Is An Exhausting MVP Debate Any Worse Than A Boring One?
3:23 PM EST on March 7, 2023
If you're not already sick to death of the outrage—putative, feigned, or otherwise—over Nikola Jokic's third consecutive Most Valuable Player season, you're not trying. Pretending to be angry about Jokic winning an award he deserves and joining Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird on the full list of players who have won three consecutive MVP awards is the enduring spitfest of this slightly unfulfilling and occasionally troublesome season.
It's something the NHL could use instead of what it has, which is Connor McDavid winning the Hart Trophy by tedious acclimation. His Edmonton Oilers are part of a tight but underdramatic race to win the valueless Pacific Division, so he cannot claim the ancillary Jokic argument that his is the only real team in the Western Conference. McDavid, however, leads the NHL comfortably in both goals (54) and assists (70), has scored almost twice as many as last year's Hart winner, Toronto's Auston Matthews, and has 10 more than Boston’s David Pastrnak, the best player on the best team. Nobody thinks McDavid isn't winning this thing; nobody even holds it against him that he won two years ago, or four years before that, or that the Oilers haven't won any championships since two years after they traded Wayne Gretzky. McDavid wins the award because he wins the award, pure and simple, and in a sport that hasn't even had a Canadian team in the Cup final in a non-pandemic season since 2011, Canada annexing the Hart—for you non-shinnynistas, the MVP—is a tolerable alternative.
To their credit, the hockey punditocracy doesn't even try to inflate the debate to kill off a post-deadline between-periods TV segment. It accepts that the Hart has been McDavid's from the start, with only a brief flirtation in December by Dallas's Jason Robertson and a late flurry by Bruins goaltender Linus Ullmark. Put in wagering terms, McDavid is minus-3000, which is King Charles III–level inevitability.
And where's the fun in that?
Arguments about who gets what trophy are the lubricant that takes us through long and undramatic seasons, but the only even slightly intriguing trophy debate is whether Erik Karlsson or Josh Morrissey will win the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman. Karlsson plays on the profoundly eye-searing San Jose Sharks and was mostly linked as trade bait (his contract is a profound deterrent), and Morrissey plays in Winnipeg, which while quaint is uninspiring, and not just because the Jets are an invisible seventh place. And nobody is mainlining the Norris as a narrative driver, not even Canadian Prime Minister Elliotte Friedman.
No, all we have is the truth of McDavid as the NHL's Jokic, an indisputably great player on a very disputable contender. There is no statistical argument to make for Pastrnak or Ullmark, for example, save "Standings," but the Presidents’ Trophy is regarded as some leprosy-caked booby prize because it isn't the Cup, and the Cup doesn't start until the middle of April, and regular-season awards (which all of them are) stop mattering the day after the end of the regular season.
The NBA regards its MVP trophy as proof of something it actually isn't, which is championship legacy, and a coherent case can be made that the Denver Nuggets have no visible championship pedigree because they never even won an ABA title when they were a lot better than they are now. The NHL lashes everything it cherishes to the Cup, and in the intermediate there is no historical baggage McDavid carries other than the fact that he was labeled the next Gretzky before he played his first NHL game. He is electrifying, elegant, and mesmerizing, so he doesn't even get marked down on aesthetics. Jokic ought to win the NBA MVP because he's been the best player, but he will never be the prettiest one, and not just because of his I-dare-you-to-use-a-hedge-trimmer haircut. McDavid ought to win the Hart because like Jokic he has the best numbers, but his helmet cuts down on style judgments.
Jokic is being blamed for the notion that voter fatigue is what kept James, Jordan, Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and all the other superior J-surnames of the sport from winning more than two MVPs in succession, while the NHL has no such concerns because Gretzky won eight in a row, and nobody's doing that ever again. The NHL just has McDavid's metronomic and undisputed excellence, and the only thing that would derail it is a season-ending burst of load management which hockey regards as heretical to its essential nature anyway. That, or a crime spree, and McDavid doesn't even steal extra shifts to pad his stats.
So the NBA will do the arguing about the obvious, while the NHL will simply acknowledge it. It all comes with the one indisputable difference between the two sports. One craves the noise, while the other runs from it. You may judge for yourselves the more satisfying approach.