Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Force of Nature Kovalev for Hart Consideration – Gretzky

Last week, the peerless Wayne Gretzky took the opportunity of a "once-in-a-lifetime" match up against the Canadiens to heap praise on the team and some of its key players. The player whose virtues he seemed to be extolling the most was one-time teammate Alexei Kovalev (now called Alex).

What Gretzky actually said via translation into French in La Presse and the back into English on Eyes on the Prize:

"Kovalev is one of the most complete players I've ever seen. He's having an exceptional season and should be considered for the Hart because of the success he's had."

As for completeness, Gretzky is only saying what Habs fans have been saying all season, and what some astute hockey observers have been saying for longer than that.

But the Hart trophy?

Now, i think Robert L. was clear in his post, and I will reiterate, Gretzky only said he would get votes, not that he would win. However, all this talk about Kovalev for MVP got me thinking about how good his chances really were:

1) How does Kovalev stack up against the league in this regard?

I think in general he stacks up quite well. But there are many elements to consider in the decision for the Hart trophy. The way I like to think of it is how would that team be if the player in question is removed from the lineup.

In that regard, we can only speculate. We know from the past that when we lose Markov we are worse, when Brisebois is gone we are better and if we lose Koivu in the playoffs, we are done for. Some would argue that we missed Kovalev for most of last season. But I don't agree with that.

Looking around the league though, there are certain players who seem to carry their teams even more than Alex Kovalev does. One could name Alexander Ovechkin and Martin Brodeur as the obvious candidates. Other candidates based on this year's play might include Iginla, Lidstrom, Niedermayr (based on the turnaround he caused, though he should be counted out for sitting so long), Nabokov, Sundin, Thomas and even Malkin (this year). You could even make arguments for Lecavalier and Kovalchuk, but their teams couldn't be too much worse than they are right now.

Hart trophy voters also take the positioning of the team into account when they vote, hence Wayne Gretzky's reasoning for Kovalev. If the Devils, Penguins or Sens squeak past the Habs, their Hart candidates would earn just as many votes.

If the Habs do top the division say, would that make a Canadiens player a serious contender for the Hart trophy? Would Kovalev even be the number one choice from the Habs?

Habs MVP

All this MVP talk led me naturally to thoughts about our own team's most valuable element. I should mention, that, once again, Eyes on the Prize spurred my thoughts on matters with an article on the Habs most indispensable element.

Robert's article was well thought out and as comprehensive as ever, but disappointingly (for me at least) was written as an extended question with no conclusion on the part of the author. On prompting, Robert even then seemed reluctant to commit, but opted for Bob Gainey as his choice.

A good choice to be sure. It would be hard to argue against Gainey at this point, as he assembled this team and many of the players are his draft picks and wards.

How about players then? Who is the MVP from amongst the ones who are actually responsible for fighting for and holding onto the points that are making everyone so positive about Gainey and his team right now?

Well, to be honest I only see two realistic candidates for most valuable player for 2007-2008: Mr. Kovalev and his countryman Andrei Markov.

The readers of the same blog believe that Kovalev is the one, garnering 76 votes. Next among players comes Johnny-come-lately Carey Price, the choice of 46 fans (possibly with short attention span). Markov comes next, but only in combination with Mike Komisarek (45 votes).

You can see where I'm going here, I think the populous is a bit off here. The race is close, but Andrei Markov is my choice for Habs MVP by a nose. Here's my thinking:

1) Kovalev has made Plekanec into a first-rate point producer, but Andrei Markov has made Mike Komisarek into an award nominee and top tier defenseman (this year he's been passing on the final lessons which have been in session for a couple of years).

2) While Kovalev is the shooter and the foil of the league's number one PP, Markov's steady play at the back and sharp vision and passing is the lynch pin that holds the unit together.

3) Kovalev has been on fire lately, but Markov was on fire for just as long early in the season, even when the Habs goalscoring was being called into question. Prior to Xmas, he was heralded in the same way Kovalev is now – top vote getter among East Dmen,

4) Markov plays the most minutes on the team and does more dirty work than Alex in general. he still found time to rack up a gaudy 54 points already.

5) The Habs goalies have looked great most times this year, seemingly no matter who it is. What's consistent about them? How about the defenders in front of them. Sure we let up a lot of shots, but many times Markov has been one of the tandem making sure those shots come from the oppositions lesser lights.

6) If you look at wins following losses or losing streaks, Andrei Markov is by far the most prominently featured Habs name. I would call these games crunch games, must-wins or "statement games" as Mike Boone put it for last night. They are important.

While Kovalev has been consistently great in the offensive end win or lose, Markov has been good and also able to find extra in the crunch games. In 21 of these types of wins, Markov has been player of the game 3 times and among the top performers of the night 16 times.

Kovalev is no slouch with 3 player of the game honours himself, but took a back seat in slightly more of those games too, making the top performers an only slightly less impressive 11 times.

At the end of the day, both players have played enormous parts in helping this team take the steps it has this year, both as players and mentors. The point of choosing here is an academic issue. So since you won't be held to account for any of this:

Who is your MVP so far?

Are any of you the Carey Price crew? Would Huet get some residual votes as well?

As always, look to 96 points and the playoffs where that would lead. Go Habs Go.

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