At the NHL’s annual awards show tonight in Las Vegas, the shiniest piece of hardware that will be given out is the Hart Memorial Trophy, which is awarded to the player deemed to be the most valuable to his team by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. The shortlist of nominees includes Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby, Oilers’ phenom Connor McDavid, and Blue Jackets’ goalie Sergei Bobrovsky — all of whom had terrific seasons. But no matter who wins, there’s an argument to be made that it will be the wrong choice. This is because the league’s most outstanding performance came from someone who wasn’t nominated.
San Jose Sharks’ defenseman Brent Burns turned heads all season, and often for reasons other than his toothless smile, man bun and ZZ Top beard. His production was everything you could ask of someone on the blue line, notching 76 points, tied for the fourth-highest point total by a defenseman since the lockout of 2004-05. Of those 76 points, 29 were goals, which was 70 percent more than the second-best defenseman and the most by anyone at the position since 2008-09. Burns isn’t only a goal-producing machine—he also led the league in point shares, 1 accounting for more of his team’s success in the standings than any of the three (still very worthy) MVP candidates nominated above him. He’s also the only player in the NHL to finish in the top five in both offensive and defensive point shares. That’s pretty impressive stuff, but not impressive enough to be a finalist for the Hart, apparently.
Despite Burns’s gaudy scoring numbers and clear impact on his team’s success, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the PHWA left Burns off its list: Defensemen, despite representing one third of the players on ice, have a long history of being overlooked. The last time a defenseman was nominated for the Hart trophy, we were all basking in relief that Y2K hadn’t destroyed civilization. Chris Pronger won the award after his brilliant 1999-00 season with the St. Louis Blues. In his MVP-winning campaign, Pronger notched 62 points and led the NHL with 14.2 point shares, both of which fall short of Burns’s numbers from 2016-17.
On their own, Burns’s numbers are impressive. But when you compare them to those of his peers, they look downright heroic. Since the lockout — and excluding 2012-13, which was a half-season — the top-10 defensemen in the league each season2 have scored an average of 58 points. This year, Burns scored 18 more points than that. The entire blue line corps of five teams failed to notch more goals than Burns, including the Washington Capitals, who had the best record in hockey. Other blue liners have been snubbed since Pronger’s Hart win. Most notably, Nicklas Lidstrom won seven Norris trophies as the league’s top defenseman, but he was never even named as a finalist for the Hart trophy.3 It’s true that Lidstrom’s reign of dominance coincided with the rise of generational talents like Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, but it’s difficult to believe one of the five best defensemen to ever play hockey wasn’t good enough to at least be considered as one of the three best players in the NHL during that stretch.
And if the dearth of defensemen nominated for the Hart since Pronger’s win in ‘99-00 looks suspicious, all you’ve got to do is look at the three decades preceding his win to understand it’s been something of an enduring trend: before Pronger, the last defenseman to win the Hart trophy was Bobby Orr in 1971-72.4 And before Orr? It was Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Babe Pratt, who won the Hart in 1943-44. Hockey writers—apparently—don’t have much love for defensemen.
Although it ostensibly honors the best player on the ice, the Hart trophy is basically an award given to the top forward — and really just the top center 5 — and every once in awhile the top goalie in the NHL. Until the Hart’s description reads, “Given to the league’s best centerman (and sometimes it’s best goalie, too),” it’s due time the PHWA begins taking the candidacy of the league’s top defensemen for the league’s top honors seriously.