Who deserves the Hart Memorial Trophy that is awarded to the “player adjudged most valuable to his team” during the regular season? In my mind there are three candidates that should receive equal consideration for this award: Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, and New Jersey’s Zach Parise.

By now you’ve seen, read, or heard various “experts” on various media outlets praising Alexander Ovechkin for being the best player in hockey, the unanimous pick for MVP, and possible one of the best ever. But why? How can he be the “clear favorite” to win the Hart Memorial Trophy when he is having a worse year statistically than last year when he won the Hart trophy by a large margin?

I ask why not Malkin?

This season, Ovechkin is favored to win the trophy by an even larger margin. My question is why? Because he is the best in the league at shooting the puck a lot? Because his “passion” outweighs the negative parts of his game?

Goal Scoring

Ovechkin is known for scoring goals. Lots of goals. Why does he score so many goals? Because he takes so many shots.

I honestly believe Ovechkin is a mathematical genius. He has figured out that the more shots you take, the more likely you are to get a goal. The old adage 100% of the shots you don’t take, don’t go in must be Ovechkin’s motto.

Ovechkin has taken 475 recorded shots so far this season. He has scored 51 goals, best in the NHL. His shooting percentage is 10.7% good for 241st in the league. Wait… 241st? Is that right? Maxime Talbot has a better shooting percentage!

I know the Talbot comparison is a little unfair but honestly that is the company he keeps when it comes to shooting percentage.

If Zach Parise had taken that many shots, he would have 61 goals, assuming he kept his average the same.

Parise has 41 goals, 10 less than AO, with only 320 shots.

If Evgeni Malkin had taken that many shots, he would have 58 goals, assuming he kept his average the same.

Malkin has 33 goals, 18 less than AO, with only 268 shots.

The difference between Ovechkin and Malkin’s shot totals is 207. Ovechkin has missed 199 shots. That means that on the season so far, Alexander Ovechkin has attempted 674 shots on the season, and only has 51 goals to show for it.

So I ask the question, is Ovechkin even that good at scoring goals or is he playing the law of averages?

If Malkin and Parise never passed would they be the front runner for the award given to the “player adjudged most valuable to his team”?

Fact is that players such as Parise, Jeff Carter, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Dany Heatley should be considered better “snipers” because they score similar amounts of goals on far less shots.

Defensive Prowess

The giveaway/takeaway statistic is always an interesting statistic to look at very closely. It is somewhat objective but not nearly as objective as the hits category is in the NHL.

Guess who leads the league in takeaways. Evgeni Malkin. He has 87 takeaways so far this season, 3 more than second place likely Selke winner Pavel Datsyuk. Ovechkin has 55 takeaways and is 3rd on his team. Both Niklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin have 70. You would expect the “best player in the world” to have more takeaways than 55.

Evgeni Malkin is often seen on the backcheck stripping an unsuspecting player of the puck and going the other way with it all in one motion. Malkin is relentless on the backcheck and along the boards in his own end. If Evgeni Malkin wants the puck, Evgeni Malkin will get the puck.

Ovechkin prefers to take the body when playing “defense” or floating in his own zone. He often will take a run at the other teams best player even if it will take him well out of a good defensive position.

Puck Possession

The number of giveaways paint a pretty good picture about how good each player is at possessing the puck and not turning it over.

Malkin, as a center by trade, is often carrying the puck through the neutral zone and feeding his teammates with precise passes once he enters the zone. Malkin can often be seen stealing the puck off the opposition behind his own net, dodging a forechecker high in his own zone, swerving to avoid the center and other forward, and using his stickhandling and speed to maneuver around the defensemen for a shot on goal. Malkin has the puck more than Ovechkin due to the fact that Malkin looks to make plays when he has the puck as opposed to just shooting it every opportunity that presents its self (or doesn’t).

Ovechkin, as a winger by trade, is often seen high up in his own end near the blue line along the wall covering the right defensemen. Often times, as soon as it looks as if his team will get control of the puck, he leaves the zone to attempt to cheat up ice in anticipation of a breakout pass from his center Niklas Backstrom.

Malkin has 77 giveaways on the season which is a little bit higher than average for a center but because of the way Malkin skates end to end and makes passes all over the offensive zone, that number is pretty good, especially when compared to his takeaway number of 87.

Quick side note of interest: NBC’s love monkey Mike Richards has 82 giveaways on the season with only 69 takeaways. Pierre, where’s Malkin’s love for being defensive minded? The stats don’t lie.

Ovechkin has 100 giveaways on the season, good for best (or worst) in the NHL, which is an astounding number for the “best player in the league.” Ovechkin does not carry the puck nearly as much as a center does so his number is even worse. He has 8 more giveaways than D Andrei Markov and 12 more than fellow Capital Mike Green who is third in the NHL with 88 giveaways. Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk are the only wingers in the top ten in the league in giveaways.

Combine Ovechkin’s 199 missed shots with his 100 giveaways and you have one man who simply does not take care of the puck. He is careless with the rubber and instead of passing to an open player or dumping the puck deep, Ovechkin will take an ill-advised shot or turn the puck over to the other team. Not great qualities when it comes to puck possession.

Malkin, on the other hand, will almost always hit an open man if he sees one. He is often guilty of overpassing instead of shooting which Pittsburghers like to call “Sidney Crosby Syndrome.” Due to Malkin’s affliction with Sidney Crosby Syndrome, his goal totals are down this season but his assists have increased so it balances out. Malkin rarely turns the puck over but when he does, he backchecks like a demon and often steals it back.

Is Niklas Backstrom the Capitals MVP? He is the player that wins the faceoffs for Ovechkin. He gives Ovechkin room to work with in the offensive zone and passes almost exclusively to #8. Backstrom backchecks for Ovechkin. He gets takeaways for Ovechkin.

Ovechkin should be thanking Backstrom for his success much the same way Jari Kurri should thank Wayne Gretzky for the Hall of Fame Induction.

Zach Parise

So why shouldn’t Evgeni Malkin win the MVP? In response to this question, Ovechkin supporters like to use the phrase “take Ovechkin off the Capitals and they are done. Take Malkin off the Penguins and they still have Crosby.” Besides the admission of Crosby’s considerable talent by comparing him to the two Russians, the Capitals fans have a point.

That argument did not work for Malkin last year so why should it work for Ovechkin this year? He has Semin who, besides being a more complete player, would be in Ovechkin’s company points wise had he been healthy all season.

Malkin does have Crosby, but they rarely are on the ice at the same time. The only time they play together is late in periods, after a big PK, and on the power play. Crosby and Malkin have not been big beneficiaries of the power play this season due to its ineptitude and therefore Crosby’s talent should not be held against Malkin when he leads the league in even strength points.

But if that argument is the deciding factor in the MVP race, then Devils Left Wing Zach Parise is the MVP of the National Hockey League. Without Parise and his 41 goals and 88 points along with his +30, the Devils would be well out of the playoff picture, especially with the injury to Martin Brodeur.

I am not very familiar with the game of Zach Parise (like most of the fans in the NHL due to lack of marketing), so I asked Devils’ fan Jordan DiRisio to fill me in on Parise’s game. He had this to say:

“Zach is a great player and he scores most of his goals right around the net, sometimes on tips and rebounds sometimes with his good wrist shot. He plays very responsibly (if you don’t you can’t be on the devils) and doesn’t cheat up [ice] which is why he doesn’t get a lot of breakaways. He is ridiculously hard working, especially on the forecheck, and causes a lot of turnovers from the other teams this way.”

“Really to sum up his defensive play you just need to look at his plus minus (+30) which is in the top 10 in the league.”

“People have labeled him as a pure scorer but this isn’t really the case, in fact he has more assists than goals (41g 47a).”

“He is without a doubt [the Devils] best player and the most important thing to look at as far as Zach goes for the MVP is the type of system he produces in. In New Jersey (a team that has never had a 50 goal scorer or a 100 point producer) scoring is not nearly as easy to come by.”

Greg Wyshynski of the immensely popular blog Puck Daddy had this to say as well:

“Zach scores a lot of rink rat goals — hard working efforts, coming out of the corners. He’s one of the best forecheckers in hockey, especially in using his body to control the puck.”

“Defensively, the plus-30 isn’t an aberration. He backchecks well, plays on the kill. Just a great two-way forward. I don’t thing anyone really cheats up ice in the Devils’ system.”

“I think Parise for the Hart is a fair call, if only because he’s carried the offense so much this season. But I think the Devils are destined to be seen as a total team (like Boston), so an MVP will be hard to come by.”

The Hart Memorial Trophy is awarded to the “player adjudged most valuable to his team” during the regular season. Without Zach Parise, who makes up for the 88 points Parise has scored this year? Brian Rolston? Dainius Zubrus? Would Clemmenson have been nearly as successful if he had not had the scoring and two way play of Zach Parise while filling in for Brodeur?

The Cold Reality

Ovechkin is the best in the league at scoring goals. He scores more goals than anyone. He has one of the best shots in the league and certainly uses it.

But Ovechkin is not the best hockey player in the league. The best hockey players in the league are (in no particular order): Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Marian Hossa, and Zach Parise among others because they play goal line to goal line. Never will you see any of those players hovering around center ice waiting for a pass. They will never take shifts off or backcheck at their own pace. They are hockey players.

There is already an award given out to the best goal scorer and it is called the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy. Ovechkin can have his “Rocket” Richard trophies. The hockey players will take home the MVP award.

If the MVP award is going to be given out to the “player adjudged most valuable to his team”, then Zach Parise is the NHL Most Valuable Player.

If the MVP award is going to be given out to the best hockey player in the NHL at both ends of the rink, Evgeni Malkin is the NHL Most Valuable Player.

If the MVP award is going to be given out to the most exciting shot taker and popular player, Alexander Ovechkin is the NHL Most Valuable Player.

But last I checked the Hart Memorial Trophy doesn’t read “awarded to the most popular and passionate hockey player in the NHL.” Let’s all hope the Hart Trophy voters remember that fact.

I, for one, do not see the voters thinking objectively and will be extremely surprised if anyone but Alexander Ovechkin wins the award. And that is a very sad fact for Malkin and Parise supporters out there.

*All statistics are as of 3 p.m. Friday, March 27, 2009.