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Analysis: Why star Nathan MacKinnon is going to win MVP honors

Nathan MacKinnon did not become one of five players to ever record 100 assists in an NHL season. He did not score the most goals in the league in nearly 30 years.

He is still going to win the Hart Trophy or the Ted Lindsay Award (or both) as the NHL’s most valuable player for the first time in his career, and will do so despite going up against one of the greatest fields of candidates the league has ever seen.

There are four candidates — MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid and Nikita Kucherov — who had extraordinary seasons, and all would be worthy winners. There’s a second tier of players that goes at least four deep who would have a great case to finish in the top three of a normal year. One of those guys — Sidney Crosby, Connor Hellebuyck, Quinn Hughes and Artemi Panarin — is going to finish no better than eighth in the voting.

How does MacKinnon end up at the top of such a crowded field? He doesn’t have a singular argument, but MacKinnon checks the most boxes. He doesn’t need to earn the most first-place votes, because the Big Four are going to split them.

This fight is going to be won in the details — namely who voters place second, third and fourth. And it’s a good bet that No. 29 is going end up at No. 2 on many of the ballots where he isn’t the winner.

MacKinnon’s raw statistics are certainly MVP-worthy. He has 51 goals and 140 points, which only 10 players have accomplished in a season. He didn’t score the most goals (Matthews had 69) or the most points (Kucherov had 144). But among the top MVP contenders, MacKinnon is second in both.

There are two areas where MacKinnon leads the pack: Consistency and offensive volume. MacKinnon had the second-longest home point streak in NHL history. He became the first player to ever have two 19-game streaks, regardless of venue, in the same season.

The biggest knock against McDavid’s case is his slow start. MacKinnon was the most consistently great player all year.

Colorado scored 100 goals at 5-on-5 when MacKinnon was on the ice this season, six more than any other player and 10 more than McDavid. He played 1,386 minutes at 5-on-5, 18 more than teammate Mikko Rantanen and 81 more than the next forward on the list (Kucherov).

When MacKinnon was on the ice, the Avs were plus-35 at 5-on-5. The Maple Leafs were plus-38 with Matthews on the ice. Among the MVP candidates, MacKinnon was second.

Matthews’ case is built around goals and defense. He had the most goals since 1995-96, and he’s a legitimate Selke Trophy candidate, awarded to the best defensive forward. His defensive rating, per Dom Luszczyszyn, is the best of the Big Four.

Want to guess where MacKinnon ranks? Second. Notice a theme developing here?

We can dig as deep as anyone would like on statistics, but the people who vote on these awards — the Professional Hockey Writers Association for the Hart, the NHL players for the Lindsay — are human. Narratives swing voters. Big moments, big highlights, an intangible feeling … all sway voters.

MacKinnon does not deserve an MVP award just because he’s never won and the other three have. But … that’s been part of the narrative. Voter fatigue might be a real issue for McDavid, who even MacKinnon has said several times is the game’s best player. Matthews didn’t have enough assists for some voters. Kucherov is not a center and has the least impactful defensive numbers. He also had the weird behavior at the All-Star game in Toronto. He shouldn’t be knocked for that, but some voters will.

Think of all of MacKinnon’s big moments: He shredded the Maple Leafs in Toronto. He tore apart the Flyers in Philadelphia. He had the highlight-reel goal in New York. The last-second effort play in Edmonton to win the game of the year. The hat trick of breakaways against Minnesota that practically broke Hockey Twitter.

So many factors, so many boxes to check that will have likely swayed the voters. If they didn’t put him first, here’s betting that most of them placed MacKinnon no lower than second.

And that’s why MacKinnon will be an NHL MVP, and a deserving one at that.

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