When the Toronto Maple Leafs made the splash of the summer by signing John Tavares in free agency, they immediately jumped to the top of the league as Stanley Cup betting favorites. When , the Leafs had not one, but two favorites listed in the top five.
Here is that top five:
- Connor McDavid, Oilers: 10/3
- Sidney Crosby, Penguins: 13/2
- Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs: 10-1
- Alexander Ovechkin, Capitals: 10-1
- John Tavares, Maple Leafs: 10-1
Both Tavares and Auston Matthews opened with 10-1 odds of taking home the Hart Trophy as league MVP next season. The two centers are elite talents that are expected to spearhead a frightening offensive attack in Toronto. Considering the Leafs had the second-best offensive output in the league last season, it's not entirely crazy to think that Tavares (37 goals and 84 points with the lowly Islanders last year) and Matthews (34 goals and 64 points in just 63 games) could be in for monster years and find themselves in the Hart discussion.
I reached out to SportsLine NHL expert David Kelly to get his so-very-early MVP picks, and he gave me a list of three that surprised me a bit. First of all, Connor McDavid -- the Oilers' young phenom who won the Hart as 20-year-old in 2017 -- wasn't included.
McDavid's numbers last year were actually better than those he posted during his MVP campaign the season before (100 points in '17, followed by 108 in '18), but the Hart voting results were far less kind to him due to the Oilers' success as a team. Edmonton had a bitterly disappointing drop-off last season, going from 103 points and a playoff berth in 2017 to just 78 points and sixth-place finish in the division in 2018.
Many voters felt McDavid couldn't be the MVP playing on a team that performed so poorly, and Kelly is in that camp.
"I believe that both [Taylor] Hall and [Nathan] MacKinnon were worthy of their 1-2 status for the Hart award last season because without their performance contributions both the Devils and the Avs would not have made the playoffs," he said. "For me, the goal of the regular season play is to make the playoffs, where, as we saw last season, anything can happen once a team gets to the dance. Controversially then, the selection of Connor McDavid as MVP in 2017-18 would not have met this litmus test. As great and as gifted as I truly believe McDavid is, he will never get my vote for MVP until he can lead the Oilers to the playoffs."
But maybe more surprising than McDavid's omission was the fact that Kelly's 2019 favorites also didn't include Matthews or Tavares. Instead, there was another Maple Leafs player on the list -- Frederik Andersen.
Here's the justification:
Fredrik Andersen, G, Toronto Maple Leafs
Picking a goaltender as MVP has only happened 5 times in the past 58 years but if the Leafs are truly going to make a deep run at the Stanley Cup next season it will not be on the backs of Matthews, Nylander and Tavares, but due to the stellar goaltending of Andersen. "Steady Freddy" will have to continue logging heavy playing minutes, endure high shot totals and improve on his mediocre OT performances to bring Toronto to the promised land.
Everyone expects the Leafs to go deep but the wise prognosticator also knows that you can't win in the playoffs by beating teams 7-5 every game. The Leafs defense is so porous that it'll be Andersen who will either sink or swim the dreams of every fan of hockey hoping that Toronto can end the 50+ year Championship drought.
I found that pick fascinating on a number of levels. For one, as Kelly pointed out himself, goalies rarely win the award. The last to do it was Carey Price in 2015, then Jose Theodore in 2002 and Domenik Hasek back-to-back in 1997 and 1998. It typically takes an absolutely incredible season for a goaltender to take the award away from a skater.
Does Andersen have that kind of season in him? It's debatable if he's even considered a top-three goalie in the league at this point. He had a solid season last year (his second in Toronto), posting a save-percentage of .918 with a goals-against-average of 2.81. It was good enough to put him fourth in Vezina voting at the end of the year.
But given what we've seen from Andersen to this point, expecting numbers good enough to put him in the Hart discussion might be considered a stretch. As a starter in both Anaheim and Toronto, he's never posted a save-percentage mark over .919.
I wanted to pick Kelly's brain on why he preferred Andersen as a potential MVP candidate over Matthews and Tavares, both of whom are much sexier (and frankly, safer) picks.
"I probably watched 65 of the 82 Maple Leafs games last year," Kelly said. "I'll tell you truthfully, if you had never seen the Leafs play before, you would have thought Frederik Andersen was the second coming of God. He single-handedly won 12 or 13 games on his own.
"Their defense was so bad, and if they had anyone who was lesser [than Andersen], they would have been in jeopardy of missing the playoffs last year. I never hear anybody talking about it, but what he single-handedly won 12 games for them last year."
Which team should you back to win the Stanley Cup, and which teams will fall well short of their projected win totals? Join SportsLine today and get projected scores and stats from 10,000 simulations, picks from a Toronto-born expert who profited almost $3,500 for his followers last year, fantasy advice and much more! Use promo code KICKOFF to get your first month for only $1!
And while Kelly says he's a fan of Matthews and Tavares -- and thinks they could have a formidable year as a one-two punch at the front of Toronto's lineup -- he's not entirely sold that their production is going to jump significantly enough to land them at the front of the Hart race, even with the addition of Tavares.
"The problem is that [James] van Riemsdyk is gone, and he scored 36 goals, and they replaced him with Tavares, who scored 37 with a much worse team," Kelly explained. "But I guarantee you they're not going to put Tavares on the ice for 17 minutes a game like he was getting [with the Islanders].
"So they've done away with 36 goals and replaced it with 37 in hopes of Tavares being the Great White Hope in terms of leadership. And that may or may not come to fruition. But I'm not sold. I'm not so sure that they didn't just swap even up on in terms of production."
Because of this, and the fact that the Leafs haven't made any major improvements on the defensive end, Kelly believes the true determining factor in the team's success will come between the pipes. If they jump to the top of the league and head into the playoffs with a high seed, he think it will be because of a phenomenal year from Andersen in net, and voters will recognize that when awards season rolls around.
Regardless of whether the Leafs' offense makes a massive jump or not, Andersen still stands as a pretty bold pick for league MVP. Bovada's opening list of 34 favorites doesn't include Andersen or any other goalie for that matter. Then again, if you're a believer like Kelly, that just means the odds are right where you want them. Nobody believed the Vegas Golden Knights would ride some magical invisible unicorn to the Stanley Cup Final last year, either.