Welcome back to my blog for the first time in way too long. I’ll be posting the rest of my Best of 2013 Music posts soon. I ended my brief stint with The Hockey Writers this past week, and you can check out what I did over there if you’d like. But now for random hockey thoughts that interest me today!
It’s time for everybody’s favorite hockey silly season! No no, not Maple Leafs free agency (although that’s part of a great article you should read). It’s end-of-season awards time! Top 10 lists aplenty! Absurd arguments about the very nature of every trophy’s criteria! It’s that last part that I find both fun and frustrating. I get excitably mad whenever I start to think about the trouble of Vezina vs Hart problems (goalies are probably among the most valuable players in any given year), but we’re going to avoid that today.
Instead, let’s just focus in on the biggest individual award: the Hart Trophy. Of course, this means diving right into the giant can of phrasing worms. You already know the problem. “Player most valuable to his team” and “Best overall player” are suddenly forced to do battle. What if the “best”player is on a loaded team? Or what if the “best” player isn’t significantly above his competition and value becomes fuzzy?
Thankfully, we’re in a season where “best player” and “most valuable player” happen to intersect in one dynamic skater. It’s an easy choice for Hart this year. It’s Sidney Crosby and you should stop thinking about it.
Wait. What are you doing. Oh, c’mon. Don’t. Just… oh dear, now look what you’ve done.
Now admittedly I’ve cherry-picked some blatant, blinding homerism in the above examples but there is an issue that exists here. There are real human beings, ones that claim to pay attention to hockey, ones that will tell you a non-Crosby player should come away with league MVP honors this year (or at least should come close).
They’re wrong, of course. Even though you feel like you’re subjected to an infinite loop of Crosby propaganda, I don’t think we stop to actually thinkg about and evaluate how great he has been.
Injured Flightless Birds
Context matters in the Hart race, so let’s get some. The first is within this season’s Penguins team. As you’ve no doubt been told over and over (and over) on NBC’s coverage, Pittsburgh’s hockey team is injured. In fact, they’re probably underselling it a bit. The Pens are running away with the injury title this year, nearly 100 man games more than the next-closest team (as of the 3/29 update on Man Games Lost). Adam Gretz (of About.com’s hockey coverage) gives an even better summary of the magnitude.
When you consider the Penguins’ reliance on their elite players (especially their forwards given their complete lack of depth), this story looks more dire. The number and significance of players lost for the Pens would easily sink most clubs. Yet here we are on the eve of April’s start, and Pittsburgh has the runaway Metropolitan lead. Chalk it up to easy competition in the East if you want, but somebody on the team has to be breathing and producing to keep that club so far ahead.
I’ll give you 87 guesses as to which player is responsible for the Penguins’ production. (You won’t need all the guesses)
That “value to team” bit seems to be a big part of Crosby’s story this season.
In Which History Matters
Another issue in discrediting Crosby comes from our own forgetfulness. As of this writing, the Penguins’ captain is “merely” humming along at a 1.31 points per game pace, down from his career average of 1.40. And that “depressed” production puts Sidney Crosby a full 18 points ahead of his closest competition. He could probably stop playing now and nobody would catch him. He’s the best right now, but that alone isn’t the takeaway here.
Let’s widen our contextual scope even further. Historically, Sidney Crosby is on pace to be a top 10 all-time offensive player. Consider, his points per game relative to all others with 200 or more games played. 4th all time. Just slightly behind the immortal work of Gretzky and Lemieux. Heck, even his current-year 1.31 pts/game slots Crosby into 7th or 8th place. He’s a generational talent, and it seems to get overlooked.
It’s also worth remembering that this pace doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In Wayne Gretzky’s legendary 215 point season, teams in the NHL averaged 3.97 goals per game (or an average of 7.94 goals combined between both teams in every contest). This year? As of Monday morning, teams were averaging 2.76 goals per game (a combined 5.53 goals per contest). Crosby is performing at a historical top-10 scoring pace this year in an era with far lower scoring*. That doesn’t even begin to unpack his usage this year (he’s seeing the hard competition and still crushing it).
The mind boggles at what he’d do in another era.
It’s Crosby, You Guys
Sidney Crosby is performing with historical success in a low-offense era, and he’s an incredible asset to an injury-decimated Pittsburgh team. Don’t make this difficult, don’t overthink, don’t let incredible homerism cloud your vision. Claude Giroux, Ryan Getzlaf, Patrice Bergeron, Phil Kessel, they’re all having amazing seasons. And they’re all chasing Crosby’s dust.
Take a moment to appreciate that we’re getting to watch the prime years of one of the greatest players to take the ice. He’s going to be the Hart winner and he deserves it.
*(If we wanted to be fair, we’d normalize every player’s seasonal totals to the league-average goal scoring rate to get an actual estimate of era-independent scoring. This is something Hockey Reference does already in their Adjusted Goals, Assists, and Points categories. Read their Adjusted Stats article for more insight. The general commentary above stands. For instance, compare the 85-86 totals of Gretzky (215) and Kurri (131) adjusted to 170 and 102, versus Crosby’s 99 this year adjusted to 119.)