Have we ever discussed how the Conn Smythe Trophy might be the NHL’s weirdest award?
Let’s start with the hardware itself. In 1964, the trophy was donated to the NHL by Maple Leaf Gardens, to be awarded to the Stanley Cup playoffs MVP and as a bauble to honor Hockey Hall of Fame-inducted builder Conn Smythe. For all the kvetching about Toronto’s place as the “Centre of the Hockey Universe,” the playoff MVP award (A) honors a former Maple Leafs owner and (B) is a scaled recreation of Maple Leaf Gardens and (C) features “a large silver botanically accurate maple leaf.”
How did so many Montreal Canadiens players touch this thing without their skin bubbling, like a vampire touching a cross?
It’s one of the most significant awards in the NHL, and yet also its most overshadowed. It’s handed out moments before the Stanley Cup begins its parade about the ice in the champions’ hands. For the Conn Smythe winner’s teammates, it’s like having a chance to realize a childhood dream only to have it delayed so everyone can hear who was named class valedictorian. For the Conn Smythe winner, winning the MVP with the Stanley Cup inches away is a lot like learning you’ve won a new washer/dryer as they’re handing you that giant Powerball check.
The Conn Smythe is voted on by a group of 18 members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, a combination of national and local writers. Their votes became public in 2017, giving sunshine to a previously clandestine process so we could all see how many votes Tuukka Rask received in a losing effort during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
The Conn boasts one of the most eclectic assortments of winners for any NHL award. It can be superstar-centric. Sometimes that’s warranted, like when Patrick Roy and Wayne Gretzky won the award multiple times. Sometimes the winner feels like a reputation-based default setting, like when Sidney Crosby won the Conn Smythe that Phil Kessel deserved in 2016. It can also be the only major award that some players win in their careers, like goalie Bill Ranford (1989), center Henrik Zetterberg (2008) and winger Justin Williams (2014), who never received a single vote for the Hart or Selke trophies.
Yet the randomness of the Conn Smythe isn’t random at all. If you take a look at the past 25 Conn Smythe winners, you find a few interesting patterns. Here is the formula for determining a Conn Smythe winner.
1. Any position can win. My friend Sean McIndoe of The Athletic noted in 2020 that the Conn Smythe Trophy doesn’t have the same positional bias as the Hart Trophy does for regular-season MVP. According to his findings, centers win the Hart Trophy 51% of the time and the Conn Smythe 31% of the time. Conversely, goalies win the Hart 9% of the time and the Conn Smythe 30% of the time.
His theory, and it’s a good one: While voters assume that defensemen and goalies will get their cake with the Norris and Vezina in the regular season, there are no positional player awards like that in the playoffs.
2. Conn Smythe winners must play over 20 minutes per game. There have been 18 skaters since the 1996 Stanley Cup playoffs who have won the Conn Smythe. Only three of them — Crosby (2017), Williams (2014) and Joe Nieuwendyk (1999) — played less than 20 minutes per game on average. (There wasn’t time-on-ice tracking for Joe Sakic in 1995-96, but given his numbers in the playoffs in subsequent years, we can assume he was over 20 minutes.)
It gets even more specific for defensemen: All five defensemen who have won the Conn Smythe since 1996 have averaged over 25 minutes per game in the playoffs.
3. Leading the playoffs in scoring doesn’t matter. The most interesting trend found within those 18 skaters who won the Conn was that they weren’t the most dominant players in the postseason scoring races. Only four skaters who won playoff MVP also led the postseason in goals. It’s actually happened only once since 2009, when Alex Ovechkin won it with the Washington Capitals in 2018.
It’s the same story for points: The postseason leader in scoring was the postseason MVP five times. By the way: It hasn’t happened in the NHL since Evgeni Malkin won in 2009. This might actually be some shared DNA with the Hart Trophy — intrinsic value and subjective impact are considered more important than point compilation. To that end …
4. Being in the top two in team scoring does matter. Of the 18 skaters who won the Conn Smythe since the 1996 playoffs, 14 of them were first or second on the team in points. The outliers were all defensemen: Victor Hedman (third on his team, 2020), Scott Niedermayer (eighth, 2007), Nicklas Lidstrom (fourth, 2002) and Scott Stevens (fourth, 2000). The last forward to win the Conn Smythe and not finish first or second in points: Claude Lemieux, who was fourth on the Devils in 1995.
5. Game-winning goals are a must. The “GWG” can be a specious stat. For example, Andrew Cogliano had the game-winning goal in the Colorado Avalanche‘s 7-2 Game 1 win over the Nashville Predators, for making it a 3-0 game at 8:30 of the first period. That said, 16 of the past 18 skaters to win the Conn Smythe had multiple game-winning goals in the playoffs. But only 10 of them had game-winners in overtime.
6. Goalies have to be among the playoffs’ stats leaders for MVP honors. Seven goalies have won the Conn Smythe since 1996. Five of them led the playoffs in save percentage. All seven finished in the top two in goals-against average. Six of the seven were first or second in shutouts. Five of the goalies led the playoffs in both save percentage and goals-against average.
I think these patterns are understandable. If a team succeeds in the postseason, it most likely has the best playoff performers on the roster; and if a team plays deep into the postseason, those players will amass impressive stats. But these patterns also confer some predictability and rigidity to the Conn Smythe.
If I were to make two changes to the way the award is handed out, they would be:
Give the Stanley Cup runner-up the Conn more often. The Conn Smythe has been given to a player outside of the Stanley Cup champion only five times, and not since Jean-Sebastien Giguere won it with Anaheim way back in 2003. He was one of four goalies to win the award in a losing effort. I still think Chris Pronger should have won playoff MVP in 2006 with the Edmonton Oilers, with 21 points in 24 games and playing 30:57 per game in a losing effort. There are way more “one guy dragging his team to the Final” type players on runners-up. Reward them.
To that end …
Give the Conn Smythe to someone outside the Final. The NFL has the Super Bowl MVP. Major League Baseball has the World Series MVP. Major League Soccer has the MLS Cup MVP. The NBA has the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award.
Detect a pattern?
The NHL’s postseason MVP Award is handed out for a player’s performance through the entirety of the playoffs. It’s given to the most valuable player to his team in the postseason. How that automatically meant only players in the Stanley Cup Final were eligible was always a little baffling to me. Why not someone who fell just short?
My favorite example of this possibility was in 2003, when Giguere won it for the Ducks. Marian Gaborik of the Minnesota Wild played 18 games before his team bowed out to the Ducks in four games in the conference finals. He had 17 points and nine goals, by far the best performance of anyone on the team. Should he have gotten MVP consideration?
I’m not saying to give it to a player after one round. I think it’s reasonable to ask that the playoff MVP at least have played in the conference finals.
That said, I’d like to see a Venn diagram of the people who think the Hart Trophy should go to a player on a non-playoff team and the people who think it’s ridiculous to give the Conn Smythe to someone outside of the Stanley Cup Final. I’m sure it’s two perfect circles.
In just under two months, we’ll have our next Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Maybe it’s another king-making moment for Auston Matthews if the Maple Leafs make history. Maybe it’s Cale Makar, becoming the 11th defenseman in NHL history to win MVP honors if the Colorado Avalanche win the Cup. Maybe it’s Jacob Markstrom leading the NHL in save percentage as the Calgary Flames bring Lord Stanley back to Canada.
Based on the math, we know who it could be. We’ll debate who it should be. And then we’ll watch as they have their perfunctory award collection before hoisting the MVT (most valuable trophy).
You know, the one you can drink out of. Not the one with the “large silver botanically accurate maple leaf” on it.
Jersey Foul of the week
From Sin City comes this heresy:
— Alex Norwood (@a23wood) April 25, 2022
On the one hand, this is as clear a Foul as one can pay to be stitched on one’s sweater. I don’t care if this is your favorite player ever. I don’t care if you’re a lapsed Boston Bruins fan who now roots for the Vegas Golden Knights.
There is only one number out there that fans are allowed to misappropriate for any sweater — and despite what “best player of all time” truthers will tell you, it’s No. 99, and not No. 4.
On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that Vegas owner Bill Foley’s next antithetical and bonkers desperation move to try and win the Stanley Cup is to sign Bobby Orr.
Video of the week
— Pepsi (@pepsi) May 4, 2022
A few weeks ago, I admitted that I found the Colorado Avalanche bland.
By that I meant that they lack the soap operatic elements, attention-snagging personalities and struggles for success of other teams. They remind me of the late-aughts Detroit Red Wings: incredibly talented, extremely proficient, but a team whose success is assumed until it isn’t, and only then do they become compelling.
They’re vanilla ice cream: Dependably delicious, but could use a few more drizzles and nuts, you know?
This admission led to Avalanche fans tweeting “so bland!” and “bland enough for you?!” whenever Colorado scores a bunch of goals and wins a game, which is frequently. They even made a meme about it, which I have to admit is aesthetically pleasing. Honestly, it’s an honor.
Part of the “bland” thing: The Avalanche being so good as to be uninteresting, in the effortless way they dispatch teams. Watching Colorado score five goals in the first period against Nashville’s backup goalie was undoubtedly exciting for the locals, but it turned a Stanley Cup playoff game into 40 minutes of garbage time. It’s like watching the Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team post an 11-1 victory against Finland — like, congrats, but this isn’t compelling me to stay engaged for a full game.
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Spicy pork and broccoli
As Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Louis Domingue told our Emily Kaplan, he scarfed down some spicy pork and broccoli between the first and second overtimes of Game 1, expecting to be a spectator during the rest of overtime … until he was inserted into the game for the injured Casey DeSmith. He stopped 17 shots and the Penguins won in triple overtime. We imagine spicy pork and broccoli is now popping up on local Pittsburgh menus. With French fries on top of it, of course.
Loser: Spicy decisions
I understand the logic in not suspending Minnesota Wild captain Jared Spurgeon for his intentional cross-check to the ankle of St. Louis Blues winger Pavel Buchnevich in Game 1 of their series Monday night. The Department of Player Safety typically does not hand out suspensions for stick fouls that don’t result in an injury — just fines. (Buchnevich played on the next shift.) Spurgeon is crystal clean player who will end up on many Lady Byng ballots this season, who just snapped in a blow-out loss. He’s not a repeat offender they have to try and reform.
That said, I’ve always felt Player Safety has a blind spot for intent. There’s nothing about this play that wasn’t about an attempt to injure, in my opinion. It was petty and reckless. Despite the precedent, and the lack of injury, I’d have given Spurgeon a game. I wonder if he would have gotten one in the regular season?
Winner: Jim Rutherford
Most press conferences by team executives are like pep rallies. They make some declarations that things will be different, lay out a vague plan, and everyone feels good about themselves until it doesn’t amount to anything.
Jim Rutherford’s presser in Vancouver this week was … not that. He laid out a vision for the future and for the franchise, from upgrading their facilities to bringing back prospect tournaments. He exuded the confidence of someone with a heavy hand of Stanley Cup rings, giving this franchise the direction and purpose that it has lacked for years. Even if that meant rattling some cages …
Loser: Bruce Boudreau
Look, Bruce Boudreau is a winner, on the ice and in the standings. If his situation with the Canucks doesn’t work out, there are going to be teams more than happy to put him behind their benches — his old pal Chuck Fletcher in Philadelphia, perhaps.
But to have Rutherford say, in the face of speculation about a contract extension, that they’d have Boudreau back on the contract they agreed to probably stung. To have Rutherford puncture the happy feelings of the Canucks’ run under Boudreau with criticism about zone exits is likely accurate but a bit myopic. There’s strong “Barry Trotz vs. Capitals” energy here — but then Rutherford didn’t hire Boudreau, did he?
Sometimes, regular-season trends end up predicting postseason outcomes. And it turns out that the Carolina Hurricanes‘ utter domination of the Boston Bruins was a trend some of us should have taken more to heart before those playoff predictions were due. (Stares into mirror, weeps.) The Hurricanes are a wagon, and it’s great to see.
To the fan that threw the rubber rat on the ice after the Florida Panthers were embarrassed on home ice in Game 1 by the Washington Capitals: That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
Two Maple Leafs-loving parents couldn’t put up with their Lightning-loving son during their series, so as a prank they moved his bedroom to the front lawn. “I actually did take a nice nap out here as soon as I got home from school.”
Iowa State University has suspended its men’s Cyclone hockey club “following allegations of hazing, and administrators have launched an investigation into those accusations as well as the club’s finances, organizational structure and oversight.”
Congrats to the Peoria Rivermen of the Southern Professional Hockey League, who “lifted the 22-pound President’s Cup on Tuesday and shed the heavy burden of 22 years without a title.”
The New York Times on Sidney Crosby: “Almighty skating and sleight-of-hand playmaking can, in an instant, give way to manhandling opposing players. He is a strongman and an escape artist who can thunder ahead, turn this way and that, burst into an open spot and find the net.”
Enjoyed this piece by Alan Siegel on Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins: “Marchand’s dad might not have encouraged fighting, but he helped his oldest understand that at his size, he couldn’t afford to be passive. Though deep down, he probably already knew that.”
Down Goes Brown with the 2022 Stanley Cup Bandwagon hopper guide. We agree, it’s time to back the Panthers as the team that saved hockey.
One more Vegas postmortem: “Injuries Aren’t An Excuse, They Were The Plan (And The Plan Failed)”
From your friends at ESPN
Our show “The Drop” was a wild one this week. Find me another NHL pregame show with Chris Chelios, yours truly dressed as Chewbacca, Olivia Rodrigo and a mini-Zamboni picking the Stanley Cup champion through mini-bowling?