Have a Hart
It is rare that a defenseman is nominated as a Hart Trophy finalist, and even rarer that the trophy is awarded to a blueliner. Chris Pronger was the last d-man to win the Hart, and before that, you have to go back to Bobby Orr. Before that, you have to go all the way back to Babe Pratt in 1944, 11 years before the introduction of the Norris trophy.
That was not always the case. Nine of the first 21 Hart Trophies were awarded to defensemen. It is not as though we have a recent dearth of talent at the position either. Since Orr’s era of dominance, we have seen greats such as Denis Potvin, Larry Robinson, Rod Langway, Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque, Chris Chelios, and Nicklas Lidstrom go through their primes, just to name a few. There can be no doubt that is a “who’s who” list.
Why then, is it so rare for a defenseman to get any love in MVP balloting? I believe the answer can be found in the fact that a defenseman’s contributions are not entirely (or sometimes primarily) found on the stat sheet, whereas that is generally not the case for forwards. From 2003-2014, the Hart Trophy winner led the league in scoring, goals, or both. A change in the mentality and approach of voters makes it much more difficult for a defender to have success. With that in mind, I want to look back and honor some defensemen whom I believe worthy of a nomination or a win.
2015: Erik Karlsson
It does not have to be Karlsson, it could be any of the finalists, but I think he is the obvious choice because he won the Norris. I am not going to argue that Carey Price should not have won the Hart, because I think he was the correct choice. However, when the Art Ross Trophy winner finished with only 87 points, it was obviously not a banner year for forwards. So, why not give some love to a defenseman who managed 66 points? I would replace Tavares with Karlsson in 2015.
2006: Nicklas Lidstrom
Lidstrom finished higher in the balloting in 2008, but I am going to offer him as a candidate in 2006 instead, because it might have been his best season ever. The thing is, Lidstrom’s usefulness was quite obvious on the score sheet in 2005-06, because he managed to post an 80 point season. The top two vote getters were Joe Thornton and Jaromir Jagr, who scored 125 and 123 points respectively. But consider this: whose defensive play would be superior? I think it is quite clear that the answer is Lidstrom by a mile. Lidstrom should have been a finalist at the very least, and at the risk of being thought of as nuts, I would have considered him strongly as my winner. Replace Miikka Kiprusoff as a finalist, and possibly Joe Thornton as the winner.
1995: Paul Coffey
I will admit that I have been quite critical of Coffey’s defensive play, and that I do not rate him as highly among defensemen as most, but he had a whale of a season in 1994-94. The season was shortened by a lockout, meaning the league’s point leaders, Jaromir Jagr and Eric Lindros had only 70 points. Coffey had 58, and had the most point shares of any skater that season according to hockey-reference.com. I would nominate Coffey instead of Dominik Hasek, and I would be hard pressed not to give him the win.
1990: Ray Bourque
I almost mentioned Bourque in 1994 as a potential nominee, but chose not to because I knew I would want to do this. Bourque was runner-up in 1990, losing to Mark Messier. The two had the same number of first place votes, and Bourque had more second place votes. Mess won the award on third place selections believe it or not. With the type of season that Bourque had that season, it baffles me that he was left off of any ballots. Messier had an incredible season, but considering the impressive two-way play of Bourque, I would have to vote for him.
1979: Denis Potvin
Potvin just barely missed out on being in the top three in 1979. The finalists were Bryan Trottier, Guy Lafleur, and Marcel Dionne who had 134, 129, and 130 points respectively. Too bad Potvin could manage only 101, right? No disrespect to any of the finalists. They all had outstanding seasons, and are all-time greats, but I have absolutely no problem in saying that I would have cast my vote for Potvin. Despite his 59 goals, I think I would replace Dionne since the other two were better defensively, but I think Potvin should have been a finalist and that year’s winner.
1977: Larry Robinson
I know that a plus/minus rating has to be taken with a grain of salt, but when a guy puts up a +120 rating, he is obviously doing something right. I will not go so far as to dethrone Guy Lafleur as that season’s winner, because he had a truly remarkable line of stats, but I certainly think Robinson should have been among the top three. I would put Robinson in Rogie Vachon’s place, and honestly, he probably would have been second on my ballot.
There you have it. I am not saying that those guys are the only ones worthy of recognition, but I think those cases are among the strongest of the last 40 years. I do not think it is right that defensemen are so frequently overlooked, and this has been my attempt at paying homage to some of their greatest performance.