Using Analytics to Pick the Winner of the 2019-20 Hart Memorial Trophy

I'll be using my GAR model to pick this year's MVP winner. Who will come out on top?

NHL Hart Memorial Trophy Winners

The Hart Trophy debate is always a hot topic on hockey social media, but this year’s installment outdid itself. The award is given to, per the National Hockey League, the player “judged most valuable to his team”, but hockey fans have never been more divided on what a player must do to be the most valuable on his team. For some people, leading the league in points while killing penalties cuts it. For others, it doesn’t. For the first time in a while, however, a goaltender has performed well enough to appear on some fans’ ballots. I’m now going to officially throw my name into this debate with my Hart Trophy ballot.

Two months ago, I released my own Goals Above Replacement (GAR) model. Other such models have been used frequently in determining Hart Trophy merit, and one month ago, I did some significant tinkering to it. There is still one more adjustment I want to make in the near future, which you can read about here, but I’ve let the most recent version sit for a few weeks. Ultimately, I think that making said adjustment before the model is considered final is not going to change my Hart trophy picks, so I’m still going through with this regardless. I will be using what I call hbGAR to pick who I think should take home the Hart Trophy in 2020 - regardless of who’s already been nominated by the PHWA. You don’t have to check my Tableau as you follow along - I’ll be providing each player’s GAR card as I go through the ranking, as well as where they and their teams stand league-wide in terms of hbGAR. Let’s start with the players who just missed the top 3.

Honourable Mention: Nathan MacKinnon, COL

GAR Rank: 1st | Team GAR: 53.1

MacKinnon was an absolutely dominant player this year, and he’s taken extraordinary strides over the last 3 seasons, but while I believe he was the most valuable player individually this season, it becomes a different story when you bring his team into the conversation: I don’t think the Avs would have been much worse without him. He’s a force offensively, scoring at a monstrous rate, and it’s scary to think that he actually had a bit more to give on the powerplay. I think he’s elevated himself to the status of Top-2 center in the NHL, but the Avalanche still maintained a goal share of over 57% when he wasn’t on the ice, per Natural Stat Trick. That would’ve been top-3 in the league, with MacKinnon on the bench. He’s a stellar player and is just entering his prime, but again, the Hart Trophy is awarded to the player most valuable to his team. As you’ll see soon, there are players on my ballot whose teams would have been way worse without them than Colorado would have been without MacKinnon this year.

Honourable Mention: Jack Eichel, BUF

GAR Rank: 7th | Team GAR: -14.0

Eichel had what was, without question, the greatest season of his career to date on its own, but his excellence on the ice this year is magnified when we take into consideration how bad his team was. Buffalo was an offensive wasteland this year, and Eichel was relied on so much to help put pucks in opposing nets. He certainly didn’t disappoint in that regard. Like MacKinnon, he somehow had more to give on the man-advantage (bad luck was more of a factor with Eichel), and he was second in the entire league in A3Z GAR, which is a testament to how good he was in transition in 2019-20.

He’s the only player featured in this piece that isn’t playing in the extended playoff, and he lead all NHL skaters with a minimum GAR total of 10 (in my opinion, the threshold required to deserve even a sniff of consideration for this award) in Player GAR/Team GAR differential. So, why don’t I have him winning, you ask? There are multiple reasons: First, his GAR total is inflated heavily by his ability to draw penalties. Drawing penalties is an important part of the game; they lead to powerplays, which leads to a goal over a quarter of the time if your team’s powerplay ranks among the best in the league. The catch is that Buffalo’s powerplay was absolutely horrible, and a lot of Eichel’s drawn penalties went to waste. That may not be his fault, but I choose to consider it a factor.

What’s more, his effectiveness at even-strength and special teams is inferior to all skaters you will read about in this piece - not just in the categories you see on the chart above, but he ranked last among all skaters on my ballot and honourable mentions list in Relative to Teammate GF% and xGF% at 5v5, per Evolving-Hockey. Despite this, I do think Buffalo would be worse off without this player, and yet I’d have a hard time giving the Hart trophy to Eichel because of the asterisks, if you will, listed above. Now for the ballot itself:

3. Artemi Panarin, NYR

GAR Rank: 2nd | Team GAR: 6.9

What a season debut it was for Panarin in New York. He most certainly lived up to and beyond the expectations set on him after he signed his monster contract in free agency a year ago. I’ve said multiple times that he’s unlikely to ever put up a season like this again, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to marvel at the results - literally. He has reached the chart limit in the results section of the even-strength offense category. The Rangers maintained a goal share of 51% during the season, which was top-10 in the league. Panarin’s adjusted on-ice mark, per Evolving-Hockey, exceeded that by 15%, which is borderline unfair. He held his own on the defensive side too, which isn’t uncharacteristic for him, but still something I look for in a Hart winner. Panarin was atop my ballot for most of the season, but I’ve had a change of heart (again, you’ll see why). I would consider it perfectly fair if you thought the top-3 should go in any other order, and I can see the argument for Panarin at 2 or 1, but he sits at 3 for me.

2. Elias Pettersson, VAN

GAR Rank: 6th | Team GAR: 1.6

For how hyped Pettersson was as a prospect, it’s astonishing how little credit he’s gotten at the NHL level. He didn’t lead his team in points, but the Canucks would not have come close to the 24-team playoff if it weren’t for him. Pettersson is the most advanced two-way player on my ballot by a longshot, and he’s only 21 years old, which leads me to wonder just how dominant he could end up being at both ends of the ice. The Canucks’ top powerplay unit was among the best in the league, and Pettersson was a large contributor to that. However, that powerplay was one of the only things Vancouver truly excelled at as a team. They have an alarming lack of depth, and outside of that first line up front and Quinn Hughes on defense, I don’t see any elite players on this roster. We’ve seen top-heavy teams fall short of the playoffs before, but the Canucks are still here, and would have been under the normal 16-team format as well, which shows just how much Pettersson and the few other stars on this team had to carry the group to the playoffs.

Per NaturalStatTrick, the Canucks maintained a goal share of 63% at 5v5 with Pettersson on the ice. Without him, that total plummets to 42%. That difference of 21% is the same difference between the San Jose Sharks, who ranked 30th in that department, and the Colorado Avalanche, who ranked 1st. In terms of expected goals, the Canucks put up a mark of 54.8% with EP40 on the ice, and 45.8% without him. That’s the same difference between 2nd and 29th in the league in that department. The performance of the Vancouver Canucks was turned on its head thanks to Elias Pettersson. Rarely have we ever seen a player carry his team to this extensive of a degree. Pettersson was the most valuable skater to his team in the league in my opinion this season, but he doesn’t rank first on my Hart ballot. Can you identify the key word in that sentence?

1. Connor Hellebuyck, WPG

GAR Rank: 1st (among goalies) | Team GAR: -15.0

Hellebuyck is a prime example of why goalies are just so hard to predict. His down year a season ago had everyone thinking his 2017-18 was an outlier, until he dragged the free-falling Jets, kicking and screaming, into a chance at the Stanley Cup. Winnipeg was a disaster defensively this year, ranking dead-last in the league in expected goals against, per Natural Stat Trick. Yes, that’s worse than the Detroit Red Wings. Yet, in terms of goals against, their ranking gets boosted to the middle of the pack. Not only did Hellebuyck contribute way more to his team’s success than any other player on the Jets roster, he was exponentially better than any other goalie in the league. If I had a say, Hellebuyck would be taking home the Vezina and the Hart this season, and we already know he isn’t taking home one of them. If he doesn’t win the other, though, that would be an unprecedented screw-up by the PHWA.

What’s more, his GAR figure that you see above (it’s 20.7 to be exact, by the way) was achieved in spite of him being average on the penalty kill. Imagine if he was at Robin Lehner’s level on the PK this season, or even Mikko Koskinen’s. In my mind, there’s no question about who the league’s best goalie was either way. What sealed his case for tops in my Hart ballot was the fact that his GAR figure exceeds his team’s by a total of 35.7, which was first in the league - exceeding any skater who met the pre-established Hart consideration cutoff. This was a magnificent season for Hellebuyck, and I frankly don’t expect that the Jets are going to repay him for what he did for them this season anytime soon. He is, to me, the most deserving of the Hart Memorial Trophy in 2020.