How the shortened NHL season helps these three players cases for the Hart Trophy

The NHL regular season is officially in the books and considered complete. Commissioner Gary Bettman announced as much while outlining the league’s return-to-play plan last week, one that will bring a 24-team playoff format later this summer following the coronavirus shutdown. 

With a premature conclusion to the regular season (most teams played 69 or 70 games of their 82-game schedule) and an expanded postseason format, some of the league’s individual award races have been impacted. There were a number of close races worthy of debate even before the league went into shutdown in March, but the conversation around the Hart Trophy and other notable awards might be even more wide open thanks to the way the season has ended. 

Given that we know Hart voter tendencies tend to discredit and disqualify players on non-playoff teams (or at least give more serious consideration to those who do qualify for the postseason), the expanded 24-team playoff picture may change the way voters look at certain candidates. Players on fringe teams that may have finished outside of the traditional postseason window now may get the benefit of the doubt in the “plays for a playoff team” department.

Let’s take a look at a few spots where the early finish could impact the way we look at end-of-season awards. 

New York Rangers v Minnesota Wild

Bruce Kluckhohn

Artemi Panarin

Panarin has been one of the best and most productive players in the league in his first season with the Rangers. He finished the regular season third among all players in points (32-63-95), first in points at even strength. He was a driving force for New York’s offensive attack all season long and the advanced metrics make a strong case for him being the single most valuable and impactful skater this season. 

Based on Evolving Hockey’s model, Panarin leads the entire NHL in Goals Above Replacement (24.9),  Wins Above Replacement (4.4) and Standings Points Above Replacement (8.5), which strongly suggest he’s had the greatest relative impact this year. It also suggests that the Rangers wouldn’t be competing in the playoffs if it weren’t for Panarin’s contributions this season, an argument that is strengthened by the Rangers year-over-year improvement.

New York made a late-season push to jump into the playoff discussion in an ultra-competitive Metro division, but they were still on the outside looking in when the season came to halt. They’re essentially the 11th seed in an expanded 12-team conference format this year, so perhaps some will discredit the Rangers as a true playoff squad. Still, their inclusion in the tournament gives him a fighting chance — one he may not have hair, fair or not, had the season played to its full 82-game slate.

Nathan MacKinnon

MacKinnon would have had a pretty strong case for Hart with or without the shortened season, especially because the Avalanche were clearly in the playoff picture as one of the top teams in the West. But his standing was definitely strengthened by the stoppage, mainly because he suffered a late-season injury that likely would have caused him to miss most of (if not all of) the Avs’ remaining games. 

Three days before the NHL elected to pause the season due to coronavirus, MacKinnon suffered a lower-body injury in a game against the Los Angeles Kings. He was projected to miss one-two weeks as a result of the ailment, but ultimately he was only out of the lineup for one game. That helped preserve MacKinnon’s statistical standing and prevented him from surrendering ground in the Hart race. He finished the season fifth in points (35-58-93), third at even strength. 

MacKinnon not being out of action also helped preserve what might be his strongest claim to the Hart: Production relative to the rest of his team. MacKinnon’s 93 points this season nearly doubled the next-highest output from a member of the Avalanche (Cale Makar, 50 points) and that scenario is very similar to the one that helped Taylor Hall win the award with the Devils in 2018. Had he missed the final few weeks of the season, that gap would have been closed and MacKinnon’s case would have been weakened. (Makar had three points in the one game that MacKinnon missed following injury.) 

Connor Hellebuyck 

Goalies rarely win the Hart — it’s happened twice in the last 20 years — despite the fact that they can very often be the most impactful and valuable players for their team considering they’re the last line of defense and play 60 minutes a night. Hellebuyck may not ultimately even win the Vezina as the league’s best goaltender this season, but he should. He also should have a viable case for the Hart, especially with the shortened season. 

On paper, Hellebuyck hasn’t been the most impressive goalie in the league this season by standard metrics. Tuukka Rask has better numbers (.929 save percentage, 22.51 goals saved above average) and split the Jennings Trophy as a goaltender on the team with the fewest goals allowed this season. But when you consider Hellebuyck’s workload (58 games play, tied for most in the league) and the reality that he played behind one of the worst defenses in the entire league in Winnipeg, his stats become a lot more impressive. 

Despite the fact that the Jets gave up the most High Danger chances in the league this season, Hellebuyck finished fifth in save percentage (.922) among goalies with at least 30 appearances, and his 22.40 goals saved above average were second-highest only to Rask. 

The analytics significantly strengthen Hellebuyck over Rask as the most valuable goaltender this year, via Evolving Hockey:

Not only does Hellebuyck have a strong claim to Vezina, but the Jets making the playoffs should earn him real consideration for Hart. The Standings Points Above Replacement tell a story: Winnipeg likely would have been one of the worst teams in the league this season if it weren’t for Hellebuyck’s elite play in net. Instead, they’ll have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. If that doesn’t put him in the conversation for the league’s most valuable player, the discussion is deeply flawed.

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