Why Claude Giroux and Alex Ovechkin should be in the MVP discussion

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This year’s MVP race seems to be as wide open as any in recent memory with at least a dozen players — yes, a dozen — that could make a pretty convincing claim to the award depending on how you view it and what your definition of “value” is.

When it comes to who will actually win the award the smart money should be on Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov, because that is how the voting usually goes.

Kucherov is the highest scoring player on the best team in the league and based on past voting trends that is usually how the voters lean when it comes time to picking a winner (I looked at this when examining the MVP candidacy of Patrice Bergeron a few weeks ago).

It is typically an offensive award, and it typically goes to a player on a top team.

It almost never goes to a defenseman, so we can pretty much rule all of them out.

There is no goaltender that is having a truly special season that is single handedly lifting a mediocre team to the playoffs the way Carey Price did a couple of years ago.

So that pretty much leaves — probably — Kucherov among a group of top forwards.

But that reality eliminates all of the arguments that go into who should win.

So let’s try to take an objective, practical look at things and see who could (or perhaps even should) take the MVP award away from him.

With the New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche exceeding any and all expectations this season Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon, both of whom are having career years, have vaulted to the top of the discussion in the name of “value.”

Are they they best players in the league this season? Maybe not, but without them their teams would probably not be anywhere close to the playoff race.

But if we are going to make them a focus, how can we ignore Aleksander Barkov (one of the best two-way players in the league for a suddenly surging Florida team) or Eric Staal (sixth in the league in goals for a Minnesota team that is probably outperforming its actual play in the standings). Are they not valuable to their teams and worthy of inclusion in the discussion for helping to keep their teams in the hunt?

In Pittsburgh, Evgeni Malkin has been on an incredible run over the past two months and is putting together one of the best offensive seasons of his career. The same is true for Kucherov’s teammate in Tampa Bay, Steven Stamkos.

How about two other superstars in the Metropolitan Division — Alex Ovechkin, the NHL’s leading goal-scorer, and Claude Giroux, who is the driving force behind a Flyers team that has been one of the best in the NHL for the past three months?

With all of that in mind, here is what I did. I took 12 players, most of whom have been receiving talk in the MVP race plus a few others, and compared a few numbers to get a sense of how much they are contributing to their teams.

I looked at total goals, total points, points per game, what percentage of their team’s goals they have contributed to (goals or assists) and what percentage of their team’s goals they have been on the ice for. Some of the results might be a little surprising.

Numbers highlighted in blue means they are the top player in that category among this group of candidates. It is sorted simply by total points.

A few things to unpack here.

If we’re just simply going by “best player” the candidates probably come down to Kucherov, Malkin, McDavid and MacKinnon. This is probably the way it should go because the best player is the one that is probably adding the most value to his team. If Kucherov or McDavid is worth, hypothetically speaking, worth seven wins to their team and everyone else on the list is only worth four or five wins how are they not the most valuable?

But that is not typically how it works.

McDavid’s not going to win because his team stinks and is a country mile outside of the playoff picture.

The problem that Malkin is going to have is that he is playing on the same team as Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel. The same is true for Stamkos with Kucherov. If one of those players goes down to an injury or is out of the lineup, the team still has the other guy to take over games. When it comes to the number of goals they have directly contributed to or been on the ice for, Kucherov and Stamkos are near the bottom among that group.

Do we punish them because they play on a superior team?

Meanwhile, Bergeron, as great as he is, has had the least impact on his team’s overall offense among the top contenders.

So who should be challenging Kucherov for the top spot?

Hall and MacKinnon are certainly worthy contenders, particularly MacKinnon.

He has had a hand in nearly 38 percent of the Avalanche’s goals and been on the ice for more than 48 percent of them even though he has only played in 57 of their games. When you only look at the games he has played in he has contributed to 41 percent of his team’s goals (second to McDavid) and been on the ice for 52 percent, which is second only to Giroux.

For as much credit as Hall is getting for the Devils’ resurgence (and deservedly so — he has been amazing) MacKinnon has been arguably even more impactful. He is not only having one of the best individual offensive seasons of any player over the past decade, he is making a bigger impact to his team than almost any other player in the league.

But let’s talk about the two superstars that are getting almost zero attention in this debate — Ovechkin and Giroux.

That’s not an incorrect statement

Take a look at Ovechkin’s contributions to the Capitals this season.

He is leading the league in goals. He is on his way to another 50-goal season, and considering his age might be having one of the best goal scoring seasons of his career. He has also been on the ice for more than half of the Capitals’ goals. The offense still very clearly goes through him.

Then there is this: The Capitals are still fighting for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. They are doing this despite the fact they lost several key players off of last year’s team and several of the returning players have either regressed or gone through significant scoring slumps for extended periods of time. They are doing it because Ovechkin is still a force.

And let’s not ignore Giroux.

We’re probably not paying enough attention to the Flyers in any context because their story is almost as surprising as the Devils or Avalanche. They missed the playoffs a year ago (third time in five years) and actually went on a 10-game losing streak earlier this season. Now they are fighting for a division title.

Look at the impact Giroux has had on his team. More than 54 percent of their goals have come with him on the ice and he is just behind McDavid in terms of actual contribution to those goals. Those are staggering numbers.

So let’s talk who should be contenders.

If I were to rank the contenders right now, keeping all of this in mind and trying to mix best player and the whole concept of value, I think it would probably go something like this with five clear-cut contenders at the top.

    1. Nathan MacKinnon
    2. Claude Giroux
    3. Alex Ovechkin
    4. Taylor Hall
    5. Connor McDavid

MacKinnon is the best of both worlds. He is having a truly remarkable season and is one of the best in the league. He is also the reason his team is in the playoff hunt. The next three are all pretty  much right there when it comes to having great seasons and probably lifting teams above where they should be given how the rest of the rosters are actually playing. McDavid’s team stinks, but he’s still probably worth more wins to his team than almost any other player in the league. That’s still adding value. It’s not his fault his front office failed him.

Then there is the next group.

6. Nikita Kucherov
7. Evgeni Malkin
8. Steven Stamkos

All three are having amazing seasons. All three are amazing players. But they fall into that trap of “well … the rest of their team is pretty darn good, too.”

Then Bergeron, Barkov, Kopitar and Staal would round out the rest of that group because they just don’t have the same offensive impact on their teams that the other eight do. The trio of Bergeron, Barkov and Kopitar are probably among the top two-way players in the NHL right now, but even with their defensive ability it probably doesn’t make up for the added offense players like MacKinnon, Hall, Giroux, and Ovechkin are adding.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.