There are always the usual suspects when it comes to Hart Trophy candidates. Sidney Crosby, Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid, etc. But every so often, new players arise and make a name for themselves. This season, Dallas Stars winger Jason Robertson has emerged as one of the league’s best young wingers, with 19 goals and 36 points in 23 games to catapult himself into the early Hart conversation.
Robertson, a second-round pick (39th overall) in the 2017 draft, is not having a random breakout year. He had 79 points a season ago and totaled 45 in 51 contests during the COVID-shortened 2020-21 campaign. Though it’s still early in the season, let’s look at why he’s not just a Hart Trophy candidate but why he may be the early frontrunner as December begins.
Robertson’s White Hot Start Is No Fluke
Before getting into Robertson’s season, let’s provide some context by looking at his 2021-22 campaign. Even on a team that played a more defensive style of hockey under former head coach Rick Bowness, Robertson was still one of the best play-driving wingers in the NHL. He finished with a 55.68 Corsi for percentage (CF%) and 58.23 expected goals percentage (xG%) at five-on-five, among the top marks on the Stars.
When looking at his goals above replacement (GAR) — which measures how many goals a player adds to his team relative to a replacement-level player — Robertson finished with a GAR of 24.1 a season ago. That ranked sixth among all skaters, defensemen included. It shouldn’t be a surprise he’s turned into one of the best wingers in the league this season because the signs were all there in 2021-22.
With that said, Robertson has taken his game to another level to start the new campaign. He’s currently on pace for 67 goals and 128 points, and his impact at five-on-five has been nothing short of spectacular. Robertson leads the Stars with a 59.26 xG% and 58.69 CF% and averages 3.48 points per 60 minutes, making him one of the top five-on-five scorers in the league. In terms of expected GAR (xGAR), only Erik Karlsson has an xGAR better than Robertson; he sits in a tie for second with McDavid at 12.1 in this statistic. That’s how good he’s been.
While Robertson’s shooting percentage of 19.6 is high, it appears he’s just an elite scorer. He has a career shooting percentage of 17.2 and shot 18.6 percent a season ago. Perhaps he regresses from the 67-goal pace he’s currently on, but he’s still going to finish as one of the league’s top goal scorers this season and should easily eclipse 50.
The reason Robertson will likely still end up as one of the league’s top scorers is that he’s also a part of one of the best lines in the NHL with Roope Hintz, who just signed a lucrative eight-year extension, and Joe Pavelski. The Stars have outscored teams 20-6 with them on the ice and have controlled 60.66 percent of the expected goals. Hintz and Pavelski are great players in their own right, but Robertson is that shift’s main driver. Without him, it’s unlikely the Stars could find another winger alongside Hintz and Pavelski to produce the same results.
Latest News & Highlights
Plus, it’s not just Robertson’s offensive game that makes him such an elite talent, as he’s also one of the best defensive forwards in the game. He’s been the Stars’ best shot-suppressing forward, both in quantity and quality; Dallas is giving up just 2.26 expected goals per 60 with him on the ice this season, ranked first on the team. Part of that is because the puck is always in the offensive zone when he’s on the ice, but as they say, the best defense is a good offense. Still, they rarely get hemmed in their own zone when Robertson is on the ice.
Why Robertson Is an Early Hart Frontrunner
When thinking of an early Hart Trophy frontrunner heading into December, you’d likely be inclined to choose McDavid. He leads the league in scoring, and picking McDavid to win the Hart in any year is always a wise decision. The same is true of Kucherov, who’s off to a very strong start this season. But when looking at how they produce at five-on-five, Robertson may have the edge at this point.
McDavid’s had a fascinating start to the season. He’s on pace for 63 goals and 145 points, but though he leads the league in scoring, only 20 of his 39 points have come at five-on-five. His five-on-five scoring rate of 1.86 points per 60 ranks 130th among forwards (min. 150 minutes logged) and is equal to Rickard Rakell and Gustav Nyquist. Robertson’s five-on-five scoring rate ranks in the top 10, and his impact at that game state has been much greater than McDavid’s so far:
McDavid is playing quite well at five-on-five, so I’d expect his scoring at that game state to pick up as the season continues. But for now, Robertson has been slightly better than him. As for Kucherov, the gap between him and Robertson isn’t significant either. He has 10 goals and 35 points in 22 games, making him the Tampa Bay Lightning’s leading scorer and putting him on pace for 37 goals and 130 points. His five-on-five scoring rate ranks in the top 50 of the league among forwards, and he’s been an elite play driver at five-on-five, as he usually is.
Kucherov and McDavid will be frontrunners for the Hart Trophy too. But the thing is, barring an injury, Robertson isn’t going to slow down any time soon. The Stars are one of the top teams in a weak Western Conference, and he’s a part of one of the best line combos in the NHL. He has a track record of sustained excellence in his young career so far, and he’s going to remain in a fight with McDavid, Kucherov and other Hart contenders as the season progresses.
Robertson is one of the best play-driving forwards in the league, something you don’t always see in a winger. He’s a legitimate early Hart Trophy candidate through the first 20 to 25 games of the season, and it’s not crazy to say he may be the frontrunner through the first quarter mark. The Stars have a real bargain on their hands, considering they re-signed him to a four-year contract at a cap hit of $7.75 million just before this season started, something general manager Jim Nill should be thanking his lucky stars for. And when all is said and done, don’t be surprised if Robertson takes home the Hart and solidifies that contract as the biggest steal in the NHL.
* * *
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017