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Should The Devils’ One-Man Machine Be The NHL MVP?

With days left in the NHL regular season, the race for the Hart Trophy — the league’s MVP award — is as wide-open as it’s been in years. The defending winner, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, once again leads the league in scoring … but his team will miss the playoffs. Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov ranks second, but he cooled off after a red-hot start (and he has to share credit/votes with teammate Steven Stamkos anyway). The leading goal-scorer, three-time MVP Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals, doesn’t even crack the top 10 in total points. And while Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon is the betting favorite for MVP, he’s hardly a lock at only fifth in points and 10th in goals.

Right into the middle of this fracas has skated New Jersey Devils left wing Taylor Hall, who has been scorching hot in the second half of the season and is seemingly willing New Jersey back into relevance. Hall, who earlier this year had a franchise-record 26-game point streak, now has seven goals and 15 points in his last seven games, including this short-handed game-winner Sunday against the Canadiens:

The Hall-for-MVP case mainly rests in just how vital he’s been to the Devils’ offense this season. Hall has either scored or assisted on 39 percent of New Jersey’s goals, almost single-handedly dragging the team to its current 12th-place ranking in scoring. The Devils’ second-leading scorer, 19-year-old NHL rookie Nico Hischier, has notched 51 points on the season — 42 fewer than Hall’s team-leading tally.1 Not only is that easily the biggest gap in the NHL this year (No. 2 is the 35-point gulf between McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), it’s the biggest the league has seen in a decade and the 30th-biggest difference between a team’s leading scorer and runner-up in a season since 1950-51:

Taylor Hall’s place among the NHL’s top one-man offenses

Biggest difference between a team’s No. 1 and No. 2 scorers, 1951-2018

No. 1 scorer No. 2 scorer
Season Team Player Points Player Points Gap
1 1982 EDM W. Gretzky 212 G. Anderson 105 +107
2 1983 EDM W. Gretzky 196 M. Messier 106 +90
3 1981 EDM W. Gretzky 164 J. Kurri 75 +89
4 1988 PIT M. Lemieux 168 D. Quinn 79 +89
5 1989 PIT M. Lemieux 199 R. Brown 115 +84
6 1984 EDM W. Gretzky 205 P. Coffey 126 +79
7 1986 EDM W. Gretzky 215 P. Coffey 138 +77
8 1987 EDM W. Gretzky 183 J. Kurri 108 +75
9 1985 EDM W. Gretzky 208 J. Kurri 135 +73
10 1991 LAK W. Gretzky 163 L. Robitaille 91 +72
11 1996 MDA P. Kariya 108 S. Rucchin 44 +64
12 1989 DET S. Yzerman 155 G. Gallant 93 +62
13 1986 PIT M. Lemieux 141 M. Bullard 83 +58
14 2001 FLA P. Bure 92 V. Kozlov 37 +55
15 1993 TOR D. Gilmour 127 N. Borschevsky 74 +53
16 1979 MTL G. Lafleur 129 S. Shutt 77 +52
17 1991 QUE J. Sakic 109 M. Sundin 59 +50
18 1982 WSH D. Maruk 136 R. Walter 87 +49
19 1993 PIT M. Lemieux 160 K. Stevens 111 +49
20 2006 WSH A. Ovechkin 106 D. Zubrus 57 +49
21 1981 CGY K. Nilsson 131 G. Chouinard 83 +48
22 1990 DET S. Yzerman 127 G. Gallant 80 +47
23 1993 NYI P. Turgeon 132 S. Thomas 87 +45
24 1994 LAK W. Gretzky 130 L. Robitaille 86 +44
25 1999 PIT J. Jagr 127 M. Straka 83 +44
26 2006 NYR J. Jagr 123 M. Nylander 79 +44
27 2006 PIT S. Crosby 102 S. Gonchar 58 +44
28 1980 EDM W. Gretzky 137 B. MacDonald 94 +43
29 2008 WSH A. Ovechkin 112 N. Backstrom 69 +43
30 2018 NJD T. Hall 93 N. Hischier 51 +42

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

To find a bigger gap than Hall’s lead over Hischier, you’d have to go back to 2007-08, when Ovechkin topped fellow Washington forward Nicklas Backstrom by 43 points. It’s no coincidence that most of the biggest differences on that list came in the high-flying offensive era of the 1980s and early ’90s, or in the first few seasons after the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Today’s game isn’t really set up for a player to shoulder as much of his team’s offensive burden as Hall does for the Devils — but New Jersey has made it work anyway. According to Hockey-Reference.com, the Hall-centric Devils have a 97 percent chance of making the playoffs.

And there’s no question the Devils would be in major trouble without their star scorer. In addition to Hall’s lack of offensive support, New Jersey ranks 17th in save percentage with Keith Kinkaid and Cory Schneider between the pipes and is only in the middle of the pack in terms of denying opponent shots. Hall’s evolution from a 53-point scorer last season (his first with New Jersey) to an MVP candidate2 has been directly responsible for lifting the Devils from last in the Eastern Conference to a likely playoff berth, the team’s first since 2012.

Now, Hall isn’t the only player running on that specific narrative. MacKinnon in particular has also built his Hart candidacy around elevating a formerly terrible team into postseason contention. Nor is Hall likely the best player in the league — that honor probably belongs to McDavid, if not an old standby like Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby. But in terms of pure value to a team, it’s difficult to find a player whose production is more indispensable than Hall’s has been to the Devils this season.

Footnotes

  1. For good measure, Hall has had a hand in nearly half of Hischier’s points this season.

  2. Granted, Hall also showed flashes of this potential in Edmonton, tallying 27 goals and 80 points during the 2013-14 season. Perhaps the Oilers shouldn’t have shipped him away in one of the worst NHL trades in recent memory…

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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