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Eric Staal’s getting Hart Trophy buzz, but is his MVP case legit?

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Taking a dive into the “Staal for MVP” hype.

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL awarded Eric Staal their First Star of the Month for his performance in February. The honor was well-deserved, as Staal went on a tear, compiling 13 goals and 21 points over the course of the month.

That kind of performance is going to turn heads. Especially when Staal’s dominance fueled the Minnesota Wild to a 9-2-2 record in February. The Wild, who started the month as a fringe Wild Card team, now appear to be a solid bet to lock down a playoff spot.

We discussed yesterday that Staal has a chance to re-write Marian Gaborik’s single-season records. We still have more to say about Staal, who has his sights set on a higher honor.

After Thursday’s game, Bruce Boudreau had some strong words to say about his star center. “If he was playing in Toronto, he’d be up for the MVP. I’ll just tell you that right now. He’s done everything for us.“

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman agrees, suggesting that Staal has forced his way into the MVP race alongside New Jersey’s Taylor Hall.

It would be extraordinary if Staal took home the Hart Trophy, which would be the first MVP award of his career. But Staal’s year has been, well, extraordinary.

The story’s incredible. After a 13-goal season and a disastrous postseason between the Hurricanes and Rangers, Staal was a free agent afterthought. He signs a modest deal with Minnesota, and re-gains his form at the age of 32, scoring 28 goals and 65 points in his first year in St. Paul.

And somehow, Staal’s been even better this season, with 33 goals and 64 points through just 64 games. Staal sits atop Minnesota’s leaderboard by 7 goals and 11 points. He’s excelled at even strength, on the power play, and while short-handed.

Staal also has done this without the benefit of being part of an elite line. While other elite players have been able to build chemistry, injuries and slumps have created a constant rotation for Staal’s linemates. He’s played at least 100 5-on-5 minutes with 7 Wild wingers. If you lower that threshold to 60, that number increases to 10.

Imagine a world where the Vegas Golden Knights chose to take Staal off Minnesota’s hands instead of Erik Haula. Where would the Wild be? No one can say for sure, but it’s reasonable to say that Staal might be the difference between the Wild making the playoffs and staying home this postseason.

So Staal is performing really well for Minnesota, who would be at best a fringe Wild Card team if not for his incredible season. His MVP candidacy seems justified, then, right?

That depends on what you think the Hart Trophy is for.

The instructions on how to award the Hart seem simple. Voters are instructed to award it to the player judged to be most valuable to their team. Sounds easy, but there is a lot of wiggle room there. What does it mean to be the player most valuable to their team? Does it just mean to be the best player? Or is it perhaps meant to go to a player who drags an otherwise mediocre squad to the playoffs?

It’s probably a good idea to look at Eric Staal’s candidacy through both lenses. Let’s start by asking whether he’s been the league’s best player.

Staal enters March 2nd tied for 5th in the league in goals, and tied for 16th in the league in points. Both very excellent, but neither number suggests that Staal is running away with the award.

It’s difficult to say that Connor McDavid isn’t the best player in the league. He’s 3rd in the league with 77 points (29 of them goals), and has been dominant at even strength for the Oilers. Edmonton has out-scored opponents by 15 goals with McDavid on the ice at 5-on-5 play. They’re outscored by 25 when he’s on the bench. And he’s done this with two of his most common linemates being Patrick Maroon and the husk of Milan Lucic!

But I can understand the impulse to not award the Hart to a player whose team won’t sniff the playoffs. So let’s look at the league-leader in points, Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov has 33 goals and an astonishing 82 points through 63 games. The Lightning are known for their dominant power play, but Kucherov has really shined at evens, scoring a league-leading 23 5-on-5 goals.

Evgeni Malkin’s 36 goals and 78 points gives him a claim as to the best player in the league, and his play since late January (15 goals, 29 points in 15 games) has surpassed even that of Staal’s.

Each of those players have offensive numbers that out-class Staal’s. And none of them are slouches in terms of driving results for their team, either.

But does that make them the most valuable to their teams?

As mentioned earlier, McDavid’s Oilers won’t make the playoffs. Kucherov may be the Lightning’s best player, but Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy are playing at a high level, too. Can’t imagine Tampa Bay would miss the postseason, even if Kucherov didn’t play a game for them all season. Same goes for Malkin, whose Penguins still would boast Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang.

This probably doesn’t apply to Staal, whose team would be severely weakened without him. Judging through this lens, Staal is probably more valuable to his team than a player like Kucherov or Malkin.

But does that make him the most valuable player in the league by this definition? Two candidates stick out as legitimate challengers to Staal.

Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon absolutely deserves a mention here. MacKinnon’s 71 points crack the NHL’s top-10, and those numbers come with a narrative that’s as appealing as Staal’s Renaissance. Colorado was the NHL’s worst team last season, by far, and they didn’t do very much in the offseason to bolster that team. The Avalanche might not make the playoffs, but if they do, it’ll be on the back of MacKinnon’s breakout year.

But perhaps the player who has the strongest combination of nice numbers and carrying his team is Hall. Hall leads the Devils with 69 points- 28 more than second-place Nico Hischier. With Cory Schneider struggling this season, Hall’s offense has been the difference between the Devils heading to the postseason and praying for more ping-pong ball luck this spring.

And while Hall’s production comes largely from his power play potency, the Devils have out-scored opponents by 16 with Hall on the ice at 5-on-5.

So what does this mean for Staal’s candidacy?

Again, it comes down to the question of what voters value most.

Fortunately, there’s another award that gives some clarity to this question. The Ted Lindsay Award is awarded each season to the NHL’s Most Outstanding Player. There’s no wiggle room there. That’s an award meant to go to the best player, and only the best player.

Over the past 11 years, the player who won the Lindsay Award took home the Hart 8 times, including each of the last 4 seasons. So the trend as of late is to award the Hart to the best player, or at least, the best player on a playoff team. And with recent Hart winners being Henrik Sedin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Patrick Kane, voters don’t seem to punish candidates for having superstar teammates.

This means a largely narrative-driven candidacy likely won’t win the Hart for Staal. He’s going to have to finish these last 18 games with a performance that brings his point totals closer to the level of Kucherov or Malkin’s than they’re currently at for him to have a chance to be recognized as the League’s MVP.

None of this is to discount anything Staal has done this year. He’s been fantastic, and at this point, he should absolutely finish in the Top-10, or even Top-5 in Hart voting. That would be just the second time a Wild player has accomplished that (Devan Dubnyk, 2014-15).

As it stands now, however, Staal may be Minnesota’s MVP, but he’s not quite the NHL’s.

But there’s still 6 weeks left before the regular season ends. Plenty of time for him to make this article look silly.