Jason Robertson is the Early Hart Trophy Favorite

While he might not keep up his current scoring pace, the Dallas Stars forward has both the narrative and the results to bring it home.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical hockey player. Say they’re a left winger for some team in the Central Division, and are currently in their third year in the NHL. To drive home the idea that this player is not real and is completely made up, we’ll give him a nonsensical name: Rason Jobertson.

Jobertson had an excellent rookie year, scoring only a few points shy of a point per game pace. His possession metrics were excellent, especially compared to his teammates, and he passed the “eye test” with flying colors. As a result, he finished in the Top 2 of Calder Memorial Trophy voting, given annually to the NHL’s best rookie, alongside some other guy from the same division who isn’t important.

Heading into year two, it was fair to worry if Jobertson might undergo the infamous “sophomore slump.” Instead, he found a new gear and got even better — he scored more than a point per game, became one of the few players in team history to score 40 goals, and even earned some Hart Memorial Trophy votes, given annually to the NHL’s most valuable player.

This set the stage for year three: heading into the year, Jobertson was considered by many to have a good shot of becoming a Hart finalist, if not winning the award outright. If he could improve even further on his previous year, he’d have the point totals needed, and if his team (who didn’t score nearly as much without him) was among the league’s best, he’d have the narrative. A perfect recipe for success.

Sure enough, Jobertson started the year as strong as ever. But then something weird happened: he cooled down, or at least didn’t keep the same pace up. He was still more than a point-per-game player, and projected to eclipse 100 points, but he was not among the peak of scorers as many expected. What’s more, remember that other Calder finalist from his rookie year? The division rival? He was outperforming him, and arguably playing better than anyone else in the NHL.

By now, it should be painfully obvious that Rason Jobertson is, in fact, not a fictitious player, and is in fact none other than Kirill Kaprizov. I know, I know, a little bit too on the nose, but I wanted to set the stage a bit with at least a thin veil of anonymity.

But this piece isn’t about Kaprizov, as the title clearly states. It’s instead about that other Calder finalist, the one and only Jason Robertson.

Both players have had shockingly similar NHL careers so far, and are forever tied to the hip after that 2020-21 season. As you surely recall, many Dallas Stars fans argued Robertson should have won the Calder, on account that Kaprizov was older and had played several years pro in the KHL — Robertson’s performance was more impressive despite the (slightly) lower point totals.

All but one voter disagreed, and after posting 108 points (47 goals) the next year to Robertson’s 79 (40), it was clear that his landslide Calder victory wasn’t a fluke. Maybe Robertson would get there in time, but for now, Kaprizov was clearly the better player.

...or was he? While the Minnesota Wild aren’t exactly known to be a run-and-gun type team, Stars fans would have argued that their system has traditionally been far more offense-friendly than the one deployed by Dallas. That Rick Bowness-instilled low event, shutdown style of hockey stifled Robertson’s scoring, and he managed to score 40 goals in spite of it. Context matters, after all, and if only the Stars could free up their scoring, Robertson could prove he was right there alongside Kaprizov.

Well Cinderella got her wish — while six points in his last two games have given Kaprizov an impressive 30 points over 22 games, Robertson currently sits second in the entire NHL with 39 points in 24 goals, as well as first in goals with 22 (!!!). He scored more than anyone (both points and goals) in the month of November, earning the NHL’s First Star of the Month while riding a 16 point game streak. He then decided to celebrate by extending the streak by earning a hat trick in last night’s 5-0 win over the Anaheim Ducks and eclipsing Auston Matthews for the most goals scored in the calendar year 2022.

As things stand, he has a legitimate shot at winning the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, given annually to the league’s leading goal scorer, and could at least play potential spoiler for the Art Ross Trophy, given annually to Connor McDavid the league’s leading point scorer.

But once again, this piece isn’t about the Art Ross or the Richard, as the piece clearly states. It’s about the Hart, and right now, Robertson is the favorite.

That’s not just “Stars fans drinks the green Kool-Aid, more at eleven” either — ESPN polled a selection of PHWA voters from across the league and Robertson “received nearly 60% of the first-place votes” for the current Hart leader. And before the critics cry “narrative,” his numbers back it up, per Dom Luszczyszyn. He may not necessarily be the betting favorite, but that’s also partially driven by, well, bets.

There is one obvious wrinkle, of course — can Robertson keep it up? He’s currently on pace for 133 points, which would be the most (non-prorated) in a season since Mario Lemeiux in 1992-93. Similarly, his pace of 75 goals would be the most since Alexander Moligny and a rookie Teemu Selanne, also in 1992-93 (and before the Richard Trophy was introduced).

But unlike, say, Connor McDavid, who makes scoring 100 points look like child’s play, Robertson doesn’t have a history of performing at this absurd level. Eventually, his 17-game point streak will end. There’s a good chance at some point he hits a rut and gets stuck in a cold spell. Every top player does — the ones who end up winning those scoring titles are the ones who can make up for the lulls with multiple scoring booms.

So all things considered, Robertson (probably) won’t catch up with McDavid in points, and he might end up getting passed in goals. But again, this isn’t about the Art Ross or the Richard — the winner of the Hart Trophy doesn’t have to be the league’s leading scorer. It usually is, but Auston Matthews won it last year despite ranking 6th. True, he was first in goals, but you couldn’t say the same about Taylor Hall in 2017-18, who also finished 6th.

And that’s how we get back to “narrative,” and back to where we all started. The purpose of our intro wasn’t to force some sort of “who is better: Kaprizov vs. Robertson?” debate — rather it was simply to draw parallels between the two. Heading into the season, many believed Kaprizov could win the Hart if he scored 108+ again and helped make the Wild a bonafide Stanley Cup contender. That while he had some a nice supporting cast, he clearly was the “most valuable player” on his team, and that’s what the award was all about.

But the person living out those expectations is Jason Robertson, who is crushing it and is one of the key reasons why it’s Dallas, not Minnesota, who is currently sitting at the top of the Central division. Sure, he plays on a super line with Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski, but this is also a Stars team that barely made the playoffs and was just outside the bottom third of scoring last year. They currently lead the league with 93 goals scored this year.

So again, narrative matters. It’s why the Jack Adams Award always goes to the coach with the best “unexpected” season, not necessarily the “best” coach in the NHL. It’s why Hall won in 2017-18 after dragging the Devils into the playoffs. Robertson might not be able to keep up his current pace, but he doesn’t have to — he just has to stay near the top, and he’s a slam dunk finalist with a great shot of winning the whole thing.

Or maybe he proves us wrong and keeps it up, scoring more than anyone has in 30 years. I mean, you saw him last night, or better yet in the final minutes of the win against the St. Louis Blues — is anyone capable of stopping him?