As a Pens fan, I occasionally like to stroke my own ego by reading about how amazingly the team is doing (admit it, we all do it with our teams of choice). But amidst the comment section for a post discussing Evgeni Malkin’s apparent birthright as league MVP this season, I read an interesting comment that got me thinking. I can’t remember the exact phrasing but the heart of it was this: Malkin’s absurdly strong team negates his personal achievements to a degree, because if he weren’t surrounded by capable goal scorers and playmakers, he wouldn’t be getting these goals.
I certainly don’t agree with the sentiment, per se. Malkin is an elite player, just as fellow Art Ross candidates Claude Giroux and Steven Stamkos are, and it’s ridiculous to think any of them are examples of right-place, right-time happenstance. But on the same coin, they are still surrounded by incredible talent: Stamkos has St. Pierre and Lecavalier, Malkin has Neal and Kunitz, and Giroux has Jagr and Hartnell. Few sports are as reliant on a team firing on all cylinders as hockey; unless your name is Gretzky or Lemieux, you can’t single-handedly out skate an entire team and score goals. So why focus on so many individual awards, when there are so many other factors at stake?
I think part of it is simply the celebrity factor. People resonate with sports when they have faces to associate with them. Case in point, look at the St. Louis Blues of this season. They have been as dominant as anyone this season and hold the best current record, with a dual-headed terror of Elliot and Halak in net and a defense that strangles so many offenses you’d expect to see it in an episode of Law and Order: SVU. Yet for the vast majority of the season, we haven’t heard a whole lot about them, and I honestly think they may be the only team that I can’t name a starting line player from. Without a star face, the team has been lost in the shuffle. Think of all the previous championship teams in the NHL, at least for the past few seasons: can you name a star player from their line-up? Can you name their most productive player during the playoff run? Are they the same person? In some cases yes, in other cases no. My point is that, fair or not, the cult of celebrity is alive and well in hockey.
So I guess, after all my rambling, my point is this: we want to cheer for the people more than we want to cheer for the abstract idea of the team or the mathematical certainty that someone is “the best”, and it’s human nature to rank some players as perceptibly “better”, regardless of how much their circumstances contribute to their success. So even if Malkin or Giroux or Stamkos would be scrubs if they were forced to play on a team like Columbus, the fact is we can’t know at the end of the day. All we can do is celebrate their current success (or loathe them, depending on our team loyalties), while at the same time acknowledging (maybe even officially) that an Art Ross trophy isn’t just recognition of an elite player, but of the elite club that helped produce them.