Originally written on Red Light District Hockey  |  Last updated 2/15/12
Lundqvist

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is carrying the Original Six franchise to its best regular season in team history. He has undoubtedly been the team’s MVP since the beginning of the season, posting career-best numbers through mid-February. Should he (and other goalies) be included in the Hart Trophy race? Goaltenders already have their own award, but that should not exclude them from MVP discussions.

If the Hart was truly voted on by its exact definition – The Hart Memorial Trophy is an annual award given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team – more than six goalies would have likely won the award in the league’s history (see: right). Nashville’s Pekka Rinne would have come close to winning it in 2011; the same may be said for Buffalo’s Ryan Miller the season before. (Both finished fourth in the final voting.)

And Henrik Lundqvist would have one helluva case to win it through three-fourths of this season.

His seven shutouts and .941 save percentage lead the NHL. His impressive 1.77 goals-against average, if it holds up, would be the best number from a starter since 2002-03 when Marty Turco posted a 1.72 GAA. Lundqvist has also given up two goals or less in 30 of his 42 starts. Is the defense playing well in front of him? Sure. But this is the best Lundqvist has played in his seven-year career, which is saying something.

“The Rangers have a great point total, they’ve put some separation between themselves and the Bruins and they are a team that is more than the sum of its parts,” said CBC’s Elliotte Friedman, who has a vote for the Hart Trophy. “You look at their big free agent signing Brad Richards; he’s on pace for his worst scoring year of his career and yet the Rangers have surfaced at the top of the Eastern Conference. A lot of that is who the goalie is and what he’s done.”

As of now, it looks like Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin is going to be tough to beat for the Hart Trophy this season. His sheer dominance has kept the Penguins in the playoff hunt amid key injuries. But that doesn’t mean Lundqvist, or any other goalie, should be short-sighted in the MVP race.

“It’s the most valuable position on the ice,” Friedman said. “The one thing you always hear coaches and GMs saying is that nothing will cost you more than bad goaltending. Nothing can deflate a team, nothing can put a rise into a team more than the play of the goaltender.”

If Malkin happens to hit a dry spell down the stretch and Lundqvist continues his dominance between the pipes, the Rangers’ backstop could realistically challenge for the Hart and become the seventh goalie ever to win the award.

The only goaltender to ever win the Hart twice is Dominik Hasek, who did it in back-to-back seasons (1997 and 1998) with the Buffalo Sabres.

“Hasek was such an extraordinary candidate,” said USA Today’s Kevin Allen, who has voted on the Hart Trophy for 26 years and voted for Hasek. “Those years he was just phenomenal, and I think his flamboyance helped him. Not only was he statistically dominant, but he was such a visible presence; it was crazy save after crazy save.”

Hasek, known as ‘The Dominator’, backstopped the Sabres to an unexpected division title in 1997 and a playoff appearance in 1998, all with a team that, for the most part, struggled to score goals.

“What was crazy about Hasek at the time,” Allen said, “was although it looks like he is out of control, when you talk to him you realize that all of his moves, even things that look wild and crazy and spontaneous, are actually planned. He gave it some thought that if he gets in a certain position, then the best course of action was flailing his arms and legs wildly.”

Montreal’s Jose Theodore was the last goalie to win the Hart, doing so in 2002 with a 2.11 goals-against average on a Canadiens team that barely snuck into the playoffs. Theodore finished in a tie with Calgary’s Jarome Iginla, but Theodore had more first-place votes.

“I was surprised he won that year; I thought Iginla was going to win it,” Friedman said. “That was a year where Montreal really wasn’t that great of a team, but Theodore’s play carried them. He was a rock that year. Even though I thought Iginla was going to win, Theodore certainly deserved it.”

The closest a goaltender has come to winning the Hart since 2002 was Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo in 2007, finishing second behind Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby in the voting. There have been a lot of great seasons constructed by goaltenders in the last decade, but none quite good enough to dethrone some of the other stars of the game.

When asked what he needs to see from a goaltender to get his vote for the Hart, Allen said, “Complete dominance. I don’t think it is good enough just to have an exceptional season. I think you have to have a memorable season. With the history of the voters, in order to win it as a goalie you have to have a season for the ages.”

Another thing that helps a goaltender’s case for winning the Hart is if they have to single-handedly win games because they play for a team that has to manufacture goals. In 2002, Theodore backstopped a Canadiens team that has a minus goal differential and struggled to score goals. The same could be said for Hasek in the late 90’s.

Allen – the President of the Pro Hockey Writers’ Association, the organization that formally votes for the Hart – also pointed out that you have to put together a great second half of the season to catch the voters’ attention.

No one was better down the stretch last year than Anaheim’s Corey Perry, who ended up winning the Hart. However, no other goaltender was better down the stretch than Rinne, who finished fourth in the voting. As his peers would tell you, he was the only reason the Predators made the playoffs a season ago.

“I don’t think the Predators would have made the playoffs last year without him,” said the Examiner’s Jim Diamond, who is based in Nashville and was the only voter to give Rinne a first-place nod. “(The Hart) is given to the most valuable to his team, not the valuable to the league. Just watching Rinne day in and day out, he was the difference in them making the playoffs.”

Some voters, pundits and fans believe goalies should not be included in the Hart Trophy because they have their own award, the Vezina Trophy. However, a goaltender has finished in the top five of the Hart voting in each of the last 14 seasons.

“I know in baseball some people don’t believe a pitcher should win the MVP because they’re not playing every night, but goaltenders are playing every night,” said Diamond, who has been voting for the Hart for seven years now. “I would not hesitate to vote for a goaltender if they were the most deserving for the award.”

There is no arguing that Malkin is the man to beat for the Hart this season; prolific forwards Claude Giroux and Phil Kessel should be in the discussion as well. But don’t forget Lundqvist. He has put the team on his back all year, and his ascension to the top of goaltending world is the main reason why the Rangers are contending for their first Stanley Cup since 1994.

Photo credit: Getty Images
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