The NHL’s most prestigious individual award was first handed out in 1924. Calvin Coolidge just became President of the United States. It took until Barack Obama’s final year in The White House for someone born and raised in America to win the Hart Memorial Trophy, the league’s most valuable player award.
That was Blackhawks star Patrick Kane, who won the award in 2016. And he might finally have a born-and-bred American contemporary soon. Two weeks back, the NHL announced the three Hart finalists this season. There’s reigning most valuable player Connor McDavid, who’s still skating after scoring a series-ending playoff-overtime goal Thursday night for Edmonton.
Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin, the likely Vezina Trophy winner, given annually to the NHL’s best between the goalposts and crossbar, is another nominee but not the betting-line favorite. The man with the inside track doesn’t play for an American franchise but spent most of his life in Arizona: Toronto’s Auston Matthews.
Matthews has odds of +150 to win his first MVP, according to Sportsbettingdime.com. McDavid is No. 2 at +400, and Shesterkin just behind at +600. McDavid led with oddsmakers for most of the season, with Matthews’ longest odds being +1750 during the season, while Shesterkin has made an impeccable run into contention, nearing +6000 in December.
For a league that’s had a heavy majority of American teams since the “Original Six” formation in 1942, only Kane has come from the USA to be the league’s top player. Brett Hull represented America at the international level and won one Hart Trophy in 1991. He was born in Canada and his father, Bobby Hull, won the MVP award twice, with professional allegiance to Canada. Kane wasn’t the first American-born player to lift the trophy. That was Billy Burch, who won it in 1925 but moved to Canada as an infant.
It’s a bizarre statistic where Kane stands alone with how many elite Americans have come through the league. Mike Modano, Chris Chelios, Pat LaFontaine, Keith Tkachuk, and Brian Leetch combined to win three less MVPs than Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals captain won a trio from 2008-13.
Matthews was the best goal scorer in the NHL by far this season, becoming only the third player to break the 60-goal plateau since the turn of the century and the first in 10 years. Matthews and Steven Stamkos a decade ago each had 60. Ovechkin finished with 65 goals in 2008. That rare feat with NHL offenses becoming more widespread with production is why the Maple Leafs center has a leg up on McDavid, who led the NHL with 123 points.
It’s unclear what the exact date of the trophy presentation will be, as the NHL Awards will take place in the city that doesn’t have home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Finals. The league has tentatively scheduled the showcase for the night in between Games 3 and 4 of its championship series, hosted by the team with less regular-season points.
Does a Matthews win, the second for an American in seven seasons, launch a new renaissance for those from the United States to win the Hart? Not at all. There hasn’t been a huge American snub where the NHL has deliberately handed its MVP trophy to someone outside the USA. Add in that McDavid is still a heavy contender for the award. Although my vote would go to Matthews instead, it’s not hard to make an argument for McDavid, the best overall player in the league.
What could help get more American eyes on the sport is having an elite countryman play most of his professional games in the USA. The two best current Americans in the NHL are Matthews and Johnny Gaudreau. Both just participated in the Battle for Alberta, with Gaudreau possibly playing his last game for the Flames after McDavid’s overtime goal.
Gaudreau finished third in the regular season in points with 115. His odds for MVP are the seventh-best at +1500, the equivalent to 15-1, and No. 2 among Americans. He’s an unrestricted free agent now and rumors have been swirling around about a possible homecoming to be the centerpiece of the Flyers. Gaudreau grew up in Salem, New Jersey, about 45 minutes south of Philadelphia. A local guy playing 70 games next season for a big NHL market with incredible stats would make a difference.
Having Matthews and Gaudreau stay healthy among the NHL’s elite group of skaters is the best chance to see more hardware land in an American player’s cabinet. The NHL had playoff games on several cable networks that are easy to access. A lack of visibility isn’t an issue. Also, Matthews isn’t going anywhere. I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t win an MVP by the time his career is over, even if McDavid or Shesterkin beat him out this year. His triumph by itself won’t spark an American Wayne Gretzky to start skating.