[Gentle Reader, we know we do not usually spring these kinds of dense, stat-filled (by our standards) posts on you. Generally it's because we do not wish to anger the hockey gods -- deities we very much believe in. Today, however, you have this comment on NHL FanHouse to thank for raising our humors from sanguine to bilious.]
This is the time of year when the post-season award talk kicks into high gear, but we’re beginning to get a feeling that some parties in this big blogosphere of ours think the Hart race is over. There’s a player who we’re told hits the ice every night with a palpable sense of joy, a guy who accomplishes the amazing game in and game out, a guy whose talent is boundless and perhaps incomparable, a guy who has so damn much fun that you can’t help but feel like a kid yourself when you’re watching him play, a guy who’s so good that you’ll want to brag to future generations of fans that you saw him play in his prime, a guy whose team would be nowhere without him. Amazingly, those people aren’t talking about Marty Brodeur. They’re talking about Alex Ovechkin.
Now, don’t get us wrong — Ovie’s had a superlative season. As of this writing he’s got 95 points in 70 games, and a league-leading 54 goals. He’s got 9 game-winning goals, 18 power play goals, and is sporting a pretty impressive +15 skating over 23 minutes a night on one of the worst defensive teams in the league. And while these are certainly, on the surface, numbers that are well worth Hart consideration, the fact remains that his Washington Capitals are in tenth place in the Eastern Conference, and second place in the weakest division in the NHL. We certainly understand the argument that the Hart is a regular-season trophy, but the point of the regular season is to make the playoffs. To celebrate Ovechkin by saying that the Caps wouldn’t be where they are now without him is specious — without him they wouldn’t be in the playoffs, but they’re on the outside looking in even with him.
So who are the other players popularly being considered worthy of holding the hem of Ovechkin’s robes? There was Nick Lidstrom for a while, but then he got hurt, and furthermore, he’s all about things like subtle, flawless consistency on defense, and the Hart is all about razzle-dazzle. Subtlety is for losers. More flash! More big hits that mostly miss their target but make lots of noise when the glass rattles! Then there was Evgeni Malkin, who was razzly-dazzly enough that he started sniffing at Ovie’s Art Ross bid, but come on. Sid’s back in the lineup, so we can all go back to ignoring Malkin. Furthermore, Malkin doesn’t like speaking English, so he doesn’t give cute interviews that make us laugh at his silly accent and limited vocabulary, and he probably wouldn’t show up to accept the award if the NHL gave it to him anyway. And the Hart Trophy is all about giving charming interviews and being an accessible personality — just ask Mario Lemieux and Dominik Hasek.
And meanwhile, there’s Marty. As of this writing, he’s played 64 games and is 38-21-5. He’s second overall in the NHL for wins, has the third best goals-against average (2.12) and the second best save percentage (.922). And his team is in first place in the Eastern Conference, fourth overall in the league. You know what, Gentle Reader? We know what you’re thinking. Right now your eyes are glazing over and you’re falling into the automatic, defensive “I will not give Marty Brodeur any damn credit” shell. We’ve heard it all before. Go ahead, try us.
There’s the “He gets too much goal support” argument, one that surprised us when we heard it a few weeks ago from our Sharks-fan Irregular andrew, as he justified why he preferred Luongo’s Hart credentials last year to Marty’s. Well, this year the Devils are 25th in the league in scoring (a big step up, admittedly, from last year’s 27th overall), with a whopping 176 goals scored. Marty’s allowed just 136 goals, and has come out the victor in 21 one-goal wins. Don’t try to tell us he’s getting too much goal support to be considered.
Next you’ve got the “He’s already gotten his accolades, let’s make room for some fresh blood” argument. Accolades like the 2002 Vezina? (Jose Theodore.) The 2000 Vezina? (Olaf Kolzig.) The 1996 Vezina? (Jim Carey !?!) The 2003 Conn Smythe? (Don’t even get us started.) Considering that he’s second all-time in career wins and second all-time in career shutouts (and those are just the records we know off the tops of our heads — we can’t be bothered looking this stuff up), we think it’s fair to say that three Vezina trophies and one Hart finalist showing hardly count as sufficient accolades.
Okay, moving along, you’ll say that goalies have their own award, so they shouldn’t be considered for the Hart. Two words: Jose Theodore. You’re feeling kind of embarrassed now, aren’t you, that that guy was given a post-season award before Marty was, right? Okay, you’re probably saying Theodore is justification enough not to give a goalie the Hart. Well, two more words: Dominik Hasek. Oh right. A goalie can legitimately be the most valuable player to his team.
Now you’re digging deep, going for the time-honored “he has such a phenomenal group of d-men in front of him” argument. We will perhaps concede that having Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer on his blueline (and yes, we like to toss Ken Daneyko into that group, too, but we realize that’s just the Jersey talking) was a boon for Marty back in the day. But you know when the last time Marty skated with both of those guys was? Midway through the ’03-’04 season. And the last time he played with Nieder was the end of that year. The vaunted D-corps of this season’s New Jersey Devils features such legendary names as Colin White, Paul Martin, Johnny Oduya, Mike Mottau, Sheldon Brookbank, Vitaly Vishnevski, Karel Rachunek, Andy Greene and Bryce Salvador. Behold our D-corps, ye mighty, and despair.
“But… but…” you’re spluttering now, “It’s the system!” Right. The continuity of the system implemented by Jacques Lemaire 14 years ago is what’s contributed to Marty’s success over all these years, especially how it’s been interpreted and reinvented by the hundreds of head coaches in New Jersey since Lemaire’s tenure. The Devils didn’t stumble out of the gate this season because they were adjusting to a new coach (the ninth in Marty’s career) — no, they looked confused and misbegotten just because they were bored with being so consistent all the time. Please. There comes a point where the steady excellence of a player simply can’t be explained away by saying he plays for a good team.
Now you’re really reaching, pulling out the old chestnut used to excuse Scott Stevens being overlooked for the Norris Trophy during his entire, peerless career. “He doesn’t score enough!” Well, Marty’s got 3 assists this year, which isn’t much, we know, but he can’t help that the league changed its rules to limit the skill sets he brings to the table.
“Okay, fine,” you’re grumbling, “But Ovechkin! If his team hadn’t had such a crappy start, they’d be in the playoffs right now and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.” Yeah, well, if the Devils hadn’t had such a crappy start, they’d be in first overall in the league. And if the moon was made of green cheese, no one would go hungry. Of course, much has been made of the Caps’ impressive record under Bruce Boudreau (something like 26-16-7 as of this minute) following the craptastic record they compiled under Glen Hanlon to start out the season (something like 0-200-0). Well, does that mean they got to where they are now thanks to Ovechkin, or was it the system?
We know that we’re hardly unbiased observers, but then again, we’re probably more guilty of taking Marty for granted than people who don’t watch him night in and night out. And we’re puzzled by the way that Ovechkin is (deservedly) praised for his dynamism, his sheer enjoyment of the game, and his abundant, genial personality, while Marty Brodeur has all those same in spades but is painted with the broad strokes of “killing hockey”. We know it doesn’t come naturally for people outside of New Jersey to say nice things about Devils, but in this case, maybe it’s time to try. Marty for Hart!