Alexander Ovechkin is trying to lay claim to an unprecedented and highly deserved triple crown — the Maurice Richard Trophy, the Art Ross Trophy and the Hart Memorial Trophy.
Richard's hardware, named for the NHL's first 50 goal scorer, is one of the newest prizes in the NHL's rich trophy case. It is earned by the league's top goal scorer. Ovechkin has already won this prize with his second 50 goal season in his three years of professional hockey.
The Art Ross Trophy is won by the player with the most scoring points. As an average of about 1.7 assists is awarded for each goal scored, it is more common for this trophy to be claimed by a top playmaker. Only about 40% of Art Ross Trophies have been claimed by the league's top goal scorer.
The Hart Trophy is awarded to the player judged to be "the most valuable to his team". Although a literal read of this clearly means that a goaltender ought to win this prize each year, the award has typically (75 percent of the time) been presented to the NHL's most impactful forward, as judged by the voters.
It is not so uncommon for the Art Ross and Hart trophies to be captured by the same player. In fact, as 39 of 83 Hart Trophies have been won by the NHL's leading collector of scoring points, this is the surest route to the MVP award. Demonstrating that assists are overrated, only 20 Hart Trophies have been won by the NHL's leading goal scorer.
The short history of the Richard Trophy (first awarded in 1999) is what makes the Triple Crown unprecedented. In 17 seasons since 1923-24, when it was first presented, the Hart Trophy has gone to a player that was both the top goal and point scorer — Wayne Gretzky (five times), Gordie Howe (four times), Mario Lemieux (twice), Nels Stewart, Howie Morenz, Jean Beliveau, Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito and Guy Lafleur are the only players to perform this magic. However, in 16 other seasons the Double Crown winner has been denied (in seven seasons by another forward).
Ovechkin has already won the Richard trophy and seems likely to win the Art Ross as well. Let me make the case for Ovechkin's name on the Hart.
First of all, he has not simply won the Richard trophy. He has smoked the competition with a season for the ages.
Maurice (The Rocket) Richard set the bar with 50 goals in 50 games in the 1944-45 season. The number of 50-goal seasons has recently been raised to 182 by Ilya Kovalchuk and may grow by another should Jarome Iginla notch one more goal in Calgary's final three games. To properly compare these results across over 60 years of the changing face of hockey it is necessary to adjust for (at least) two things.
The first consideration to address is the increasing length of the season, which has ranged from 50 games in Richard's seminal season to as many as 84 games.
A second factor to consider is the ebb and flow of scoring in the NHL. Since the end of the Second World War the average number of goals scored per game has been as high as 8.02 (in 1981-82) and as low as 4.79 (in 1952-53).
And there is Ovechkin's 2007-08 season which is currently ranked just ahead (by a fraction of a goal) of Gretzky's record-setting season of 92 goals (set in the highest scoring season since the Second World War). His performance this season is on pace for the ninth best goal scoring season of all time placing the Russian phenom in elite company.
This is a 'wow' performance however it is easily underrated because of the low-scoring nature of today's game.
But is he "valuable to his team"?
The story here is actually more compelling. The Washington Capitals have scored 227 goals to date. Ovechkin has accounted for about 27% of this total (and assisted on another 21% of Washington goals). Imagine this team without that contribution.
Only two players rank above Ovechkin on this list of players that carried teams on their backs. This is what a "most valuable player to his team" really looks like.
Hart Trophy voters typically run their votes through a series of distorting lenses.
The first is that, because offence is so much easier to measure than defence or goaltending (and comparing these three contributions to success is so difficult), only forwards get serious enough consideration to win. Goaltending is much more impactful but typically gets very short shrift.
Among forwards, scoring points are overrated. Hart Trophy voters fail to realize that there are about 1.7 assists per goal and frequently vote for the Art Ross Trophy winner. Ovechkin looks poised for the Double Crown of the Richard and Art Ross Trophies. But this feat has remarkably translated to Hart trophies only 50% of the time.
Excellence on an inferior team is dismissed. Many voters unreasonably extrapolate team success on to individuals. Many voters filter out players because their teammates are weak. Washington would be long gone without Ovechkin but this will hurt him in the voting.
Finally 'brand' matters disproportionately to voters. Players get votes for prior season performances. This has been especially true in Vezina Trophy voting. Other leading scorers have better brand — Iginla, Joe Thornton and Vincent Lecavalier.
However, if a goaltender does not win the award, this season's MVP is Ovechkin … by a light year.