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Anze Kopitar was too good to win the Hart Trophy

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How lazy analysis and a thirst for narratives cost the Kings’ star the greatest individual honor in sports.

2018 NHL Awards - Press Room Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

One common thread shared among the four major North American sports leagues is the annual debate about who should win MVP and how voters should define value. From the fatigue of LaBron James dominating the NBA every season to the handwringing over Mike Trout being punished for having lousy teammates, there is a constant divide over what traditional media uses as their voting criteria and what the new generation of analysts view as the more rational approach.

When it was announced that Anze Kopitar’s superb 2017-18 season earned him a spot as a Hart Trophy finalist, we were, obviously, quite pleased. After all, there is a whole generation of Kings’ fans who were not yet born the last time a player from Los Angeles finished that high in the voting. We all knew Kopitar was a long shot to actually take home the hardware. Still, it stung more than I thought it would when Taylor Hall was announced the winner.

And really, the voting was not even close. With only 11 first-place votes, Kopitar finished a distant third behind Hall and Nathan MacKinnon. In fact, he was much closer to finishing out of the top three than he was to even being in the conversation for the honor, garnering only one more first place vote than the Flyers’ Claude Giroux. Hall and MacKinnon finished with 72 and 60 first-place votes, respectively.

What could have been the rationale to so overwhelmingly vote for Hall over Kopitar, when the former had exactly one more point than the Kings’ center? It is particularly curious when the same body of voters so overwhelmingly awarded Kopitar the Selke award as the league’s best defensive forward. Was that one extra secondary-assist from Hall really enough to wipe out all the value Kopitar provided in his own end?

Objectively, a player’s value would be defined as their overall contribution to their team’s success. Kopitar led all forwards in total minutes and was easily the most high profile forward to finish among the league leaders in short-handed time on ice (13th), clocking in 178 minutes (do you know who Zach Hyman and Luke Glendening are?). As has been the case his whole career, Kopitar was the first player over the boards in any key situation.

Hall, if you were curious, played about seven minutes on the PK. MacKinnon played 22 minutes, Giroux 65 and Connor McDavid (the guy on the other side of this debate) logged 89 minutes on the PK. Without question, Koptiar’s defensive contributions went a long ways towards helping the Kings lead the league in fewest goals allowed. Add in that he was eighth in total scoring, Kopitar unquestionably did more for the Kings’ goal differential (+36) than any other forward in the league.

But the Hart has never really been about value, has it? Sure, a player needs to hit certain statistical benchmarks to justify the votes, but the liberties taken by the writers - the folks who vote on these awards - to tell a good story is really what rules the day. Taylor Hall was run out of Edmonton two years ago by a blood-thirsty media (along with a perpetually short-sighted GM) needing a scapegoat for the club’s annual struggles. Add in the lowly Devils who finished near the bottom of the standings just a year before, Hall leading the Devils into the playoffs this year is a story that writes itself.

Nathan MacKinnon had his own story of redemption to tell. Before Ottawa and Montreal asserted themselves as the tire fire of the NHL, Colorado held that crown. From the Patrick Roy debacle, to the last-place finishes, through the embarrassingly public spats with star center Matt Duchene, the once proud franchise had become the prime example of how not to run a hockey club.

After winning the Calder trophy as the league’s top rookie in the 2013-14 season, MacKinnon saw his star diminish with middling numbers in the three seasons that followed. After the Duchene trade was finally completed, MacKinnon went on an absolute tear, putting the Avalanche on his back and making them one of the most unlikely playoff participants (Vegas excluded, obviously) in quite some time. Objectively, he accomplished all the same things Hall did this year, but with an exclamation point. He had four more points, played nearly a minute more per night and had slightly superior 5v5 numbers.

But apparently those things were not sexy enough to put him over the top, as Hall’s 26-game point streak down the stretch likely elevated him in the minds of the voters. As for Kopitar? He has two Stanley Cups and an ironclad reputation as one of the very best two-way centers in the game. There was no story to tell here. Great player on a generally great team has a great year. Yawn.

The voters surely could intellectualize why Kopitar was objectively more valuable to his team than the other finalists, even if he did not necessarily feel like an MVP. It also cannot be ignored that the first place votes dwindled the further west a player calls home. So they instead threw their votes his way for the Selke as consolation, when you could have easily made a compelling case for Sean Couturier, Aleksander Barkov or Kopitar-east, Patrice Bergeron.

These awards are largely political. Drew Doughty wins the Norris in 2015 because writers felt it was his time after years of being unofficially crowned the best defensemen in the world. Kopitar himself likely earned his first Selke due to his reputation as a great defensive forward finally gaining enough traction to persuade the voters.

That Kopitar did not walk away with the Hart trophy last night should not diminish the pleasure we had in watching his own season of redemption. If we apply our own subjective criteria here, Taylor Hall was unfairly scrutinized throughout his tenure in Edmonton, then was shipped out of town just as he was about to see the ship get righted thanks to the arrival of the Boy King McDavid.

Twice Kopitar has had the honor of lifting the Stanley Cup in front of his home town fans. His olympic exploits have made him royalty in his native Slovenia. He has somehow elevated himself as the most impactful center in the history of a franchise that has employed both Marcel Dionne and Wayne Gretzky.

Let Taylor Hall have his trophy.