Discussions about awards usually begin with the definition of honor being twisted into a pretzel. The Hart Trophy arguably leads in this regard, with people often convoluting ‘best’ with ‘most valuable.’ The NHL’s definition aids in the interpretation, stating that the Hart Trophy is “an annual award given to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.”
Stars head coach Pete DeBoer’s criteria for the honor fits along those lines.
“I don’t necessarily think you have to play on the best team to be a Hart Trophy candidate,” DeBoer said. “For me, the question to that is, if this guy is not in the lineup, what is that team doing or what do they look like? Sometimes it can be a bubble team but that guy is that good. I think (Connor) McDavid a couple of years, (Edmonton) wouldn’t even be in the conversation without him. Or a goalie.”
Stars winger Jason Robertson has entrenched himself atop the early-season Hart conversation. Robertson leads the NHL in goals scored with 23 and is currently on a historic 18-game points streak. After scoring 41 goals in his breakout season last year as a sophomore, Robertson is on pace for 75 goals 25 games into the season.
Robertson’s value to the Stars has often been a source of dispute because of the team’s roster, to some degree, but more so because of the line he plays on. Before asking the question of how valuable is Robertson to the Stars in comparison to other superstars in the league to their respective teams, the question is how valuable is Robertson to the Stars compared to some of his teammates.
There are a couple of roster candidates. The Stars have one of the most elite defensemen in the world in Miro Heiskanen who chews up major minutes, plays fundamentally sound and is featured heavily on both special teams units, as well as five-on-five. They also have a goaltender in Jake Oettinger who took the hockey world by storm in the first round of the playoffs last year against Calgary and then built upon that in the first month of this season before coming back down to earth.
Those players are vital to the Stars but it’s somewhat of an apples-to-oranges conversation when it comes to the Hart Trophy because of their positions. Only two goaltenders have won the Hart this century, and none since Carey Price in 2016. Furthermore, only one defenseman — Chris Pronger in 2000 — has won the honor in the last 50 years since Bobby Orr’s three-year run at it in the early 1970s.
The Hart Trophy tends to be a forward’s award so deciphering the likes of Heiskanen and Oettinger may not be a major part of the equation in this case — not until Heiskanen reaches the heights of Cale Makar or Oettinger to Igor Shesterkin last year to really be true candidates in the race. And if either does, there’s still often a bit more bias towards forwards.
What is far more interesting is Robertson’s standing among his own linemates, Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski. The three of them combine to form one of the best lines in the NHL. But should that be a strike against Robertson?
To even be in consideration for the most valuable player in the league, one should have to be the most valuable of their team. Sometimes, players aren’t penalized for that, Jonathan Huberdeau was in contention last year when Aleksander Barkov was the real MVP in Florida and Leon Draisaitl won in 2020 despite playing with Connor McDavid. So there’s a consistency problem in the argument. To truly earn the Hart nod, Robertson has to prove that he’s the driver of the line — similar to Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary last year.
Each player on the Stars’ top line brings plenty to the table. Hintz is the best two-way forward on the Stars, and will likely be a perennial Selke candidate for years to come. Pavelski is one of the smartest players of his era and has been phenomenal with Dallas. Last year, their success was due to such a balanced effort from each component of the line. So it’s easy to write off Robertson individually in the Hart conversation with that in mind, especially when it was questioned whether much of his success was just based on his finishing.
But this year, Robertson’s effectiveness has been on another level, so it’s no surprise that his production has followed as well. His 23 goals lead the NHL and his 41 points trail only the Edmonton duo of McDavid (47) and Draisaitl. Robertson’s 13 goals at five-on-five are two more than second place in that category, Sidney Crosby, and four more than McDavid. Half of Robertson’s 18 helpers this season have been primary assists. When accounting for ice time, that equates to 5.53 points per 60 which lead the league.
Robertson’s volume of production this season has only been eclipsed by his consistency. He is currently riding an 18-game points streak, second only this season to Mitch Marner’s active 19-game streak. While both runs are impressive in their own right, Robertson’s production in this stretch drives home just how valuable he has been. Marner has 26 points, including nine goals, in his 19-game stretch. In one fewer game, Robertson has 34 points, including 21 goals.
The timing of Robertson’s goals is another layer to the conversation. His four game-winning goals this season are second only to Draisaitl’s six game-winning tallies. This doesn’t include instances in which Robertson scored the tying goal to get the Stars a point, such as against the Avalanche and Jets in the same week.
“He’s a goal-per-night for us in a league that’s a 3-2 league most nights,” DeBoer said. “Invaluable part of what we’re doing.”
Now add in his five-on-five impact. Robertson’s tied with Crosby for the league-lead of 22 points in these situations, in 25 games played. In that time, Robertson’s rocking a 60.2 percent expected-goals rate and the team is controlling even more of the goals share by out-scoring opponents 28-14.
No one has a better influence on the team’s offense in Dallas than Robertson at five-on-five. Relative to his teammates, he’s increased the Stars’ shot creation by 8.84 per 60 and expected-goal generation by 0.48 per 60
And the team concedes little with him deployed, relative to his teammates; only Radek Faksa and Heiskanen rate out better. While Robertson’s primary linemates aren’t far behind in either direction, it’s noteworthy that he’s grading out ahead.
The same is true when putting all of this together with Game Score Value Added, via The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn’s model. Robertson is the league leader at 2.00, while Hintz falls later in the top 10. Pavelski finds himself in the top 20. That’s a gap to keep an eye on as the season proceeds because Robertson is going to have to keep separating himself from his teammates as all MVP candidates should have to do.
The timing of Robertson’s performance is important to the Hart conversation. Even though we’re still in the first half of the NHL slate, almost a third of the season is already in the books. It’s the sweet spot of still early but also enough of a sample size to make a mark. This is right around the point of the season where an extended run of dominance converts from ‘just a hot start’ to ‘Hart candidate.’
Although the voters of the Professional Hockey Writers Association will have the full season to evaluate before casting their vote, there’s something to be said for being on the radar. Robertson knows this himself, as a slow start to his rookie season in 2021 put him well behind Kirill Kaprizov. Kaprizov was the rightful winner of the 2021 Calder regardless but to even have a chance, Robertson would have had to make a stronger mid-to-late season push to sway voters who had already made up their minds.
Robertson has flipped the script this season. Despite missing all of Stars training camp due to a contract dispute, he came into the season on fire. His ‘low stretch’ was seven points in the first seven games. Since then, Robertson has been at a two-points per-game pace.
Robertson has also benefited from the fact that his 41-goal campaign last season already put him on the radar. But Robertson was not only a highly productive player but also has proven to be a very marketable talent because of his joyful, upbeat personality. The NHL, and hockey world at large, was introduced to Robertson in a significant way last season so nobody is mistaking his production now as an overnight success with fluky disclaimers.
In order to win the Hart, Robertson needs to basically maintain his level of play. That’s not to be mistaken with production, which will almost certainly dip. Robertson probably won’t finish the season with 75 goals and go into the playoffs on a 75-game points streak. His blistering shooting percentage of 20.7 will almost certainly drop down a bit. Right now, he’s scoring about 10 goals above expected before accounting for his finishing talent. His shooting ability obviously brings expectations higher, but maybe not to the extent of his current pace. But the foundation Robertson has set through the first third of the season will allow for some hiccups along the way on the stat sheet, as long as the overall play-driving stays mostly consistent.
What will help Robertson’s case is continuing to have a direct impact on his team’s scoring, even if his pace starts to slow. Right now, about 78 percent of his points are primary. It’s a good start, that he can keep building on. Where there’s room for improvement is his five-on-five scoring, relative to his all situation numbers.
Ahead of the winger’s Tuesday night meeting with the Maple Leafs, about 53.7 percent of his scoring has come at five-on-five while 34 percent of his point production has come on the advantage. It’s not a knock for a player to have power play points — scoring does matter in the Hart conversation, even though this isn’t the Art Ross trophy. But it shouldn’t be such a substantial chunk for an MVP candidate.
Robertson is among the betting favorites right now to win the Hart. The Stars are a good team, sitting atop the Central in points and second in the division in points percentage. As long as both the player and the team maintain some semblance of the early season success, Robertson should be making some real noise for the Hart in the spring.
Last week, in this season’s first iteration of NHL Awards Watch, Luszczyszyn outlined some of the front-runners this year using GSVA as a guide. Those contenders include Adam Fox, Matthew Tkachuk, Jack Eichel, Jack Hughes, David Pastrnak, McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, last year’s winner, Auston Matthews, and goalie Ilya Sorokin. Those are still some of the primary players in the race, a few days later. Plus, there may be some who join over the next three-quarters of the season.
McDavid’s picking it up at five-on-five, as is expected of the generational center. That’s what he has to do to stay at the top of the conversation, since points are not the end-all-be-all in the Hart conversation — or at least, they shouldn’t be. If this year’s field is as deep as last year, there will be legitimate competition with McDavid if his five-on-five level isn’t where it needs to be. To his credit, though, he doesn’t have the help of players like Tkachuk, Eichel, Hughes, and Robertson alongside him at even strength. Still, he’s a player who can never be counted out, and most should anticipate him kicking that game-changing play up a notch down the stretch anyway.
Tkachuk’s been a difference-maker in Florida throughout the season. And that’s what the Panthers are going to need to have a playoff chance. The team is flawed on the backend, both on defense and back in goal, which puts more emphasis on their forwards to lead the way. The winger has been a part of it, with his scoring and five-on-five impact, and that’s put him in contention so far.
Pastrnak’s going to be legitimate competition as well. The Bruins overperformed while dealing with key injuries, and the elite winger is a major reason why. Now that the team is back to full strength, he’s still rolling. That’s not only going to earn him a raise this summer, but it should put him in contention for a few trophies.
Eichel and Hughes are particularly interesting candidates, especially if they help their teams return to the playoffs. Eichel is the first-line center Vegas never had, and even though that wasn’t the reason they missed the postseason — injuries throughout the roster were a primary cause — his influence is helping keep the Golden Knights towards the top of the standings.
For the Devils, on the other hand, Hughes’ development is a major reason for this team’s success. But it’s not the only reason. Jesper Bratt, Dougie Hamilton, and Nico Hischier could all make a case for this trophy as the year continues, if all keep contributing at this level in New Jersey. But one team can’t have that many MVP-caliber players, and there’s a case for each one — especially the two centers right now.
That’s a question the Maple Leafs could face, too. Right now, by the numbers, Matthews grades out better. Almost 86 percent of the center’s points have been primary this season, and he has a strong influence on the team’s offense relative to his teammates. However, there’s also Marner — a player on a historic streak, who has been a crucial part of their all-situation success, while being asked to play different roles in Toronto. Plus, he has a point on 88 percent of the Maple Leafs’ five-on-five goals that he’s been on the ice for. That’s among the best in the league, among some of the top scorers.
With Fox and Sorokin, what works against both is probably their position. For the goaltender, most think of the Islanders for their defensive structure even though this team is playing differently this year. Regardless, Sorokin’s been their backbone, saving almost 22 goals above expected through 18 games. It’s incredibly rare for a goaltender to take home this award, even though they often are the biggest equalizer on the ice. But if Shesterkin couldn’t take home the trophy after his efforts last year, the chances are likely slim in this situation as well.
Fox has a better chance as a defenseman, but probably not as much as a forward. His play as the best all-around defenseman this season should ascend just the Norris conversation, considering the value he brings to the Rangers who have sorely needed it this year. The team is outscoring opponents 24-14 at five-on-five while he’s deployed, his two-way impacts are strong, and his all-situation impact has been pivotal.
Aside from the early favorites who currently grade out at the top of the league, there’s other players who should be expected to find their way into the conversation as the year progresses. That includes Kaprizov in Minnesota, whose electric play is essential to their chances of success. The drawback right now is just how much of his scoring is coming on the power play, and how the team is underperforming at five-on-five around him. The positive is his clutch play, and how much of a direct influence he has on the Wild’s scoring.
Crosby’s no stranger to the Hart conversation as well, and could find himself in it again this spring. The Penguins are a better team while he’s deployed, and usually a part of key plays and sequences. So far, Pittsburgh has 25 five-on-five goals with him on the ice, and he’s earned a point on 88 percent of them. If the team is going to make a run again this year, their captain will be a game-changing part of it.
Maybe someone from the reigning champions makes their way into the race. Mikko Rantanen or Cale Makar are essential in Colorado, even more so as they deal with injuries. Or a wild card like Connor Hellebuyck could join the fold, if his play between the pipes may get Winnipeg back into the playoff race, as well. If we want to get really spicy, maybe Tage Thompson, who has been one of the most exciting players in the league, or Rasmus Dahlin, could even become a part of the conversation if Buffalo somehow beats the odds and climb in the standings.
It’s still early in the season, and if last year’s Hart Trophy race is any indication of the depth of players who could be in the conversation, there’s going to be a lot of competition for Robertson. But his excellent start has rightfully propelled him to the top of that race. Now it’s up to the star winger to maintain it.
Data via Evolving-Hockey, HockeyViz, AllThreeZones, HockeyStatCards, NaturalStatTrick, and Dom Luszczyszyn. This story relies on shot-based metrics; here is a primer on these numbers.
(Top photo: Tony Gutierrez /Associated Press)