Among players most crucial to their team's success, the discussion should be over Jonathan Quick and Evgeni Malkin.
By JON ROSENFS West
There's no justifiable argument against Evgeni Malkin winning the Hart Memorial Trophy. During a Pittsburgh Penguins season beset by injuries up and down their lineup and with character role players forming much of the team's depth, Malkin alleviated much of the pressure on others to perform in Sidney Crosby's absence by shaking off injuries of his own to appear in 75 games, notching 50 goals and 59 assists. Steven Stamkos, who appeared in all 82 games, was the only skater to finish within 12 points of Malkin's league-high 109.
Now ask yourself this question: From the start of the season to when the Stanley Cup was raised on the ice at Staples Center last week, did any player in the National Hockey League mean more to their team than Jonathan Quick did to the Los Angeles Kings?
Obviously playoff statistics and achievements have no merit in the awards voting. As for regular-season statistics, Quick and Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers posted virtually identical numbers: Quick had a 1.95 GAA; Lundqvist's was 1.97. Quick stopped 92.9 percent of the shots he faced; Lundqvist stopped 93.0 percent. Quick had 10 shutouts; Lundqvist eight. Both players posted career-best numbers and appeared to be hitting their prime during stellar 2011-12 campaigns.
While Lundqvist's 39 wins were four more than Quick's 35, his balanced New York Rangers scored the 11th-most goals in the NHL, while Quick on many more nights had a much slimmer margin for error. The Kings ranked 29th in the league with 2.29 goals per game, and between Quick and understudy Jonathan Bernier won only five games out of 82 when they allowed at least three goals. The Rangers won nine times when either Lundqvist or Martin Biron allowed at least three goals.
"I just feel that goaltending in general is the most dependent position, maybe, in all of sports," Quick said during the regular season. "As the team goes, so does the goalie. When the goalie's doing really well, he usually is getting more credit than he deserves. There are guys that aren't getting credit that are blocking shots, and fighting hard in the tough areas along the wall, in the corners and stuff like that that are helping the goaltender get the numbers that he is."
If you're casting a vote for the Vezina Trophy, there's no fault in finding either Lundqvist or Quick worthy. Both had seasons that suggested they were in the midst of the prime of their playing careers, and were clearly the two best goaltenders in hockey. Lundqvist won the Vezina trophy by a 120-63 vote, according to several sources.
But if you're casting a vote for the Hart Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to a "player adjudged most valuable to his team," there are really only two players, in retrospect, who were simply more valuable to their teams than any other player on any other team during the regular season: Malkin and Quick.
If not for a season in which their goaltender re-wrote the franchise's record book, the raised projections of the Kings' 2011-12 season would have been placed in doubt very early. Only the excellence with which Quick maintained the LA nets kept an already overburdened offense from simply not being able to catch up. Had Quick only maintained his 2010-11 numbers in 2011-12 — please, pardon the thought, Kings fans — it is conceivable to think that a team that won the Stanley Cup by virtue of a 16-4 playoff record could have finished in 11th place in the Western Conference, in between Colorado's 88 points and Minnesota's 81. Eleventh-place Colorado missed the playoffs by seven points. Quick took the net for the Kings 69 times this season, and though it's difficult to quantify, it's easy to see him being worth much, much more than a seven-point gap between qualifying as an eight seed or on the verge of a top-10 pick in the draft.
This is nothing to take away from the phenomenal young season engineered by 22-year old fellow Hart nominee Stamkos, who became the first player in four years to score 60 goals in one season. While Stamkos won the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy as the league's leading goal scorer for the second time in his career, his accomplishment is more personal, and while he certainly may be "adjudged most valuable to his team," it's a team that missed the playoffs by eight points.
Among the players that were the most crucial to their team's success, the real discussion should be over Malkin and Quick.
The Stanley Cup was the ultimate prize, the Conn Smythe Trophy an added bonus. But for the captivating regular season in which he at times singlehandedly carried an eventual Stanley Cup-winning team on his back, Quick registered as a Second Team NHL All-Star.
And that's fine with Quick, who readily credits those around him for his own success and isn't keen on speaking at length of his personal accomplishments, a notion backed up by Kings captain Dustin Brown.
"The only time I've seen him brag is when he's got someone's number in practice," Brown said.