The NHL sent out its award ballots for the 2019-20 season on Monday and the two Penguins that probably have the best chance of bringing home some individual hardware are head coach Mike Sullivan (coach of the year) and defenseman John Marino (Calder Trophy). If we are being honest, though, it seems unlikely that either one will win. I feel like Sullivan will get enough votes to be a finalist, but his problem is going to just come down to the fact that he is just too damn good and successful as a coach to actually win the Jack Adams Award. Just at the history of the award. It almost always goes to a coach on a team with few preseason expectations that overachieves thanks to great goaltending. So congratulations to 2019-20 Jack Adams Award winner John Tortorella.
Marino, meanwhile, is at best going to be a distant third to fellow defenders Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes, while Dominik Kubalik and Adam Fox also seem to have strong support behind them.
Beyond Sullivan and Marino, the Penguins really do not seem to have a front-runner or major contender for an award, which is partly the product of having half of the team miss most of the season to various injuries.
For the past 35 years the Penguins have been blessed to have four of the best players to step onto an NHL ice surface during that time period with Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin. Between them, they have helped bring five Stanley Cups to Pittsburgh and a rather extensive collection of individual awards, from scoring titles, to MVP’s, to Lester B. Pearson/Ted Lindsay awards.
We remember all of those.
For some reason, though, this all got me thinking of some of the awards they did not win.
The most notable of those was probably Mario Lemieux losing out on the 1989 Hart Trophy to Wayne Gretzky in what was probably one of the most absurd voting results in NHL award history. If you are not familiar with the story, and the impact it had on future MVP votes, read all about it here. It is absurd, and the fact it came one year after Lemieux won (on a non-playoff team) made it seem even more like it was a “make up” vote for Gretzky.
But the MVP vote that tends to get overlooked is the 1999-00 vote where Jagr lost out on his second consecutive Hart Trophy by one. Single. Vote. He finished in second place behind then-St. Louis Blues defender Chris Pronger.
The deciding vote that went against him came from Pittsburgh where the Post-Gazette’s Dave Molinari had Jagr second behind Pronger. Had Molinari’s vote been flipped, Jagr would have won the MVP and collected a $100,000 bonus.
Molinari defended his position at the time, and to be fair, he didn’t really need to. Pronger was a worthy winner and at that point in his career was right there with Jagr and Dominik Hasek as the most impactful players in the world. Every team that Pronger played on at his peak became an instant Stanley Cup contender, whether it be St. Louis, Edmonton, Philadelphia, or Anaheim. He was a 30-minute per night, shutdown defender that could score and inflict real physical pain on everyone. Truly dominant hockey player. This wasn’t a case of someone voting for, say, Jason White over Larry Fitzgerland for the Heisman Trophy. This was a legit honor, especially when you consider that Jagr actually missed 20 games that season due to injury.
The thing that always amazed about Jagr’s career is that for as dominant as he was, and for as much as he carried those post-Lemieux Penguins teams, he only came away with one MVP award in his career.
He had plenty of near misses.
Between 1997 and 1999 he finished in the top-two of the MVP voting three years in a row, finishing second (to Hasek) in 1997-98 and 1999-00 (to Pronger), and winning it during the 1998-99 season. He also had another second place finish in 1994-95 (behind Eric Lindros) and a third-place finish during the 2000-01 season (behind Joe Sakic and Lemieux).
Given how ordinary some of those late 1990s Penguins teams were after Jagr, and how they were always a playoff team and never an easy out in the playoffs, it is pretty stunning he did not get at least one more MVP during that run. Those teams had no consistent starting goalie, a weak defense with no clear-cut top-pairing defender, and really only two lines that could generate offense: whatever line Jagr played on, and the Alex Kovalev-Martin Straka-Robert Lang trio. Hell, during the 1999-00 season Jagr finished with 30 more points than any other player on the Penguins even though he missed 20 games. He also won that scoring title league-wide that season (96 points in 63 games) and scored at a 125-point pace over 82 games. Those numbers in any era are insane. For that era — the height of the dead puck era — is like something straight out of a video game.
This is the best Jagr highlight compilation I can find for Jagr from that season, and it is pretty awesome to watch if you can get over the fact it looks like there is peanut butter smeared all over the screen.