Today, the NHL will announce the nominees for the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league’s most valuable player as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers Association (don’t worry, I don’t have a vote). Only one San Jose player has ever won either award, when Joe Thornton became the first player in NHL history to be traded midseason and win the award.
Thornton was arguably snubbed from his second nomination in teal last season, but his brother in beards Brent Burns could conceivably join him as the only Sharks to finish among the top 3 in Hart Trophy voting. Burns has a decent case, but faces an uphill climb given the history of the award.
For starters, Burns’ season is arguably one of the best all-time by a defenseman. His 29 goals this season were the most by a defensemen since 2008-09 (Mike Green, 31), and tied for the 18th-most by a defenseman in a single season since the NHL first expanded since 1967. In fact, Burns is the only blueliner since Al MacInnis to score 25 or more goals in a single season multiple times.
While that history should help him more in the Norris Trophy race, Burns’ possession numbers relative to his teammates were among the best in the league. The shots attempted more shots (14.32 rel CF/60, per corsica) and unblocked shots (11.26 rel FF/60) than all but one (Dougie Hamilton) and two players (Viktor Arvidsson), respectively. With Burns on the ice, the Sharks were also good for an additional 1.14 goals every 60 minutes, which was the 17th-best mark in the league.
When looking at relative corsi for and fenwick for percentages, Burns also compares well to two of the presumptive nominees, Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby. Burns’ marks (4.47% rel CF, 3.66% rel FF) are within earshot of McDavid (4.55% rel CF, 4.72% rel FF) and Crosby (5.63% CF, 4.33% FF).
What separates Crosby and McDavid from Burns, however, is their position. Although NHL teams place a premium on defensemen, Hart Trophy voters historically have not.
Last year, Erik Karlsson’s ninth-place Hart Trophy finish was the highest among defensemen in the league. A defenseman has not been among the top three vote-getters since 2000.
That same season was the last time a defenseman won the Hart Trophy, when Chris Pronger was voted the league’s MVP, and ironically in a season in which his team, the President’s Trophy-winning Blues, were upset by the Sharks in the first round.
Before Pronger, the last defenseman to win the award was Bobby Orr, who capped off a run of three Hart Trophies in three seasons in 1972. Orr and Pronger are the only defensemen to win the Hart Trophy since 1967.
Lately, voters have tended to favor goaltenders over defensemen. Since Orr’s last Hart Trophy win, a goalie has won the award four times (Dominik Hasek twice, Jose Theodore, and Carey Price).Plus, a goalie has finished in the top five of Hart Trophy voting every since 1996. The last time a defenseman finished in the top five was in 2008 (Nicklas Lidstrom).
Perhaps it is because defensemen have their “own award” in the Norris Trophy, but the Hart Trophy bar has been much higher lately for defensemen than it has for goalies, who also have their own award, or forwards, who have won the bulk of Hart Trophies in NHL history. The relatively historic nature of Burns’ season and how he compares to this season’s other MVP candidates just may be enough to help him clear that bar.
But given the recent history of the award, it’s unlikely the voters will let the Wookiee win.
Correction (9:46 AM PST): An earlier version of this piece incorrectly said that the NHL will announce the Hart Trophy finalists over the next two days, when the nominees will be announced today. The article has been edited to reflect that.