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A brief history of Penguins MVPs (and almost MVPs)

The quartet of Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin has quite a run with this award.

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Sidney Crosby was announced as a finalist for the 2019 Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP (he was second on my ballot!) after a pretty fantastic season that saw him, at times, carry the Pittsburgh Penguins toward a playoff spot. Was it his best season? No, it was not, but it was still a damn good one that further drove home the point that even as he progresses into his 30s he is still on the very, very, very short list of best players in the world (like, top-three at worst).

I also don’t think he got enough votes to win the award as Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov seems to be the runaway winner for his bonkers regular season performance.

I still expect Crosby will finish as the runner-up, sandwiched between Kucherov and Connor McDavid.

With that in mind I wanted to take a look back at the four Penguins players (Crosby included) that have won the MVP and the times they just narrowly missed — or should have won.

Mario Lemieux

MVP wins: 3 (1987-88, 1992-93, 1995-96)
Runner-up: 3 (1985-86, 1988-89, 2000-01)

The greatest of them all.

Lemieux ended up winning three MVP awards in his career which seems ... kind of shocking when you consider his consistent brilliance. But he was always fighting an uphill battle against Wayne Gretzky. Sometimes justified. Sometimes not.

Lemieux’s first MVP award during the 1987-88 season has turned out to be an historic win because it remains the last time a player has won the Hart Trophy on a team that missed the playoffs. It was deserved, because this was the season he was dealing with unmatched incompetence behind the bench in the form of ... this (via Dave Molinari of the the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

This was Lemieux’s performance that night, including the overtime winner.

The wild thing about Lemieux winning the MVP award in 1987-88 is that he was he was EVEN BETTER the following year on a Penguins team that actually made the playoffs ... and he still came in a very distant second to Wayne Gretzky. This would also be an historic MVP decision because it is the year we started to descend into madness with our MVP discussions trying to figure out what “value” means.

You see, this was the year Gretzky made his debut in Los Angeles and started to make the Kings relevant and that no doubt played a massive role in the support he received for the Hart Trophy, even though he was the inferior player.

I also still believe there was a sentiment of “give it to Gretzky because he didn’t get it last year.

Lemieux would not win another one until the 1992-93 season in what was probably his best season ever. This was the year he beat Hodgkins disease, came back to the lineup on the same day as his final chemo treatment, was 17 points behind Pat LaFontaine in the scoring race, and still won it by 12 points even though he only played in 60 games (24 less than LaFontaine played in).

Lemieux was so dominant this season that he received standing ovations in both Philadelphia and New York’s Madison Square Garden as a visiting player. No visiting player has had that honor in a career. He had it happen in the same season.

The Philadelphia was on the night he returned to the lineup. The New York one was just because he was a total bad ass on the ice.

His final MVP award came during the 1995-96 season when he, Jaromir Jagr, and Ron Francis teamed up to form what was probably the best line the Penguins have ever had (they finished first, second, and fourth in the league in scoring, respectively). This was just as “the dead puck era” was starting to be ushered in and clutch-and-grab hockey was beginning to take hold and he still finished with 69 goals and 161 points. Think of how crazy we went this season over Kucherov finishing with 128 points. Lemieux had 161 in a lower scoring era.

One year later Lemieux would retire and take a few years off before returning in the middle of the 2000-01 season after three years off and casually putting up 76 points in 43 games. That earned him his third and final runner-up for the Hart Trophy, finishing just behind Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche.

Jaromir Jagr

MVP Wins: 1 (1998-99)
Runner-up: 3 (1994-95, 1997-98, 1999-00)

It still boggles my mind that Jagr only won one MVP award in his career, not only when you consider the fact he was the best player in the world for several of those years, but also because he was the single biggest reasons (or perhaps the only reason) some of those late 1990s Penguins teams even made the playoffs.

But, here we are.

His only win came during the 1998-99 season which was one of those “one man band” type of years for Jagr as he finished with 127 points, 20 more than any other player in the league.

This was also the year he, quite literally, saved the franchise by lifting the team to that Game 6 win in the first round against New Jersey, setting the stage for their Game 7 upset win on the road against the top-seeded Devils. The team’s financial situation was so bad, so bleak, and so unsettled that losing in the first round that year could have meant the end of the franchise as we knew it in Pittsburgh.

This MVP year came between two years where he was the runner-up.

During the 1997-98 season he finished in second to Dominik Hasek, which is ... acceptable. Hasek was probably the one player in the league at that time that had more control over what his team did than Jagr, and this was in the middle of an absurd seven-year run by Hasek that was probably the best stretch any goalie in the history of the league has ever had. He deserved it.

The 1999-00 is a little more controversial, if only because Jagr finished in second (BY ONE POINT!) to Chris Pronger. And it was Molinari’s vote in Pittsburgh that went to Pronger that cost him the award. A lot of Penguins fans were (and still are) mad about this, but I can’t fault it, and major props to Molinari for not going with the easy home-town vote (seriously). Pronger was AMAZING that year, literally playing 30 minutes per game over an 82-game season and just physically and statistically dominating every other defender in the league. For as great as Jagr was, I can’t fault anyone that favored a 30-minute per night player that played at that level over him.

Evgeni Malkin

MVP Wins: 1 (2011-12)
Runner-up: 2 (2007-08, 2008-09)

Malkin really became a superstar during the 2007-08 season when he became “the guy” in the Pittsburgh lineup after Crosby was sidelined for a significant chunk of the season with an ankle injury. His performance earned him a second-place finish in the Hart voting behind Alex Ovechkin, a situation that would again play itself out the following year when Malkin won his first scoring title, his first Stanley Cup win in his second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance, and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.

Quite a two-year run for him.

He would finally win the award in 2011-12 (again in a season where Crosby was sidelined for a significant chunk of it) when he scored 50 goals and 109 points to win his second scoring title.

Sidney Crosby

MVP Wins: 2 (2006-07, 2013-14)
Runner-up: 4? (2012-13, 2015-16, 2016-17, 2018-19?)

Crosby won his first MVP award when he was still a teenager, taking home the Hart Trophy in 2006-07 after finishing with an insane 120 points. That performance produced the Penguins’ first postseason berth in five years and set the stage for a still ongoing decade-plus run of dominance that would exceed every other team in the NHL.

Then we get into a lot of what-ifs ... as in ... what if he didn’t miss so much time during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons due to injury? He would have been a slam dunk winner in 2010-11 given the pace he was on at the time of his concussion and probably would have done so again 2011-12.

The 2012-13 season was the first year he was back to full health and finished second in the lockout-shortened year to Ovechkin (something that did not sit well with Crosby!).

He responded the following year by winning everything he could win on an individual level (MVP, scoring title, Ted Lindsay award). That season ended bitterly on a team level because this was the tail end of the Ray Shero-Dan Bylsma era when the bottom-six and the overall team depth deteriorated down to the Craig Adams All-Stars.

The past four years have seen Crosby as a regular among the finalists (2015-16, 2016-17, and now 2018-19), and even though it hasn’t resulted in him actually winning, it’s still a testament to his consistent level of play that he has now been a winner or runner-up six times (he also had a seventh year as a finalist when he finished in third during the 2009-10 season).