We might as well start seeing that caution on just about any hockey web site you'd care to imagine. The reason?...a growing "controversy" over the Hart Trophy, what it means, and who is, is not, or should not be a favorite.
The question sparking the debate seems to focus on two things...first, a player -- Alex Ovechkin -- and second, whether a player whose team does not make the playoffs should be "eligible" (loosely defined) for the award.
From Winnipeg to Montreal...from Philadelphia to Toronto (ok, Calgary)...from one national media source to another...the stage seems to be set and the cast assembling for one of the great debates (well, since the Jarome Iginla - Jose Theodore debate of ought-two) over the Hart Trophy.
There are few newspapers, magazines, web sites, or bloggers who have not at least hinted at an opnion or a preference. And we're three weeks from the playoffs.
So, for the record, we'll weigh in. Who cares if there are still nine or ten games left to play...
First, there is something that annoys me about the Hart voting. There are two "performance" awards for which any player, regardless of position, is eligible -- the Hart and the Pearson. However, both seem to be subjected to the same criteria -- the NHL's "best" player -- when neither include such a criterion in their citations.
The Hart is for the player "judged to be the most valuable to his team." The Pearson is for the "most outstanding player."
As to the former, the Hart seems to me to have become a "numbers" award. Lack them, and you're out of consideration. That suggests to me a certain laziness among the voters (even though I -- and I'm not a voter -- spend a lot of time looking at numbers). Second, I am mindful of the term "valuable" being in the citation. All other things equal, how valuable can a player be if his team does not make the playoffs? It seems to me a fair question.
The thing is, not all things are equal. There is an 82-game season with all its ups and downs, and the stretch drive that determines who does make the playoffs. Is there room in this consideration for a player, without whom his team could not or would not contend for a playoff position, even if his team comes close but does not make the playoffs? I think so...to think otherwise is to exhibit, in my opinion, the same narrow-mindedness that makes the Hart a "numbers" trophy most years.
Each team has a "most valuable" player. On some of those teams, the choice is clear, the only matter being whether that player has enough "value" to raise his team up into contention for a playoff spot or a high seeding. On other teams, the choice is less clear, either by virtue of being on a talent-loaded team where an individual's "value" might get lost in the noise (think "Detroit"), or whether that players prolific numbers are truly "valuable" (e.g., whether his team would have done as well without him).
To me, the Hart is a two man race. There are two players -- one in the East, one in the West -- who, if their teams had to play without them for any length of time, would sink rapidly in the standings...one team out of contention, the other perhaps out of the top-eight. They are the faces of their teams, the engines that drives their teams' performances. Each is as complete a player as there is in the league at any position, and they do many things more commonly associated with grinders or physical players. In fact, they seem to relish in it. Neither is a prima donna; both are among the most approachable and personable individuals in the sport (although that is not a selection criterion). Both have put their teams on their backs in the last 20 games -- one going 13-9-22, +11, while his offensively challenged team went 11-7-2, the other going 14-15-29, +6, while his all-too-young team went 11-6-3.
In my mind, this is a race between Jarome Iginla and Alexander Ovechkin.
One might argue, what about Evgeni Malkin? To that I'd say that while he has the numbers, it's not clear he's the most valuable player on his own team. Pittsburgh got uneven play from Marc-Andre Fleury when he went down with an ankle injury. But in the wake of that, Ty Conklin grabbed his responsibility by the throat, and the Penguins improved their goal-against-per-game average by about three-quarters of a goal a game. Malkin has fine numbers -- better than either Iginla or Ovechkin over his last 20 games (13-23-36, +10). But has his contribution been more important than that of Conklin? Perhaps, but if so, not as clearly.
Which brings me to the Pearson, which I think is a part of this conversation. This seems to me an odd award -- equal parts consolation prize to the loser of the Hart (even though there are different groups that vote on each award), if the competition is close (Jaromir Jagr in 2006, when Joe Thornton won the Hart), or ratification of a player's special year, if there is no clear-cut competitor to the eventual Hart winner (Sidney Crosby last year). No goalie has won it in ten years (Dominik Hasek, 1998, his second consecutive selection), and you'd have to go back to 1981 to find another (Mike Liut, the only other goalie to win it). So that means perhaps the loser of the Hart, assuming Iginla and Ovechkin are the top contenders, wins the Pearson.
What of the goalies, though. Martin Brodeur's name has popped up as a "dark horse" candidate (as if someone with his pedigree could ever be thought of that way) for the Hart. Brodeur certainly has fine numbers, and his team is having another fine year. But is his value to the Devils any more than that of an Evgeni Nabokov, who has similar numbers and plays for a team with results that so far are similar to the Devils? Ditto Roberto Luongo and J-S Giguere, whose win totals lag behind Brodeur and Nabokov, but who have nonetheless put together excellent years?
And what of the injured? By their absence -- and their team's performance in that absence -- do they merit consideration. If so, one would have to include Nicklas Lidstrom in the conversation (Detroit was 3-3-1 in his absence from February 18th to March 9th).
It is a crowded field, to be sure, and you can probably think of a couple other names to throw into the mix. But at the top are two players whose "value" to their teams -- one fighting for a higher playoff seed, the other for a playoff spot -- is just that much higher than the rest of that crowded field.