Don’t look now, but Auston Matthews just might be in line for his first Hart Trophy.
After finishing second to Oilers forward Connor McDavid last season for the NHL MVP title, the Toronto Maple Leafs forward is on pace for his highest-scoring season yet.
With 37 goals and 31 assists to total 68 points in just 49 games, Matthews has been on a tear since day one of his sixth NHL campaign. Now could be as good a chance as any for Matthews to make his mark in the NHL history books.
But for as many great seasons there are in the NHL each year, only one can actually be deemed the most valuable. Let’s dive into a breakdown of what Matthews’ shot at winning league MVP actually looks like:
What does history tell us about Matthews’ Hart chances?
The Leafs haven’t had a Hart Trophy winner since the 1954-55 season when Ted Kennedy took home the prize. Comparing the NHL from 67 years ago to today seems like a fruitless endeavour, so we’ll narrow the field to this century’s MVPs to juxtapose Matthews’ season to.
Since 1999-2000, 17 different players have been awarded NHL MVP across 21 seasons.
Of those 21 winners, 13 have also won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top scorer.
Currently, that’s looking unlikely (though still possible) for the Leafs’ centre: McDavid, with 75 points (27 goals, 48 assists), is on pace for 118 points, while Matthews is on pace for 109.
Also ahead of Matthews are McDavid’s teammate in Leon Draisaitl (74 points, on pace for 115) and Florida forward Jonathan Huberdeau (75 points, on pace for 116).
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) February 25, 2022
Five other forwards have at least 60 points so far this year, though they’d need a massive late-season surge to win the scoring title.
Of the nine non-Art Ross winning MVPs this century, a non-forward has won the Hart Trophy on three instances: defenceman Chris Pronger and goalies Carey Price and Jose Theodore. In all three cases, the Art Ross winner in their MVP-winning season had fewer than 100 points, which isn’t likely to be the case this year.
That leaves five forwards who have won the MVP without winning the scoring race, though they’ve usually trailed close behind. In four of the cases, the eventual MVP had single-digit differences of three, three, four, and six points behind the scoring leader.
The most unique MVP race of the last two decades came in 2017-18 when New Jersey’s Taylor Hall took home the Hart Trophy.
With 93 points (39 goals, 54 assists) he finished with 15 points less than, yes, McDavid, but was the key driving force behind willing a Devils team to an eighth seed in the playoffs.
Hall’s Devils squeaked into the playoffs by just one point, and his closest teammate in scoring (Nico Hischier) had 41 fewer points than him. McDavid finished fifth in Hart Trophy voting that year, likely hindered by his Oilers team missing the playoffs.
Matthews doesn’t have the “narrative” case in his favour like Hall had. He’s on a good team, paid like a star and expected to perform like one.
Coming off a season where he was named the unanimous MVP, the award is still McDavid’s to lose.
But oddly, the Oilers potentially missing the playoffs could be the most significant push factor for Matthews’ case. They’re currently tied in points for the final Western Conference wildcard spot but sit on the outside having played one more game than Dallas.
Matthews vs. the rest of the field
If there is a “narrative” based vote this year, it’s likely Washington forward Alex Ovechkin.
A three-time previous winner, the 36-year-old Ovechkin is tied with Matthews on the second-best odds to win the award, per SportsBettingDime.com. Like Hall, he trails the leader heavily in the scoring race (with 32 goals and 31 assists) but is driving the bus for an eighth-seeded team.
Four defencemen: Cale Makar, Roman Josi, Victor Hedman, and Adam Fox are at or above the points per game mark, but it isn’t likely any of them will garner too many first-place votes.
A defenceman hasn’t won the scoring title since Bobby Orr did it in 1975. Amazingly, that wasn’t good enough for voters to award him the Hart, with Orr finishing third behind Philadelphia forward Bobby Clarke (27 goals, 89 assists) and LA goalie Rogie Vachon (27-14-13, .927 save %). Outside of Pronger in 2000, Orr was the last defenceman to win the award back in 1972, his third MVP in a row.
The only other non-forward candidate inside the top ten of current odds is Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin. With a save percentage of .941 and a 25-6-3 record, Shesterkin is a clear Vezina Trophy front runner in just his third NHL season and is sixth in current Hart odds.
With 30 games left in the regular season, there is perhaps the best opportunity Matthews could have in his career to win a Hart Trophy.
With a bit of luck (and maybe some Edmonton mediocrity), this just could be the year Toronto finally adds an NHL MVP to their franchise legacy once again.