As I’ve remarked a few times before, just because the shape and structure of the seasons have been so greatly altered hasn’t kept the favorites from reaching the top. It’s no different in the NHL, where all four divisions are led by the teams you would expect, and if they’re not, those teams are simply lying in wait to play their games in hand. Tampa in the Central, Washington or Boston in the East, Vegas in the West, and Toronto in the North.
It’s not really different when you filter down to the individual players either, as the Hart Trophy race (MVP) at the moment boils down to either Connor McDavid or Patrick Kane. Kane notched his 400th career goal last night, becoming the 100th player in league history to do so and the ninth active one. Kane is currently second in the league in scoring with 34 points in 23 games, trailing McDavid by four points with the same number of games.
Kane is spearheading one of the “surprise” teams in the league, as the Hawks are third in a Central division they were expected to get completely buried by and spend the second half of the season playing “What’s That Smell?” with Detroit. Even with Carolina having three games in hand right behind them by just a point, the Hawks are seven clear of Columbus for the last playoff spot. It is not where anyone saw them.
The reason “surprise” is in quotes there is because there’s really nothing about the Hawks that’s sustainable. Or so it seems. Metrically they’re one of the worst possession teams in the league, and they’ve racked up points through stupefying goaltending from Kevin Lankinen and Malcolm Subban, both of whom were questionable as even NHL-caliber goalies before the season, as well as a power play that’s on a heater. Teams have ridden both of these things for a full 82 before, because hockey will “hockey” on you, so doing it for 56 would hardly shake the NHL to its core, but it’s not anything foundational (though the goalies could be).
Still, that won’t dull Kane’s prospects for a second Hart, and what will help him is the no-name aesthetic that the Hawks have now. Jonathan Toews hasn’t played at all this year with a mystery illness. Kirby Dach was stupidly sent off to the World Juniors before the season started and broke his arm before that tournament even kicked off. Duncan Keith is still around, but he’s more of a second-pairing player now at the age of 37.
Whereas McDavid, at least on the power play, can skate next to another former MVP in Leon Draisaitl, the best Kane sees alongside him is Alex DeBrincat, a fine player but at-best a second-tier scorer (though DeBrincat has vastly improved the rest of his game this year, it has to be said).
And yet Kane chugs along, producing more than a point-per-game as he has for the last eight seasons. The underlying numbers suggest that this is Kane’s best all-around season in some time, as he’s surpassed the team rate in Corsi-percentage (the amount of attempts at goal a team gets vs. how many it gives up while a player is on the ice). The impetus seems to be not only playing with DeBrincat full-time, but also the insertion of rookie Pius Suter at center. Suter is a responsible two-way player and a plus-forechecker, getting the puck back for Kane and DeBrincat to create more than previous centers have (Kane has played with Toews far less over the years than people think). The Hawks had been loath to pair Kane with DeBrincat in previous seasons, even though DeBrincat is just about the only winger the Hawks have had on the offensive wavelength of Kane, because they would just get utterly murdered without the puck. Thanks to the improvement in DeBrincat’s overall game and Suter’s stability, that’s not been the case this season. So far, DeBrincat is having his first better than a point-per-game season.
There is an easy-to-reach-for caveat with both Kane’s MVP candidacy and the Hawks’ overall success so far. And that is they’ve been beating up on a division full of teams that forget how to breathe more often than not. The Hawks have gone 5-1 against the aforementioned shelter for the truly lost Red Wings, 4-2 against a Columbus team that has wanted the season to be over before it even started, and 2-0 against a Dallas team that has barely played and is missing its No. 1 goaltender and center. Only seven of the Hawks’ 12 wins are in regulation, and four of those are against Detroit, and another two against Columbus.
Kane shares in the spoils, with 13 of his 34 points coming against the Jackets and a further eight against the Wings in six games.
But that’s not wholly fair. Both the Hawks and Kane can only play who’s on the schedule. And MVP races are always weighted by what division or league a player is in, especially now in COVID times. Freddie Freeman got to spend most of his season beating up on a less-than-impressive NL East last year, for example. And that’s really always the case, where over half of any team’s or player’s games are against their own division. MVP races are rarely studied hard enough to see what a player does in certain games against certain teams, especially when they might only see inter-division or interleague opponents two or three times in a season. Is Giannis really not going to win a third MVP because of a bad game against the Jazz somewhere on the schedule? Of course not.
At a time when the NBA is having to surf, or completely ignore, the push for its most famous accused rapist to become the league’s logo, perhaps it’s fitting that the NHL will have to do the same with this year’s MVP. They never stray too far, do they?