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Jack Hughes Should Be In the Hart Trophy Conversation

Is Jack Hughes the MVP? There’s a long way to go before that question is answered. But at the midway point of the 2022-23 season, he deserves to be in the conversation.

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NHL: New York Rangers at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

A lot has been said about Jack Hughes over the last few weeks. He’s been given several titles and labels during this heater he has been on.....A Goal Scorer, Otherworldly, Playmaker, The Big Deal. If I wanted to use a now-dated Game of Thrones analogy, I’d argue he is indeed The Prince that was Promised. If I wanted to use an even more dated reference, I’d refer to him as The Chosen One. You get the idea. He’s good.

Hughes has been every bit the superstar the Devils envisioned when they took him first overall. Brian Gionta holds the franchise record with 48 goals in a single season in 2005-06, while Patrik Elias has the record for most points with 96. Both single-season marks are in serious jeopardy, and if Hughes doesn’t break them this year, he likely will in the future as he’s only 21 years old and still improving. He’s also made tremendous strides in his two-way game.

Should Jack Hughes be in the MVP discussion though given what he has done individually this season? After all, the Devils are squarely in the mix for a playoff berth. Jack Hughes is among the league leaders in points. Typically, those two things go hand-in-hand when the hockey media starts debating who should win the Hart Trophy. There’s a lot of hockey left to play before we can definitively answer whether or not he should win MVP, but so far, the answer to that is yes. Jack Hughes should, at a bare minimum, be in the conversation.

Let’s take a look at the case for Jack Hughes, as well as the case for the other top contenders. We’ll also check in with the sportsbooks to see what the oddsmakers are saying. This last point is important as that can tell us a lot about where the national media who votes on the awards are leaning.

The Case For Jack Hughes

Jack Hughes is a burgeoning superstar who leads the New Jersey Devils in goals (26) and points (49) through 40 games. He is on pace for the most productive season by a forward in franchise history in his age 21 season. His 49 points is tied for 8th in the league with Mitch Marner, Kyle Connor, and Matthew Tkachuk. His 21 even strength goals is tied for the NHL lead with Mikko Rantanen and Jason Robertson. Seeing as the majority of every NHL game is played at 5v5, this matters a lot. Only Erik Karlsson, Sidney Crosby, and Connor McDavid have more even strength points than Jack Hughes.

Of course, points aren’t necessarily everything when it comes to the Hart Trophy. When Taylor Hall became the only Hart Trophy winner in Devils history, he finished 6th in the NHL in points that season. Auston Matthews led the league in goals, but finished 6th in points last year when he won MVP. For the most part though, the player with the most points is typically going to win the MVP, whether its Connor McDavid the two times he’s won, Leon Draisaitl, Nikita Kucherov, Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, or Evgeni Malkin, just to name a few over the last decade.

We’ll get into Connor McDavid’s case more in a little bit, but he has 15 more points than the next closest player and 28 more points than Hughes. Jack might be otherworldly right now, but even he isn’t “best player in the world” good like Connor McDavid is, so Jack’s best argument for winning the MVP is a redux of the argument as to why Taylor Hall was the MVP the year he won, albeit to a lesser extreme. That argument boils down to ”look who he’s playing with”.

The 2022-23 Devils collectively as a group have more talent than the 2017-18 iteration that Taylor Hall carried into the playoffs. Hughes, though, has primarily played with Erik Haula and either Jesper Bratt or Dawson Mercer on his wing this season. Haula’s play has been analyzed to death, but the bottom line is that he has two goals on the season and Hughes had nothing to do with either of them. Hughes has produced despite getting nothing out of one of his wingmen all season, which only further bolsters the argument for Hughes if you want to try to tally up however many points having Erik Haula on his wing has cost him. Haula may be contributing in other ways such as faceoffs, his two-way play, and his forechecking where he’s lasted on Hughes’s wing as long as he has, but the voters will not be looking at things like that when making their decision. Whether or not all of that is more impressive than Taylor Hall doing what he did with an 18-year old Nico Hischier and a 19-year old Jesper Bratt getting their first tastes of NHL action, and a solid veteran winger in Kyle Palmieri? I’ll let you decide in the comments.

Lastly, there’s the advanced stats. If you are one who puts a lot of stock into GSVA, you’ll be pleased to know that Hughes is 2nd in the NHL behind only Connor McDavid. If you care about HDCF%, Hughes trails only Patrice Bergeron and Tomas Tatar among players with over 400 minutes of ice time. If xGF% is your thing, Hughes is 4th behind Bergeron, Tatar, and Bratt. Personally, I don’t think the majority of the voters will dive too deep into Natural Stat Trick’s spreadsheets before casting their vote, which is why I don’t put a ton of stock into it in this context, but it is another tool that does show Hughes’s value when directly compared to his peers around the league.

The Case For the Other MVP Contenders

The betting favorite for MVP right now is the same as it was before the season began. It’s two-time Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid.

Collectively, we throw the term “generational talent” out there very loosely and way too often, but McDavid is the rare player who is a legitimate generational talent. He’s the best player in the NHL, has been for several years now, and it might not be particularly close either. But as we are well aware of, the Hart Trophy doesn’t automatically go to the best player, and there is already an award for the player who scores the most goals (Rocket Richard) and most points (Art Ross). It’s supposed to go to the most VALUABLE player, and leaves the interpretation of that word “valuable” up to the many voters who vote on these awards.

As I mentioned already, McDavid already has 15 more points than the next closest player, teammate and former Hart Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl. If McDavid winds up posting a 140 point season, its going to be difficult to give the MVP award to anyone other than him, as were now talking about things that haven’t been done since Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were in their prime. Considering Edmonton is barely holding on to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and despite having two of the five best players in the world at the peak of their powers, the Oilers very well might need every last goal and assist McDavid puts up just to get into the playoffs. So you can certainly make the argument that McDavid is indeed the most valuable player.

Jason Robertson probably deserved better than a 13th place Hart finish last season. He’s followed that up by being even better this season leading the Stars in scoring and to first place in the Central division. He’s currently 4th in scoring behind McDavid, Draisaitl, and David Pastrnak, who also deserves strong consideration as the top scorer on a loaded Boston Bruins roster that is well on their way to the President’s Trophy. Pastrnak is also doing it with the added pressure of this being his walk year, although I doubt anyone expects him to leave Boston in free agency. Don’t dismiss Draisaitl and Nikita Kucherov, as they’re both in the mix as well.

The last player I want to mention is Tage Thompson, who broke out last year in a big way with 38 goals and 30 assists in his age 24 season. He’s followed that up by being even better so far this year with 31 goals and 25 assists in 38 games and keeping the Sabres within striking distance of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Not too shabby for a player who was written off as “part of the return in the Ryan O’Reilly trade”. As a Devils fan, you hope some of Tage’s hockey talents rubs off on his brother Tyce at some point.

The Eastern Conference is deep enough that I could see Buffalo being on the outside of the playoff picture looking in when its all said and done, but a potential 60 goal season and keeping Buffalo in the mix can’t be ignored either. It’s a feel good story that voters may choose to get behind depending on how the wind is blowing and what narrative they choose to get behind.

What Do The Oddsmakers Say?

When it comes to prognosticating major awards, you have to take what the betting market says seriously. Sportsbooks are not in the business of losing money and the casinos in Las Vegas didn’t build themselves. I’m not a bookmaker nor do I pretend to be, but they have access to information the general public isn’t privy to. This is partly why the lines and odds are set the way they are and adjusted when presented with new information.

So what do the sportsbooks tell us? They tell us McDavid is the favorite, but not so overwhelming a favorite where the race is already over.

Prices will vary depending upon your sportsbook of choice. Just to pick one as an example, DraftKings has McDavid as the favorite at -300, followed by Pastrnak at +1500, Kucherov at +1600, Robertson at +1800, Thompson +2000, and then Hughes and Rantanen at +2500.

McDavid is listed as anywhere from a +175 to -300 favorite depending where you shop, which is a solid but not insurmountable lead at this point of the season. Hughes is listed anywhere from +2500 to +6000, but his number has been trending in the right direction as a result of his play and with more and more people in the hockey media suggesting he should be in the mix. The consensus is that its McDavid’s award to lose and Hughes is on that next level of contenders right behind the league’s elite, with roughly 5-7 other contenders somewhere in between, which sounds about right. But this can certainly change in a hurry if Hughes has another week like last week with 7 points in three games and being named Second Star in the league for the week.

Final Thoughts

Jack Hughes’s body of work tells us that he should at least be in the conversation when it comes to the Hart Trophy, but he still has plenty of work to do in order to actually win it. Hughes being the best player on a Devils playoff team would make for a compelling case, but there’s not a ton right now that differentiates him from a crowded field full of former MVPs.

If I had a vote, I’d probably vote McDavid, Hughes, Thompson, Robertson, and Pastrnak in that order. But I don’t have a vote and we’re only halfway through the season. There’s a lot of runway remaining for the contenders to make their case. As a Devils fan, I’d love nothing more than for Hughes to carry this team into the playoffs and win the MVP as a result. Time will tell if that’s the case.

You’ve heard enough from me though, so now, its time to hear from you? Should Hughes be in the mix for the Hart Trophy? How would you vote for the award if you had a ballot? Did I miss anyone in the Hart Trophy contenders that deserves more consideration? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thanks for reading.

(All stats referenced do not include any of the NHL games scheduled on Tuesday, January 10)