NHL odds: Matthews, MacKinnon show tight Hart Trophy race

Auston Matthews gets in on the scoring with his 52nd goal (0:41)

Auston Matthews gets in on the scoring with his 52nd goal (0:41)

There's an idiosyncratic beauty to awards betting in sports: While almost all sports betting odds derive their lines from tangible statistics during the course of play and can be mostly boiled down to algorithms of probability, individual awards odds introduce a level of subjectivity, as these results are not tied specifically to stats, but rather to the voting preferences of sports media members.

The race to win the 2023-24 Hart Memorial Trophy exemplifies this idea perfectly, with four legitimate candidates each presenting a case that only has partially to do with their performance on the ice.

"It's unique in how you book them and what you have to pay attention to," Caesars Sportsbook assistant director of trading Adam Pullen tells ESPN. "A lot of influence can be done off the ice and not just on the ice when it comes to drawing action. If somebody gets on TV and starts talking about, 'David Pastrnak deserves MVP consideration, blah, blah, blah,' bets will come in. People react to that, but that's just the uniqueness of booking awards markets."

Pastrnak generally has the narrative -- a top scorer in the league on a team atop the standings -- to support an NHL MVP candidacy, and yet finds himself as a longshot at 75-1, per ESPN Bet odds.

Instead, the players currently most likely to win the Hart this season by the odds are Auston Matthews (+175), Nathan MacKinnon (+250), Nikita Kucherov (+275) and Connor McDavid (+400). Each candidate's narrative has twisted and turned throughout the season, with their respective odds following suit.

The most turbulent odds belong to the current favorite. After opening the season at 12-1, Matthews didn't move the betting needle much at first, with his odds lengthening to as far as 14-1 at ESPN Bet. That all changed when he scored two consecutive hat tricks on Feb. 15 and 17, following it up with four more goals over his next three contests.

The 26-year-old's odds quickly jumped down into the triple digits and by last Thursday, he was suddenly the favorite to win the award.

ESPN Bet reports that in the last two weeks, 53% of all Hart Trophy wagers have been on Matthews and 68% of his total bets to win the honor have come in the last fortnight. FanDuel says that a league-leading 32% of bets are on the Maple Leafs star, and both BetMGM and DraftKings report him as their biggest liability.

"He is certainly one of our bigger hazards to win it all," says DraftKings director of race & sportsbook operation Johnny Avello. "But is goalscoring enough? I mean, the guy's a goalscoring machine, no doubt about it, but when you look at assists and everything, what's it gonna take from the voters perspective to win the Hart Trophy?"

This is where the immense subjectivity comes into play. Matthews' pace for 73 goals would tie him with Wayne Gretzky's 1984-85 campaign for the eight-most in a season in NHL history; no active player has scored more than 65 in a season since Alex Ovechkin in 2007-08.

It's the type of historical achievement that could supersede any other statistics (Matthews is eighth in the league and second on Toronto with 77 points) or team performance (the Maple Leafs sit third in the Atlantic Division), hence, why the odds have turned in his favor.

Going purely off of statistics, Kucherov probably has the best case of anyone, as his 103 points lead the NHL and is 40 more than anyone else on his team. Tampa Bay is clinging to the last playoff spot in the East and some could argue that's by the grace of Kucherov's outstanding play.

All the same, the Russian forward has attracted just 6% of the bets at ESPN Bet, 5% at DraftKings and 4.5% at BetMGM, even after opening at 20-1 and only gradually moving down. At all of the books, his bet percentage is less than each of the other favorites and even some outsiders like Pastrnak, Jack Hughes and Sidney Crosby.

"Don't ask me why he wasn't bet at 20-1 and 16-1 and 14-1, those opportunities were there," Avello says. "I just think that other guys had the limelight for the bettors' money at that point."

"The hockey people know [how good he's been], but it just may be that he's just not the name that Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid and Nathan McKinnon are," says Pullen.

Which brings us to MacKinnon, who may have the best case from a narrative perspective because he has something the other favorites don't: scarcity.

Of the four favorites, MacKinnon is the only one to have never won the Hart, and was arguably snubbed of it for 2017-18 when Taylor Hall took the honor for dragging the Devils into the playoffs. Since then, MacKinnon has been one of the NHL's finest players and is currently second in the league with 98 points.

As such, many awards voters believe he could be due to win the Hart -- as one voter told ESPN -- and bettors are mostly in agreement: The Avalanche star leads the ticket numbers at ESPN Bet (21%), the handle numbers at FanDuel (25%), and is Caesars' "worst case" if he wins, per Pullen.

MacKinnon's odds have experienced a "slow drop," per Avello, who adds that his book never had to "cut his odds in half at any one point." The 28-year-old opened the season at 10-1 on ESPN Bet, was the minus-money favorite by late January, but was then relegated to second place after Matthews' torrid run.

The fourth and final favorite is McDavid, who opened the season as an enormous +115 favorite and seemingly has an argument to win the Hart every year. All of the books have significant action on the Oilers phenom, but his short odds throughout the campaign has kept his liability relatively low.

Because of the 27-year-old's perennial greatness (and subsequent voter fatigue), it would likely take a monumental finish to the season for him to claim his fourth Hart, especially in this crowded field, and oddsmakers know it: McDavid entered Wednesday's contest against St. Louis with +400 odds to win the award at ESPN Bet, and the number did not move as of Thursday morning -- even after a three-point night capped off with an overtime game-winning goal.

Of course, any action on or off the ice could shift the odds again at a moment's notice: Thursday night's packed slate could see Matthews, MacKinnon or Kucherov bolster their cases with big games, or they could just as easily get injured and see their odds plummet. Or maybe Pastrnak will go off for a hat trick and a TV analyst will make his Hart case, vaulting him into the conversation.

Such is the beautiful difficulty of wagering a subjective award.