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Patrice Bergeron, you da real MVP

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Are Hart winners really the most valuable players in the NHL?

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Am I the only one who's noticed that, come playoff time, MVP players tend to not seem all that valuable anymore? Crosby, Malkin, and Ovechkin have been dominating the Hart Trophy award voting, but the only time any of them won a cup was 6 years ago in 2009. Meanwhile, Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, and Jonathan Toews have been dominating Selke voting, and the last time one of them DIDN'T win the cup was 6 years ago. So that begs the question. Are Hart Trophy caliber players really the most valuable players in the league?

To help find out, I went ahead and found out how many nominations for each of the 4 "best in class" awards (Hart, Vezina, Selke, Norris) each Stanley Cup winning team since the 04-05 lockout has had among their players. For example, the 2007 Anaheim Ducks had Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Scott Neidermier and Chris Pronger. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry were each nominated twice for the Hart since 05-06, and Neidermier and Pronger were nominated for the Norris twice and once respectively. Teemu Sellanne was nominated for the Hart, but it was before the lockout, so we're not counting it. Therefore, the Ducks had 2 Harts and 3 Norris nominations among their team.

Why only after the lockout? Well, two reasons. The first reason is that I simply needed a cut off date. I can't go backwards indefinitely and still expect the data to be representative of today's NHL. The second reason is that there's been a definite shift in how we analyze players since the lockout. The post lockout era has largely overlapped with the #fancystat era. This has entirely changed the meaning of the Selke trophy, and to a lesser extent the Norris trophy. The Selke used to be essentially the best faceoff man in the NHL award. Now, it almost always goes to the best possession forward in the NHL.

Why count nominations as well instead of just wins? Again, two reasons. First off, sometimes excellent players (i.e. Zdeno Chara) are constantly nominated but rarely win, while one hit wonder players have a single excellent season and then never really regain form. It doesn't make much sense to count both as equal. And really, in most seasons, there's rarely much of a difference between the first and third place winners of these awards. The second reason is one of practicality. You're cutting your possible sample size by about a third if you only include winners, leading to more uncertainty in your final numbers.

Keep in mind that I put counted the number of nominations by hand using data from Hockey Reference. I double and triple checked my counts, but I'm a human being, so there's a chance I could have missed a nomination or two. If you spot an error, please let me know. So, without further ado, here are the results.

Award 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 Total % of Total Total >1
Hart 0 2 1 8 0 0 0 0 0 0 11 15.4929577465 3
Vezina 0 0 0 0 1 2 1 0 1 0 5 7.0422535211 4
Selke 1 0 7 1 4 4 3 4 3 4 31 43.661971831 9
Norris 0 3 5 1 2 5 2 2 2 2 24 33.8028169014 9
Total 1 5 13 10 7 11 6 6 6 6 71

And some graphs

So, right off the bat, suspicions about Selke players winning the cup more often than Hart players seem to be true. But before we talk about the elephant in the room, let's address that tiny Vezina sliver. "Good goaltending is the key to winning cups" is often parroted, and these numbers would seem to refute that on first glance. But it's not as bad as you might think. The big difference between the Vezina and the other trophies is that there's just been a lot more parity among goalies in recent years than there has been at other positions. The other 3 awards had players who were nominated year in year out (Datsyuk, Chara, Crosby, etc), and that just wasn't true for the Vezina. The only time a goalie was way above average year in and year out was Tim Thomas's reign, and he only took 2 Vezinas from that era. The reason why good goalies win cups is that nowadays, nearly every playoff team has a good goalie.

Now, on to the Hart. Why are Hart Trophy winners so underrepresented here? They're supposed to be the most valueable players in the league, so where's the value? First off, let's cut the crap and be honest. Most of the time, the Hart goes to the best offensive forward in the league. Sure, occasionally it'll go to a defenseman if they score like a forward, or a goalie if the players in front of the goalie are pylons all year, but most of the time it goes to the best offensive player in the league. The big assumption here being that point production is the most valuable thing a player can bring to the table.

The problem with that assumption is that it contradicts almost every conclusion the #fancystats community has come to in the past few years. Time and time again, people have found that there's better stats for predicting a team's future success than goals scored, which is often the only thing Hart players bring to their team. The stats that are good at predicting future success, like CF%, FF%, xDiff%, dCorsi, etc aren't the stats that Hart winners tend to lead. Rather, they're what Selke and Norris winners tend to lead. So it should be no wonder that these players go on to have more future success in the playoffs than their Hart winning peers.

There's another reason why Selke players tend to be more valueable than Hart players. Ask yourself, why is it that the nominees for the best defensive players in the game all just so happen to score 40-60 points a year? Really, the Selke doesn't exactly go to the best defensive player. If it did, do you really think Jonathan Toews would have FOUR nominations while his team mate, Marcus Kruger, has 0? In terms of xDiff, dCorsi, and FA60, Kruger is the better defensive player than Toews. Toews isn't even the best defensive forward on his own team, so why should he be considered the best in the league?

Again, it comes down to overvaluing offense. Toews got a Selke nod this year because he was one of the best defensive players in the league, AND he scored 2.15 P/60. That's as much as Hart Finalist and fellow John, John Tavares. Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron, and Jonathan Toews all had P/60 that hovered around 2. For some odd reason, good offensive production is apparently a prerequisite for being the best defensive player in the game. Contrast that with Hart winners, who can often be kind of one dimensional. The end result is that Selke nominees are often the best of the best defensively, and just under elite offensively.  Therefore, Selke nominees tend to be better overall players than Hart players, and therefore more valuable.

So, the next time you hear someone say "Yeah, Patrice Bergeron is good, but he's not a Hart level player", tell them that's a good thing.