Hart Trophy Trouble: When Should a Goaltender Win?
Bob MacKenzie’s recent NHL coaches’ poll confirmed a growing consensus: all 20 respondents picked Montreal’s Carey Price for the Hart. The coaches don’t get to vote, but their unanimity shows that the usual bias against goaltenders has been relaxed in the face of Price’s excellent season.
Whether or not Price wins, an important question with implications beyond this season needs to be addressed: when should a goalie win the Hart? Or more controversially, should a goalie ever win the Hart?
The criteria for winning any of the NHL’s major awards are powerfully vague; you must be the best, but what that means is an open question.
The Hart is simultaneously more vague than the others, and puzzlingly, more specific. It’s awarded to the player “judged to be the most valuable to his team.”
The italics highlight the unique absurdity: the award isn’t intended to go to the best player in the league, but rather the player most valuable to his team. If you follow the NHL’s own description, the winner should usually be an excellent player on a terrible club, since he would be more valuable to his team than a similarly great player on a quality team. That would make Philadelphia’s Jakub Voracek (or Steve Mason) frontrunners over Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, or Montreal’s Carey Price.
Thankfully the “to his team” part of the description is mostly ignored, but its baffling presence is symbolic of the award’s inherent undecidability. Even if you give the Hart to the “most outstanding player” (like the player-voted Lindsay award), you still have to find a way to compare forwards, defencemen, and goalies to each other. Comparing a league’s-worth of stars at a given position is hard enough: doing it for every position at once is almost impossible.
Numbers cannot capture the richness of a living game, but they can arrest and describe it well enough to enable more objective comparisons. Since no observer can watch all the games and process the inconceivable ocean of information needed to compare every player, statistics play an important evaluative role in award selections.
Unfortunately, even the strongest statistically-minded writers smash against the incommensurability of hockey’s positions.
The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle makes a good case for Price to win the Hart, showing his superiority to competing goalies, and how his performance places him among some historically excellent goaltenders, including other Hart winners. Mirtle also convincingly estimates Price’s contribution to his team’s success, and proposes that without him, the Canadiens might well have toppled into a lottery pick, rather than a division title.
Travis Yost of TSN presents a more detailed and historically-based argument for Price, augmenting Mirtle’s analysis with something he calls Points Added, which estimates how many points in the standings a given goaltender has contributed over an average goaltender.
Mirtle and Yost ground their evaluations in well-defined criteria supported by strong statistical evidence. Their problem is that, even considered together, they only take two of the three steps necessary to make a comprehensive case for a Hart Winner.
The Three-part Hart Case
The Hart argument for any goaltender should have three components: 1) A within-position comparison; 2) A comparison to historical precedents; 3) An inter-position comparison.
- Comparing a goaltender to his peers in a given season is the most obvious step. If a goaltender isn’t good enough to win the Vezina, he isn’t good enough for the Hart. Even though different groups vote for each award, no goalie Hart winner has ever failed to win the Vezina vote, too.
Because a goaltender is singlehandedly responsible for more of his team’s success (and failure) than any other individual (playing more minutes and being involved in every defensive situation), one could argue that a good goalie will always be the player most valuable to his team; ironically, this is one of the strongest arguments against awarding the Hart to a keeper, since it would make it redundant with the Vezina.
This is also where the traditional Hart bias against goaltenders originates. To avoid almost always choosing a goalie, a goalie is almost never chosen.
A more balanced approach to deciding a goaltender’s Hart worthiness would first determine how far he is above his peers; only those clearly separated from the pack in multiple categories should be considered.
The relative scarcity of dominant, season-long performances ensures that goalies don’t win all the time, but are given fair consideration when it’s warranted.
- An effective way to judge how impressive a goalie’s season has been is through comparison to other excellent seasons. Is the current candidate’s performance as impressive as previous goalie Hart winners? Are his rankings and raw numbers comparable? More importantly, is he as far above his peers as those goalies were above theirs? This adjustment for era is vital; save percentages, especially, keep rising, making a .930 today far less impressive than it was 20 years ago.
- Comparing a goaltender to the elite skaters in his season is the most difficult challenge, which is why most analyses simply omit it. If comparing forwards to defensemen is apples to oranges, comparing either to goalies is apples to appliances. If you neglect this step, however, there’s nothing to differentiate your candidate from, say, a generational scorer so incredible he has as many powerplay goals as some teams.
Travis Yost’s article hinted at a basis for comparison when he employed the concept of Points Added, estimating the number of standings points a goalie earned based on the number of goals he saved compared to an average replacement. A more rigorous measure that can be applied to goalies and skaters is known as Point Shares, available from hockey-reference.com.
Point Shares basically attributes a team’s standing points to individual players based on their offensive and defensive contributions, position, and ice time. Goaltenders (unsurprisingly) tend to lead skaters overall, but by determining a player’s distance from the average for his position, we can see, using a common metric, who stands furthest above his peers. It’s not a perfect measure, but it is the best statistical method for comparing the (otherwise) incomparable.
The regular season is almost over, and the ballots are about to be cast. Will Carey Price be the first goaltender since 2002 to take home the Hart? Perhaps even more importantly, should he be?
Next time, I’ll present the comprehensive argument.
~ Paul Campbell teaches in the humanities program at Wilfred Laurier University, and also writes for thehockeychat.com. He’s a former CIS goaltender and women’s team goaltending coach at Mount Allison University. Originally from Cape Breton, Paul now lives in Guelph where he’s conducting experiments to determine which of his sons should don the pads (once they learn to stand on skates). Respectful feedback and spirited discussion are always welcome in the comments below.