topic in the NHL. The Oilers and Leafs face off nine times during the regular season. Out of the gate the two appear to be separating themselves in the Scotia Division as the best in the country. Given the talent on both rosters, this should come as no surprise. Even though many wrote off Edmonton at the beginning of the year. In fact, just seven of 15 writers at NHL.com, chose the Oilers to finish in the top four of the division. Meanwhile, all 15 had Toronto going to playoffs.

In addition to social media, broadcasting stations are jumping in on the fun. Most recently, Canadian two-time gold medalist, Cassie Campbell-Pascall, made a bold statement suggesting the Leafs superstar is playing a better overall game. Potentially a little sour after the Oilers captain hung five points in 30 minutes against Calgary, Campbell-Pascal is certainly entitled to her own opinion. Given she is a face of the National broadcast team and suggested this on a Toronto radio station, is no shock. TSN, Sportsnet, the Athletic, local news outlets, and everyone tuned into hockey, are backing their horse in the most exciting individual race for the 2021 season.

Previous Hart Trophy Winners: What is the criteria?

Before anointing the 2021 MVP, determining the criteria must first be defined. To do so, taking a look at previous winners and finding a common theme may be the best route. Here are the former five winners of the Hart Memorial Trophy:

  • 2019-20 – Leon Draisaitl (EDM)
    110 points – first in the NHL (in shortened season)
  • 2018-19 – Nikita Kucherov (TB)
    – 128 points – first in the NHL
  • 2017-18 – Taylor Hall (NJ)
    93 points – 6th in the NHL
  • 2016-17 – Connor McDavid (EDM)
    100 points – first in the NHL
  • 2015-16 – Patrick Kane (CHI)
    – 106 points – first in the NHL

Apart from the 2017-18 anomaly, a pretty consistent theme has surfaced. The league leader in points scored, generally wins. If you look even further into the past, this rings true over the past 10 seasons, again with a few deviations. There can be a debate for the Taylor Hall win. He single handedly pulled this limping Devils team into the playoffs. Hall had 41 more points than anyone else on his team. Thus, the importance of making playoffs was deemed essential for consideration. Connor McDavid scored 108 points in the 2017-18 campaign, leading the league. However, Edmonton failed to make the post-season. Even though New Jersey was swept in the first round and had nothing to show for an otherwise disappointing season, fans were left with more questions about how a player is deemed Hart worthy.

If we take those indications above to predict the 2021 winner, a Connor McDavid MVP almost seems inevitable. Through 35% of this young season, the Oilers captain is averaging an absurd 1.81 points per game. Auston Matthews in comparison, a respectful 1.55. Taking into consideration that the Oilers should make playoffs and McDavid should lead the league in points, why is this debate even close?

For those that do not know, the voting for all season-long awards is conducted by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. Each member ranks their top five candidates on a points system. There are three finalists nominated and the winner is announced at the Awards ceremony. The Professional Hockey Writers Association consists of members who write for newspapers, magazines, and websites for various teams and broadcasting stations throughout the NHL. Each team has a “Chapter” with a list of members who have their voice heard on all awards through a vote.

These are professionals who have worked extremely hard in the hockey world to get to where they are. Each fan owes these media members a lot of respect for giving them the news on their favourite teams each and every day. One must ask, however, considering a city such as Toronto, with 20 voting members and Edmonton who has six, are there any subconscious biases towards candidates? Kevin McGran from the Toronto Star, a member of the Toronto Chapter, debunks this thought process.

“In Edmonton, there are fears of an eastern bias, that the size of the Toronto voting block would overwhelm a McDavid candidacy. Fear not, history shows the size of the Toronto chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association has never helped a Leaf win an award he didn’t deserve.” – Kevin McGran

Fair point. But when was the last time Toronto even had a player worth being considered for the Hart?

Offensive Comparison: Because defense doesn’t matter

Never before has there been such a mountain of statistics available to dissect the performance of a player. The “eye test” no longer needs to be included as a component in grading individuals. One of the higher traffic sites, https://www.naturalstattrick.com/, provides not only generic stats, but advanced analytics to the public. Instead of going through a long-winded rant about comparing these two superstars individually, here is a snap shot of all relevant advanced statistical categories:

Going through each category, one-by-one, it is quite evident; McDavid is the Seabiscuit to Matthews Eeyore.

There must be something, that stands out for Auston Matthews to be in consideration as the best player in the league and earn the right of the most prestigious individual award. Well, as any hockey fan is well aware of, he does lead the league in goals scored. Currently, by four. His shooting ability and threat to score is undeniable. In the same conversation as Alex Ovechkin as the most lethal goal-scorer in the game. Matthews is nearly on a goal-per-game (0.9) pace, which prorates to 50 goals in 56 games. If the kid from Arizona can sustain this rate, he will truly accomplish a historic feat and garner substantial attention from the Toronto media outlets.

Despite an explosive and accurate shot, data and analytics discover a much stronger case for McDavid being a “bit more complete” – sorry Cassie. If goals scored is weighted more heavily, from an argumentative perspective, Captain Connor owns a 0.63 goals per game rate. In 2016-17, the year McDavid actually won the Hart, he was scoring goals at a 0.36 per game pace. #Perspective.

Supporting Cast: It is a team sport, after all

When Leon Draisaitl won the Hart Memorial last season, a lot of critics made their point clear; without McDavid, there is no way he leads the league in scoring. Therefore, Nathan MacKinnon should have won the award. While he only finished with 93 points, MacKinnon had less talent playing around him. This point is ridiculous. It falls under the Taylor Hall scenario, to a certain degree. Looking back only to the 2018-19 season, when Nikita Kucherov won, he was a member of one of the most dominate teams in years.

This award goes to the Most Valuable Player, period. If the object is to score more goals than your opponent, shouldn’t the player scoring more points than anyone else be considered the most valuable? Of course there are other components which need to be addressed but sometimes the decision does not need to be so overanalyzed.

Currently, both Toronto and Edmonton sit atop the division in the North. They each have multiple players who are in the early conversation for representation in the 2022 Winter Olympics. This will not be a year where either McDavid or Matthews will need to be leaned on for all 56 games. That being said, south of the Canadian border, a skilled winger out of Chicago will make his case based on this criteria. Patrick Kane has entered the conversation as a viable candidate, recently. Only IF the Blackhawks make playoffs will he be considered. *eye roll*

McDavid has Draisaitl, Matthews has Marner. On the blue-line, Darnell Nurse is playing the best hockey of his life and Morgan Rielly continues showing his offensive prowess. It does not matter what player is being discussed (except Taylor Hall). For an individual to win this trophy, great players need great teammates in order to display their absolute best.

A torch being passed: Thank you for your service

It is admirable to hear fans continually boast about Sidney Crosby being the best player and Alex Ovechkin the best goal scorer in the world. These two generational individuals provided so much for the game of hockey at a time considered to be stale. The NHL has not witnessed talent on full display of this caliber since the early 90’s. An added geographical component of Canada versus Russia fuelled a non-existing hatred for the two. Anytime Pittsburgh and Washington faced-off, the media hype was extravagant as fans buckled in. Keeping with the theme, Crosby took home the Hart on two separate occasions, while Ovechkin three. Kudos, to two of the greatest to ever play.

Over a decade later, two new faces emerged as must-watch players in the league. No disrespect to Ovi and Sid, but the torch has been officially passed. Both McDavid and Matthews were considered generational players during their draft day and each have lived up to expectations. Considering both teams are in hockey-hungry Canadian markets, the media has been having a field day. Although the two new superstars were only playing each other twice a year previously, COVID has blessed us with nine head-to-head battles.

In every sport, a discussion as to who is the best, will always be had. Technically, because there is no real way to factually determine an accurate answer. Unknown variables interject with perception making an argument impossible to win. Caliber of teammates, strength of opposing schedule, coaches, home field/ice/court advantage, are just a few components which make this so difficult to evaluate.

Final Thoughts

So, to recap, Auston Matthews is clearly a bum and this award is solely in the possession of Connor McDavid. Sometimes, fans are far too emotional with the decision process of an award. Winning is validation that their opinion is right. The build up is necessary for anticipation and excitement for an ultimately, unimportant decision.

This story is far less entertaining to write about with just one candidate. What is clear, for most, is that there is a new duo who have received the torch from the previous generation. While this specific award seems completely obvious for most, a healthy debate is welcomed. Crosby versus Ovechkin. Gretzky versus Lemieux (please). Betty versus Veronica. Sports, are competition focused and fans thrive off the argumentative aspect to share their strongly felt opinions.

For now, less than halfway through the season, hockey is alive and well in the best position ever. There is more talent in the game then ever before. More players from different countries. More inclusion and more voices being heard. So, bring on the hate, Leafs fans. My dukes are up.

February 26, 2021
Jeremy Maw
@j_maw

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: