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Who gets the Hart?

Don’t tell me about those other players you all pad your lists with, it’s a two-man race.

Edmonton Oilers v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

The recent episode of Back to Excited included a throw-away comment about how a non-discourse infused discussion of Auston Matthews vs Connor McDavid for the Hart Trophy would be a good thing to have.

Challenge accepted.

I don’t have a lot of patience for the LOLOILERS vs Maple Laffs kind of Twitter taunting. It’s usually not even amusing. I like both players. I’ve compared their playing styles in the past, and I think they are now in 2022, the two best players in the NHL and it’s not close to number three. The very fact that we could argue about who number three is, is telling. I don’t rate any of the other choices, but fans of Johnny Gaudreau can argue their own case.

The discourse that annoys me is actually that around the Hart itself. If it didn’t happen to be named with a homonym for the thing that old-school eye-testers think is the king of the intangibles, we might have different ideas about it, but it is what it is.

Let’s begin with what the NHL says it is:

The Hart Memorial Trophy is an annual award given “to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.” The winner is selected in a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association in all NHL cities at the end of the regular season.

The Hart Memorial Trophy was presented by the NHL in 1960 after the original Hart Trophy was retired to the Hockey Hall of Fame. The original trophy was donated to the NHL in 1923 by Dr. David A. Hart, father of Cecil Hart, former manager-coach of the Montreal Canadiens.

The Hart is so old, we’re on version two. The definition is so simple as to be open to whatever interpretation people want. The common argument about the award, where many see it as a league MVP award, is that it shouldn’t ever be given to a player on a bad team.

It shouldn’t. Not unless that player is so outstanding as to make that team into an NHL-calibre team all on his own — the closest I’ll come to a case for Igor Shesterkin. My reasoning isn’t about the intent of that definition, it’s that the league it’s awarded in is in the entertainment business. The NHL is not the pure and nobel distillation of hockey; it’s an enterprise soaked in filthy lucre aimed at winning games in the most spectacular way the risk-averse lawyer-run league office will allow in order to get more fans, grow the game and make more money. And the best player on the Arizona Coyotes winning an MVP award is not good spectacle.

There are those who will dispute this view of the NHL. Sure, some owners really see pro sports as a way to buy into an oligarchical, regulated system designed to constantly increase capital value no matter how ineptly or cheaply they run their team. But even those people end up with astonishingly good players who do amazing things on the ice. They contribute to the spectacle. The flash and sizzle is the point, not some irritating by-product of the kids today who don’t know enough not to skill it up.

There isn’t a lot of credible dispute over who the top two Hart contenders are this year, so we can leave this philosophical debate of the real meaning of “most valuable” to some other year and the Shesterkin fans.

Last year this was the voting for the top two:

Points, then votes 1 - 5

1. Connor McDavid, EDM 1,000 (100-0-0-0-0)

2. Auston Matthews, TOR 600 (0-69-19-6-4)

The voters are the PHWA, and in order to address the inescapable fact that there are more hockey press in Toronto than anywhere else, they set voting eligibility to at least partially mitigate that. Nonetheless, if you want to see the voting on this as Leafs writers vs everyone, there is a scrap of truth in that. We’re a few weeks away from the annual reminder of just what homers reporters turn into in the playoffs. But I’m not writing an indictment of this voting system. It’s a spectacle, remember, not a presidential election.

This is about the two best players in the NHL and their differences which make them both uniquely great. But only one can be the winner of the Hart.

Boxcars

First and least important is the raw points for these two. Points aren’t completely irrelevant because this choice is about spectacle and emotion, not just objective reasons to call one of these players better.

Connor McDavid: 42G - 66A - 108P
Auston Matthews: 58G - 41A - 99P

Note: as should be obvious the numbers are stale by a few days, but 10 games isn’t going to change this issue.

McDavid has 72 games, and Matthews has 67. McDavid leads the NHL in points, Matthews in goals. So you see, you can learn something from raw point stats, but if you’re just learning that Matthews is a goal guy, and McDavid is an assist guy, welcome to NHL hockey!

While I’m sullying myself with the NHL stats page, let’s talk Shooting %, since that’s always fun. I’m going to use the old version here, that is the percentage of Shots on Goal that are goals, because even I find it easier to spot average, better than average and Steven Stamkos in those numbers after years of looking at them.

McDavid is at 14.4% on a career of 15.1%, and Matthews is at 18.1% on a career number of 16.6%. (All-Situations)

So Matthews is running a little hot, McDavid is slightly below his career number which makes him still at least warm, and both shoot better than most of the current NHL. Matthews takes 32% of the shots while he’s on the ice, and McDavid takes 22%.

You know, the NHL’s stats are sometimes useful now. I filtered for all forwards currently active with at least 200 games played, and because I’m way too lazy to compute the average, I’ll go with the median, which is Rickard Rakell at 11.3. McDavid is superseded by his linemate Leon Draisaitl, in second place with 17.5%. Matthews is eighth and McDavid is 22nd, and since we’ll need this later, Mitch Marner is 116th out of 334 players with 12.1%. But please do yell at me some more for saying he’s an average shooter.

Beyond the Points

No, I’m not going to switch to a treatise on “the 200-foot game”. But, looking at boxcars is easy. teasing out what those points and goals say about a player is more difficult. I know that many of the PHWA voters with look at plus/minus for the top points guys and pick a name. And I do understand the impulse, everyone wants a simple number that can rank players on all the rest of what hockey is beyond the goals.

Real attempts to measure a player step away from the points, split the game into even-strength and power-play time and try to account for the influences on a single player’s results. Those influences are:

  • teammates
  • opposition
  • usage by zone
  • a host of things like strength of schedule and rest which are not significant

Usage by zone is very minor in effect and can be ignored without you ending up less informed. And yet it is beloved of the argumentative as the mic drop proof of how tough a player is. This is where that discourse comes in because people gush about Matthews and rag on McDavid for their alleged defensive abilities, and I am just going to assume both views are massively exaggerated.

Here’s my bias on this: I think defensive impact from forwards is wildly overstated in importance, and their offensive skills and skills at creating favourable shotshare are dramatically more important. Basic competence in the defensive zone is all a top line NHL centre needs if he scores like breathing. All the talk about defensive gifts are really and actually just masculinity parsing by people who think offensive skills are a little, how to say... suspicious, maybe even a little immoral while backchecking is 100% salt of the earth, though.

Even-Strength

I’m going to use even-strength to capture all the minutes these two players play. McDavid has 12 minutes shorthanded and Matthews 5, so that gets ignored.

Player - CF% - xGF% - GF%

Matthews: 60 - 64 - 59
McDavid: 57 - 58 - 58

Player - SH% SV% (these are on-ice numbers, aka, the PDO experienced by each player)

Matthews: 12 - 88
McDavid: 8 - 92

You can immediately see the limitation in the value of the GF% numbers here. McDavid is living with shooting below his own contribution enough to drag the percentage down considerably, and Matthews has seen some shit in net, man. You can try to mentally account for that, but smart fellows make mathematical models to do that for us, which is good because the mental mitigation we all usually do is crap. At the same time, the model will try to account for all the team effects, the opposition, etc.

I’ll start with RAPM, which reveals the pieces of the puzzle more than a single number does:

Note the Y-axis is set to the max EH allows to fit McDavid’s xGF bar.

This certainly fits with my general impression of these players. McDavid creates the offensive zone experience whenever he’s on the ice. He is the guy who makes it happen by manipulating everyone into position so a scoring lane just appears, and the goal goes in. There is no one in the NHL who can do what he does. Not even Matthews and Marner together, who actually come within hailing distance of McDavid’s talent.

Matthews starts making things happen earlier in the process. He is a substantial positive influence on shotshare, and his on-ice CF% is down to him in myriad ways. By exiting the defensive zone, maintaining the puck in the neutral zone, taking it away from the opposition all over the ice and getting into the offensive zone (not much of which is done by him, but he sure does time his entrances) the stage is set for the cycle that comes next.

And suddenly two coaches just walked on stage in this story. No wait, three coaches.

I believe this is a limitation of what models can tell you about the full story of a player’s season. He’s not an autonomous agent out there on the ice, not even these two players. They play systems, they have expectations to fulfill, and they are still members of a team. Sheldon Keefe’s system with Kyle Dubas’s players produces better offence overall than the Oilers with either coach this season. That’s also personnel differences because I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to say that the Leafs have better players, particularly playing with Matthews.

Or at least, players having better years.

It’s becoming clear why McDavid is scoring so many of the goals himself this season.

That’s as far as the comparison can go, because McDavid has played about equal minutes with Evan Bouchard, and our old friends Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie, while Matthews has been backed up by TJ Brodie much more than any other defender but Morgan Rielly.

I think it’s fair to say that the Maple Leafs minus Matthews is a substantially better team than the Oilers without McDavid. There are stats to back that up, but even though Leon Draisaitl has great goal-scoring this year, and the Oilers are benefiting from two lines, they would fizzle without McDavid, and the Leafs would just get less spectacular offensively.

Power Play

The power play is much more system-based than individual skill-based in my opinion, and both the Oilers and the Leafs have good ones. Excellent even. McDavid and Matthews have shot the puck about the same number of times (McDavid has more minutes). Matthews has more goals, McDavid more points. Everything about their on-ice shooting percentages and individual efforts is the same as their even-strength play. Nothing here changes the picture beyond reinforcing how great they both are.

Who Should Get the Hart?

I tossed out “most valuable”, but I think “to his team” is where this choice lies. McDavid is unequalled in his offensive creation. Matthews is unequalled in his shooting, and is really damn good at tilting the ice and creating offence. McDavid makes his teammates successful, and well, gestures at Michael Bunting.

Matthews has the buzz and the aura of greatness around him this season because of the Richard. He’s had great offensive support, and his line is good enough to overcome that horrible on-ice save percentage. McDavid is benefitting from his goalie, but his linemates can’t buy a goal. The Leafs have an improved defence, and the Oilers have Tyson Barrie.

Here’s my answer on who gets the Hart: tell me what you believe matters most?

Is it some combination of spectacle and league MVP award? Then give it to Matthews. Is “to his team” the meaningful phrase? Then give it to McDavid. Do you believe in the written or unwritten definitions and rules?

As for me, I wish I could give it to both of them, because they are both spectacular players, more valuable than a dozen replacements each, and they make NHL hockey beautiful. That they do it with different weightings of skills and abilities is why we bother to spend this much time analyzing this dumb game. They are two very different humans, arriving at the same destination by different paths.

I know you all want Matthews to win the Hart, and that’s understandable. But if McDavid takes the Hart and Matthews the Conn Smythe, who is upset? (I know, I know, the Johnny Gaudreau fans.)