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Why I voted for Pronger over Jagr for MVP

Sunday, June 18, 2000

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Dave Molinari has covered the Penguins since 1983, nine years for The Pittsburgh Press and the past eight for the Post-Gazette.


It will be remembered as the most fiercely contested voting in the history of the Hart Trophy, a competition between athletes whose credentials separated them by roughly the thickness of this page.

Maybe less.

And that was just on my ballot.

The one that ultimately had the name of St. Louis defenseman Chris Pronger, not Penguins right winger Jaromir Jagr, on the top line.

    More on the Hart Trophy award

PHWA chief says the writers made a sound decision

Decision to divulge Hart vote was toughest call of them all


Had Jagr been first, rather than second, on my ballot, he would have won the Hart for the second year in a row, collected a $100,000 bonus from the Penguins and added another impressive line to a resume that all but guarantees him entry to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Pronger finished with a 396-395 edge on Jagr in voting points, the narrowest margin of victory any Hart winner has enjoyed.

Whether Pronger plans to share the $250,000 bonus he'll receive for winning the Hart -- a nice bookend to the $250,000 he picked up for getting the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman -- with any of the voters who placed Jagr anywhere but first on their ballot isn't clear.

He might want to consider it, however, for had even one upgraded Jagr by a single slot, he, not Pronger, would have been the winner.

Jagr had picked up a consolation prize a few hours earlier, when the NHL Players Association presented him with the Lester B. Pearson Award, one Jagr contends has more significance than the Hart because it is voted on by his peers.

But even though the winner of the Pearson almost always receives the Hart, the awards are not identical.

The Pearson goes to the man deemed be to "the NHL's outstanding player," and Jagr is widely regarded as the dominant talent in the game today.

He has won three consecutive scoring championships and is one of those rare players who regularly alters the course of a game by virtue of his abilities.

Jagr has an extensive repertoire of paralyzing moves -- the kind that freeze defensemen and leave goalies tripping over themselves -- and has developed a lethal assortment of shots.

No one -- not Pronger, not Pavel Bure, not Peter Forsberg, not Paul Kariya -- performs at a higher level than Jagr. And odds are no one will for at least a few more seasons.

The Hart, however, is not intended to recognize exceptional skill, but to honor "the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team."

That criterion hasn't changed since the award was instituted in 1924 and is no less clear than it was during the second half of the 1980s when, on several occasions, Mario Lemieux, not Wayne Gretzky, ended up atop my Hart ballot.

That Gretzky was the driving offensive force on one of the finest teams in recent NHL history and was setting scoring standards that might stand forever cannot be disputed.

That Lemieux was saving a franchise -- and putting up some glittering numbers of his own in the process -- simply was more in keeping with the stipulated intent of the award.

The Hart was not -- and is not -- about being the best player or the most gifted. It is not about raw statistics.

It is about impact. It is about being the most valuable player to one's team.

The Conn Smythe Trophy is not unlike the Hart -- it is for "the most valuable player for his team in the playoffs" -- and that is why, when chosen as one of 15 writers to vote for the Smythe last Saturday, I put defenseman Scott Stevens in the top spot.

Stevens, the New Jersey Devils' captain, wasn't the leading scorer during the playoffs and isn't very flashy. But his leadership and stellar defensive work -- to say nothing of a few epic body checks -- made him the logical choice.

What Pronger did during the regular season had much in common with Stevens' performance during the playoffs.

He was the unquestioned cornerstone of the Blues' defense, the league's stingiest during the 1999-2000 season.

Get past Pronger and Al MacInnis, and the St. Louis defense is a fairly lackluster group. What's more, the Blues opened the season with a No. 1 goalie, Roman Turek, who had all of 55 NHL games to his credit.

Nonetheless, St. Louis gave up a league-low 165 goals -- Philadelphia, the runner-up, allowed 179 -- and, with a goals-against average of 1.98, was the only team to finish below 2.00.

Coach Joel Quenneville's system deserves much of the credit for that, but Pronger's contributions to the Blues' stunning run to the NHL's best regular-season record cannot be overstated.

He averaged 30 minutes and 14 seconds of ice time per game, most in the NHL. He also finished with the league's best plus-minus rating at plus-52 and was the No. 2 scorer among defensemen, with 14 goals and 48 points in 79 games.

Much tougher to quantify is the way Pronger used his 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame to maximum advantage -- he has outstanding reach and is an enthusiastic and effective hitter -- and the way his finely honed mean streak made opponents wary of straying onto his turf.

Defensemen generally log more minutes than forwards, so it's no surprise that Jagr's average of slightly more than 22 minutes per game is well below Pronger's. Especially when Jagr's total was skewed downward by the times he had to leave games early because of injuries.

But it was those injuries, which forced Jagr to sit out 19 games, that eventually gave Pronger the top spot on my ballot.

Had Jagr been in uniform for all or even most of those, he might have been a unanimous choice for the Hart. Spending nearly a quarter of the season in a hospital or training room was simply too much, however.

It's not that the Penguins were a better team without Jagr. Or even an average one. They went 6-10-3 in the games he missed.

And in some ways, sitting out those games actually underscored Jagr's talents. To be able to finish first in the scoring race despite missing nearly a quarter of the season is positively Lemieuxesque.

Indeed, Jagr -- who has become just the sixth player in league history to win the Art Ross Trophy four or more times -- and Lemieux are the only ones to earn it when missing 10 or more games.

But the Hart is not awarded for impact on a per-game basis. It is earned over the course of a full season, and Jagr sat out too much of his to merit finishing ahead of Pronger.

The voting, it should be noted, was conducted between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs, eliminating any possibility that postseason performance would influence it.

That is a critical point, because if the playoffs were factored in, Jagr might have been a clear-cut selection.

He, after all, opened the postseason with an eight-game scoring streak, while Pronger couldn't prevent his team from being upset by San Jose, and Bure, the other Hart finalist, was reduced to a non-entity by Stevens during Florida's first-round series against New Jersey.

But the Hart votes already had been cast by then, and the ballots, along with those for most other major trophies, had been delivered to the accounting firm that tabulates the results.

That means the outcome of the voting was set two months before it became public Thursday night, when Jagr learned just how close he'd come to getting his second Hart.

He might well pick up No. 2 -- and perhaps Nos. 3 and 4 -- before he retires, and Jagr would have been a most worthy recipient had the voting gone in his favor this year.

There simply was another player who deserved it a bit more.

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