The age-old press box and fans' argument is the true definition of a most valuable player.
The purists insist it must be a player on a winning team, who contributes most to the string of victories, and great performers on runners-up (or worse) should not be considered. After all, the defining word is "valuable," and it's not given to the "player of the year," the athlete who had the best individual numbers regardless of team finish.
I always thought these arguments were used to knock down a couple of deserving Cubs MVPs -- Ernie Banks in 1958-59 and Andre Dawson in 1987. While winning the MVPs, their teams never finished within six games of .500.
My counter-argument is finishing in first or running the table in the postseason should never be a prerequisite for MVP honors. Sometimes a player's season is so dominant, so far above the rest, that merely stepping on the field regardless of the standings makes him valuable. And if the truth be known, where would the 1958, 1959 and 1987 Cubs have finished without Banks or Dawson? These pair of all-time pros actually kept their teams in contention through July. Proving sports is never a one-man game, their continued individual brilliance couldn't by itself prevent late-season dropoffs under the break-even mark.
In another sport, at a different time of year, Jonathan Toews is satisfying both sides of the argument. He is making his teammates and the Blackhawks overall so much better by his play at both ends of the ice. And his individual numbers are truly fantastic, and could have a shot at passing up his combined regular-season and playoff totals from 2009-10 by the time April 3's season finale is put to bed.
The purists should be happy with Toews. In the Hawks' laggard first half, he was so much better than most of his teammates. Only Patrick Sharp matched him in consistency. Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa under-performed, while coach Joel Quenneville got little production out of his third and fourth lines.
But then Toews turned it up three notches, if that's possible. He has almost personally lifted the Hawks from an iffy playoff team -- remember they were sagging at 62 points in 11th place in the Western Conference just two weeks ago -- to a solid fourth-place standing, with even higher destinations still possible. His NHL-high nine-game points streak going into Tuesday's game with the Panthers in Miami is the hottest stretch of his career.
Better yet, Toews has helped spark late-season revivals by Kane and Hossa. Flanked by Kane and Sharp on the wings, Toews' first line is the NHL's most productive. Almost embarrassed to be left far behind in on-ice hustle and desire by their team captain, the third and fourth lines are finally chipping in their fair share. With all cylinders finally clicking, better late than never, the Hawks finally look like the contender everyone projected despite all their salary-cap losses last summer.
Toews also showed MVP leadership by repeated intermission lectures after the Hawks racked up embarrassing 20-minute performances. The hectoring didn't seem to take effect at first, but it's finally sunk in.
So Toews, still not even 23, has enjoyed the best of both worlds. He's amassing the best all-around season for any NHL star while making his team better in the process. He's already won the playoff MVP. Toews' big heart should beat right into the Hart Trophy.