True hockey fans are always going to second guess the recipient of the Conn Smythe award at the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs. We’re going to “demand a recount” when a goalie wins instead of a defenseman. There will be roaring and booing when the trophy isn’t bestowed upon a member of the winning team. Diatribes, defenses, rants, raves, persuasions, and demands will all be written in response to a fan favourite being slighted and not receiving what we feel is his due. Face it, we’re always going to complain. It’s our right.
The Conn Smythe was an award initiated in the 1954-65 NHL season, one that would be presented to the most valuable player of not only the final game, but the playoffs in general. Once the last game has ended and the victors recognized, the members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association vote on the most deserving tournament participant.
Many believe that an MVP should be one who leads with the best stats, has the highest number of points, goals, saves, etc... In fact, some say that the Smythe should be awarded exclusively to the highest scorer, period. Fans over the world disagree with presenting the trophy to goalies, since they are a different type of player offering different skills and stats, and are hard to compare to other offensive and defensive teammates. Still others feel that numbers don’t matter as much as heart and hustle, and it should be given to the most visually and physically impressive player of the postseason. To summarize: everyone has an opinion.
And yet goalies have won, offense stars have won, and even players from losing teams have won. Although most of us wouldn’t ever want the writers’ job of voting on and choosing a tournament MVP, we have no problem disputing their official decisions. The following list of Conn Smythe winners and suggested alternatives is really the tip of the iceberg.
15 Cam Ward - 2006
It’s not as uncommon for goalies to win the Conn Smythe as you might think. Since the award’s inception in 1964, 16 goaltenders have won the title. Ward was a rookie that year, but that didn’t stop head coach Peter Laviolette from naming Ward the starting goalie after only two playoff games. In fact, Ward was the first rookie goalie to finish with a Stanley Cup win in 20 years. Having won 15 of the 23 playoff games, and a save percentage of .920, he was one hardworking keeper.
But… there were other hardworking players too! Rod Brind’Amour made the world’s collective jaw drop during the 2006 playoffs. But his 12 goals (including four game winners), 75 shots on net, and 23:52 average minutes on ice weren’t enough to secure him the Conn Smythe. Then-Edmonton Oiler Chris Pronger was another solid player who skated an average of 30:56 per game and ended with 21 points for the postseason. He could have easily won the award, especially if his team had beaten Carolina.
14 Mike Vernon - 1997
There are two things that people remember most when they think of Mike Vernon: the on-ice brawl where he and Patrick Roy really got into it, and the year he won the Conn Smythe. In 1997 he led the Red Wings to their first Stanley Cup victory in 41 years, where his 1.76 goals-against average, .927 save percentage, and one total shutout earned him MVP status. He may have led all four teams he played for to the playoffs, but his performance overall was erratic. Any hockey fan will tell you that he wasn’t a consistently strong goaltender.
Although many believe the award should only be given to a wining team member, it’s hard to ignore that the Flyers’ Eric Lindros led the 1997 playoffs with 26 points, including the team’s only goal of the final game. Also, Rod Brind’Amour scored 13 playoff goals to tie for postseason highest with Claude Lemieux. As for the Red Wings, many feel that Sergei Fedorov was denied the Conn Smythe; his remarkable performance included four game-winning goals and he ultimately led the team in playoff scoring that year. He went on to win the Conn Smythe the following year, continuing his phenomenal play and solidifying his deservedness.
13 Jonathan Quick - 2012
Every time a goalie wins the Conn Smythe, people get miffed. “A goalie is only as good as his team,” “The leading scorer should always win,” etc. But the argument FOR is just as strong. For instance, Quick had a fantastic 2011-12 season: .929 save percentage, 1.95 goals against average, and 10 shutouts! It wasn’t a surprise that his postseason game was pretty strong too: .946 save percentage, 1.41 goals against average, and three shutouts. He played (and started) 20 games during the playoffs, more than all other tenders except Lundqvist and Brodeur. Nobody really expected them to make the playoffs, but the Kings played hard, and Quick was no exception.
Those who aren’t on the goalie-winning train will bring up other names like Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, and Dustin Brown. Carter made three game-winning goals throughout the playoffs, 13 points, and 54 shots on goal. In the final against the Devils, he scored two goals to propel the Kings to victory. Brown was the team’s leading scorer going into the playoffs and had 20 points in the postseason, including the first goal of the Stanley Cup Final.
12 Ron Hextall - 1987
One thing that’s guaranteed to take the sting out of a Stanley Cup loss is being awarded the Conn Smythe. Most players on the losing team don’t count on it, since it’s rarely awarded to a non-champion, but there have been a few exceptions. One such surprise was Hextall’s MVP announcement after the Oilers beat the Flyers in Game 7. While his stats included a 2.77 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage (very good numbers for the 80s) the Oilers simply had too many candidates for the award. He did lead the postseason with 698 saves and two shutouts, but his Game 7 performance was lacklustre overall.
If it had to be someone from the losing team, why not Brian Propp, third on the list of highest scorers and tied for the most power play goals? Pelle Eklund wasn’t too shabby either, scoring 27 points in 26 games. And, of course, the Oilers had some stellar players, including Messier, Jari Kurri, and Wayne Freaking Gretzky! All these men had given the Writers' more than enough fodder for an MVP nod. Hextall’s win will have fans scratching their heads for years.
11 Joe Nieuwendyk - 1999
The 1999 Stanley Cup Final is still one of the most controversial wins in all hockey history. Other than Brett Hull’s hotly-debated Game 6 overtime goal (stupid crease rules!), the other issue still discussed is why Nieuwendyk received the Conn Smythe when Domink Hasek was obviously the MVP. With six Venzia Trophies, two Hart Trophies, and one Olympic gold medal, Hasek’s skill is undeniable. His .937 save percentage for the 1998-99 season was the best in the league for the sixth straight year. In the postseason, his save percentage was .939, goals-against average was 1.77, and he dominated with two complete shutouts. The Sabres may have been a mediocre team that year, but Hasek’s between-the-pipes prowess made them a force to be reckoned with.
So why did Nieuwendyk take home the glory? With 21 postseason points in 23 games, the Stars’ star had the playoffs' highest goal count. In particular, he had the highest number of game-winning goals. It was the Stars first Stanley Cup and “Nieuwsy” played a huge role in getting them to that point. Comparing him to Hasek is very apples-and-oranges anyway, since one played centre and one was a keeper. The bottom line, no doubt, was that Nieuwendyk was on the winning team. Case closed.
10 Dave Keon - 1967
It’s long been debated whether not Keon was the greatest player the Leafs ever had. His defensive skills were incredible, and his additions to “Legends Row” in 2016 could not be disputed. Coach Punch Imlach commented on his forechecking and penalty-killing during the playoffs, and at one point declared that he wouldn’t trade Keon for anyone “and [he] wouldn’t take a million dollars for him either.” But, was his performance during the 1967 postseason worthy of a Conn Smythe? Despite his 52 points during 66 regular season games, he scored only three goals and had a total of 8 points for 12 games in the playoffs.
“Davey” wasn’t the only noteworthy player in that 1967 NHL showdown. There were actually four other Leafs who had more points, including Jim Pappin, who led with 7 goals and a total of 15 points, all in just 12 games! Pete Stemkowski racked up 12 points, Bob Pulford had 11 points, and Frank Mahovlich ended with 10. And then there was Terry Sawchuk, keeping the nets with skill and finesse, as expected of a 17-year hockey veteran. He offered his best postseason performance during Game 6, coming frustratingly close to shutting out the Leafs’ heated rivals, the Canadiens, with a 3-1 finish. It’s easy to argue that any or all of these players were more deserving of the MVP status than Keon.
9 Bob Gainey - 1979
It’s been said that Bob Gainey was, at one point, the best two-way forward in the game. His 1978-79 stats show he had 38 points for 79 games played, which averages out to 0.48 points per game. As the Canadiens pursued their fourth Stanley Cup, though, Gainey accumulated 16 points, which was significantly more than he had achieved during similar time frames of the regular season. The numbers say he didn’t turn many heads, and yet his defensive skills are legendary; he did win four consecutive Selke Trophies after all.
Then again… Guy Lafleur was the whole country’s golden boy as he shot the 1979 Stanley Cup game-tying goal, setting the Canadiens up for their overtime win. He wasn’t even on the ice for half of the game, and yet 61 shots on the Bruins net occurred when Lafleur was on ice, including Lemaire’s second-period game-winning goal. Lafleur ended the post season with 23 points (the highest in the tournament, tied with Lemaire), including 13 assists and 10 goals in 16 games. Given that he finished the 1978-79 season with a jaw-dropping 129 points, it wasn’t really a surprise that his playoff performance was this extraordinary. But, he had won the Smythe before, though, so was unlikely to be offered the honour again.
8 Mark Messier 1984
Ask any hockey fan how they feel about Gretzky not winning the 1984 Conn Smythe, and you’ll have to listen to at least an hour of ranting. The Great One had already accumulated 205 points by the time the playoffs came around. That’s right, Two Hundred and Five points. It was no big deal, then, for him to lead the postseason in points, assists, goals created, even strength goals, shots, points per game… he probably led in largest number of fans and loudest cheering too. Bottom line: the Oilers should have (and probably did) worshipped the ice he skated on, and the Conn Smythe committee should have their eyes checked.
Now, Messier was no slouch. Did you know he has the second-highest number of playoff points EVER? His 101 regular season points in 1983-84 made most players’ heads spin, and although he may not have had the most postseason points, his 26 big ones were more than impressive. It can’t be denied that the Oilers’ fortunes were sealed when Messier scored that picture-perfect game-tying goal in Game 3, and it could also have been the moment that the Conn Smythe members’ heads were turned towards The Moose.
7 Claude Lemieux - 1995
Known for his aggressive, even dirty style of play, Claude Lemieux was an intense guy. He accumulated 86 penalty minutes during the 1994-95 regular season, which was actually quite low for him, and during the playoffs he sat in the box for 20 minutes over 20 games. He may have been a complainer to the coaches, a thorn in the side of his opponents, and an irritation to his teammates during the regular season, but he could be counted on to put his best skate forward during the playoffs. With his postseason-leading 20 goals, he obviously knew the stakes when it came to winning the Cup that year.
On the other hand, there were other intense, high contributing players in the final that year too. Detroit’s Sergei Fedorov led the tournament with 24 points and Richer came in second with 21; Lemieux’s 16 points didn’t even land him in the top five. Even Martin Brodeur deserves mentioning here, since he led the postseason in games played, shutouts, and goals-against average. For that matter, Brodeur ultimately led the Devils to three Cup wins, and yet never received a Conn Smythe shoutout. What’s up with that?
6 Patrick Roy - 2001
Roy’s 2001 performance is often cited during discussions of the “goalies can win games all by themselves” variety. The Devils and the Avalanche were the league’s highest seeded teams, which meant Roy and his team had their work cut out for them. The legendary goaltender fended off fierce offensive players like Alexander Mogilny and Petr Sykora. His 2.21 goals-against average during the regular season gave only the tiniest indication of his playoff abilities – after beating the Devils, Roy finished the postseason with a 1.70 goals-against average and .934 save percentage.
Alex Tanguay, had 21 playoff points that year, including two goals during that Game 7 finale, making him the fifth highest scorer in the postseason. Colorado’s Joe Sakic was the points leader that year and he collected the most goals per game as well. With 26 points that included one goal and one assist in the Sharks-Avalanche final, Sakic was on fire! With teammates boasting stats and skill such as these, it’s impossible to claim that Roy was the biggest reason Colorado won.
5 Tim Thomas - 2011
There were plenty of obvious talent in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, including Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Nathan Horton, David Krejci, Ryan Kesler, and the ultimate MVP Tim Thomas. The Writers' had their work cut out for them that year! With Daniel amassing 20 points and Henrik the “quiet hero” weighing in with 22, the twins were incredible in the postseason, sparking many rumours of Conn Smythe potential. Kesler was another favourite, turning serious heads as he accumulated 11 points in the second round alone. Krejci’s 23 points crowned him the points champion, and his 3 game-winning goals added even more “wow” factor to his 12 total goals.
It can’t be denied that Thomas earned his stripes – er, trophy – that year, though. He was said to be the “heart, soul, and backbone of the Boston Bruins,” and he was named as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy prior to the playoffs. When the Vezina was handed to him later in the year, he became the first to win the Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe, and Vezina at the same time since Bernie Parent collected them all during the 1974-75 season. His goals-against average and save percentage were 2.14 and .923 for the postseason, comparable to Luongo’s 2.56 and .914 – a keeper who was five years Thomas’ junior and had the home-ice advantage.
4 Scott Stevens - 2000
Should Martin Brodeur have won the Smythe instead of Scott Stevens? He tied for the number of games played in the postseason (with Ed Belfour) as well as minutes played, and had the best goals-against average of the playoffs. Out of the 507 shots taken on his net, 455 met with Brodeur’s determination and were stopped like a traffic sign. Or perhaps Patrik Elias and his 20 playoff points would have been a better choice for the award. Consider this: it was Elias who passed the puck to Jason Arnott for the assist on the Stars’ incredible double-overtime game-winning goal.
With all of these other impressive stats and remarkable teammates, choosing Scott Stevens for MVP may seem like a strange decision. He did assist with the final goal in Game 6, but that seems to be his only noteworthy playoff achievement. Oh, and that crushing hit on Lindros, the guy who’d already had four concussions in five months. Stevens’ trophy is more of a reminder of that unpleasant incident than of any kind of spectacular display of hockey greatness.
3 Butch Goring - 1981
Robert Thomas Goring is a legendary player remembered for his tenacity on the ice – and his homemade leather helmet. The Islanders’ 1981 Stanley Cup win was due in no small part to the 10 goals and 20 points Butch accrued during those playoff games. Over the course of his career he ultimately collected four Stanley Cup rings, and was awarded the Conn Smythe for his performance in the 1981 playoffs.
But he wasn’t the only tough player in New York that year. Right-winger Mike Bossy was only 24 that year and in his prime! Bossy had 15 more points than Goring entering into the playoffs; some say he was a “phantom” who only appeared when it was time to score a goal; “his hands were quicker than your eyes.” Bossy had 35 points during the postseason that year. And then there was Dino Ciccarelli, who set a new record for goals by a playoff rookie. Denis Potvin and Bryan Trottier also had more points than Goring. So… why?
2 Jean Sebastien Giguere - 2003
The last time the trophy was handed to a member of the non-winning team in the playoffs, it was to Jean-Sebastien Giguere. As you can imagine, there was a lot of controversy surrounding this announcement in 2003. You could look at this with one of two viewpoints: if he was voted MVP but wasn’t on the winning team, he must have REALLY deserved it; or, he definitely did not deserve it since he wasn’t even on the winning team.
Should Brodeur have won the Conn Smythe instead? Was he “penalized for playing on the better team?” Did Giguere receive the distinction simply to honour the Ducks’ Cinderella story that year? Not a good reason. The Quebecer obviously played a killer postseason, but it was Brodeur with his seven shutouts who was the obvious star. Goaltender Giguere had some very worthy – maybe even MORE worthy – adversaries.
1 Sidney Crosby - 2016
Nobody can deny that Crosby is a skater to be reckoned with. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux have said that they believe Sid the Kid to be the greatest player in the NHL today. Bobby Orr doesn’t disagree. The Pittsburgh captain has incredible strength, speed, and scoring abilities. He’s not a member of the Triple Gold Club for nothing. Last year he played 24 games at an average of 20:26 minutes per game, and amassed 19 points during the postseason. The Penguins went full force until the very end, beating the Sharks four games to two, with a final game score of 3-1.
Phil Kessel had just as strong playoff season as Crosby, if not more! He was the Penguins' leading scorer, actually, with three points more than Sid. Apparently the Conn Smythe vote that year was the closest it’s ever been, with first-place nine votes for Crosby, seven first-place votes for Kessel, and Kris Letang receiving two votes. There was loud protesting from many fans, saying that Kessel was by far the more deserving player. They certainly make a strong case: “Simply put, the Penguins got outscored when Crosby was on the ice in this postseason. With Kessel on, they doubled their opponents’ output.” The 2016 Conn Smythe decision will be argued about for many years to come, I have no doubt.