Ranking the Biggest Conn Smythe Trophy Snubs in NHL History
The Conn Smythe Trophy is awarded annually to the player judged most valuable to his team during the playoffs, as selected by the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA). Being hockey fans as well as writers, the PHWA can sometimes get swept up in a particularly inspiring story from the final series and overlook the player who best fits the award's defined criteria. Who have been history's greatest oversights?
To answer that question I took advantage of the data recently compiled for a Bleacher Report article that identified the necessary ingredients for Conn Smythe winners. That included a wide variety of analytic data on the thousands of players and goalies to contend for the trophy in its almost 50-year existence.
Using that information, I have identified what were in my opinion the 10 leading potential oversights and built the case for the snub by comparing him with the chosen selection.
This was a highly subjective exercise with a lot of near misses, leaving plenty of room for other opinions, so please be sure to weigh in and be generous with your comments. Let's begin!
All playoff data is source from Hockey Reference, and all other advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.
10. Gump Worsley, Montreal Canadiens, 1968
With one obvious exception, Montreal goalkeepers have had a tough time getting Conn Smythe recognition. Even Ken Dryden, who won the award in 1971, could have won it several more times in the late 1970s.
Consider Lorne "Gump" Worsley, the Canadiens' Vezina-winning goaltender in 1968. He was a perfect 11-0 in the playoffs, the team's only loss occurring when Rogie Vachon was in nets.
Worsley, the second-to-last goalie to play without a mask, allowed just 21 goals in 11 games. Not once did an opponent score more than three goals in a game, which was just fine for a team that failed to score at least three goals of its own only three times.
Astonishing the 38-year-old would play eight more seasons.
The Conn Smythe was awarded to a player on the losing team only five times, including 1968 when St. Louis netminder Glenn Hall was selected.
"Mr. Goalie," who first innovated the now-famous butterfly style of goaltending, was an exceptionally consistent and durable goalkeeper.
Hall, however, had a losing record of 8-10 that postseason, advancing to the Stanley Cup by virtue of exclusively facing fellow expansion teams. The Blues were swept in four games by the Montreal Canadiens.
9. Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers, 1984
The analytic case for Wayne Gretzky and the 1984 Conn Smythe is almost an overwhelming one.
When excluding the Conn Smythe winners from the single-season scoring leader board, Gretzky occupies three of the top four positions. That fourth position was 1984, the highest in which his team also won the Cup. It's also the most points by a Cup-winning captain who didn't win the Conn Smythe.
New York's Mike Bossy is the only other player to lead the league in scoring, win the Stanley Cup, score as many points as Gretzky (35) and fail to win the Conn Smythe. Third place goes to Gretzky's 1987 performance with 34 points, the year the award went to losing goalie Ron Hextall.
Gretzky was so dominant in those days that it wasn't enough to be the most valuable player, unless it was by a very wide margin.
Unfortunately for Gretzky, a strong case could also be made for second-line center Mark Messier.
Though he was outscored by Gretzky 35 to 26, Messier's scoring seemed to occur at more critical junctures of the games. His intense and punishing physical play was also felt to have more than enough value to make up for the scoring gap between them.
Despite the magnitude of the Great One's scoring achievements, Messier's selection was far from controversial. Gretzky would win the following season and again in 1988.
8. Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils, 2003
It's amazing that Martin Brodeur never won a Conn Smythe. Despite five Stanley Cup appearances, three of which the Devils won, and career numbers surpassed only by the three-time Conn Smythe winner Patrick Roy, Brodeur was never selected.
The strongest case can be built for Brodeur in 2003, when he recorded seven shutouts while posting a goals against average of 1.65 and a save percentage of .934. None of the team's four opponents averaged two goals a game or more.
Three of New Jersey's victories in the Stanley Cup finals were shutouts.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere was the surprise breakout goaltending superstar in the 2003 postseason.
In his first postseason appearance, Anaheim's goalie stopped 63 shots in a triple overtime victory, ultimately permitting just six goals in a four-game sweep of the mighty Detroit Red Wings. Even better, he kept Minnesota to just a single goal in the Conference Finals.
Even though New Jersey scored 19 goals in the Stanley Cup finals, Giguere still led all goalies with a .945 save percentage and a 1.62 goals against average.
Giguere was the fifth and final player to win the Conn Smythe on the losing team and was the first since Ron Hextall in 1987.
7. Denis Potvin, New York Islanders, 1981
Denis Potvin was the captain and the No. 1 defenseman on a dynasty that won four straight Stanley Cups and yet never won the Conn Smythe.
The hard-hitting two-way defenseman outscored all other NHL blueliners in each of the Islanders' first three Cups and finished second when they won their fourth. Potvin's strongest case was in year two, when he scored a career-best 25 points in 18 games.
A case could also be made for Mike Bossy, who would have to wait one more season to win his Conn Smythe. Bossy scored 35 points, the winning scoring leader who failed to win the Smythe, tied with Wayne Gretzky's 1984 performance.
Butch Goring was undoubtedly a key piece for the Islanders and helped put them over the top. But was he really their most important player?
Goring was a complete two-way veteran who had 20 points of his own anchoring the second line that postseason. He was fast, disciplined and a highly effective penalty killer. The 31-year-old was also known for his leadership and clutch scoring.
6. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks, 2013
Even Conn Smythe winner Patrick Kane conceded that Corey Crawford was the wiser selection, as reported by Scott Powers of ESPN Chicago.
And why not? Crawford was brilliant. His posted a .932 save percentage and a league-leading goals against average of just 1.84. He allowed more than three goals just twice in Chicago's 23 games, keeping opponents to two goals or fewer in the majority of the games in every single series.
James Neveau of NBC Sports agrees, asserting that "if consistency and performance throughout the postseason is the true metric, then Crawford should have won."
Patrick Kane led the Blackhawks with 19 points in 23 games, which was tied for second in the league, seven back of Boston's David Krejci.
Kane was purely an offensive force, however. Based on the data available at Extra Skater, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa were the forwards who took on top opponents and killed penalties, while Viktor Stalberg was the only player on the entire team who got to start a larger share of his shifts in the offensive zone than Kane.
Despite taking on tougher minutes, Chicago nevertheless did better with Toews and Hossa on the ice. While the Blackhawks outscored opponents 27-15 with Kane on the ice, the margin grew to 26-12 with Toews and 22-8 with Hossa.
Despite his clutch scoring, it's possible that Kane wasn't even the team's most valuable forward, let alone the league's most valuable player.
5. Sammy Pahlsson, Anaheim, 2007
There were lots of candidates from which to choose on the 2007 Stanley Cup-winning Anaheim Ducks. Goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere and defenseman Chris Pronger would have been worthy choices.
So what's the case for Sammy Pahlsson, a checking line center who finished tied for sixth on the team with 12 points?
Well this was more than just your average checking line. The "Nothing Line," as it was dubbed, became the gold standard against which all subsequent third lines have been measured.
Pahlsson, Travis Moen and Rob Niedermayer handled the tough assignments against all opposing top lines, and not only did they shut them down, but they also contributed a lot of secondary offense of their own. That, along with his second-place finish among the team's forwards in ice time, is how Pahlsson led the league with a plus-10.
Ducks captain Scott Niedermayer was one of three key two-way defensemen who played big minutes for Anaheim in 2007.
Francois Beauchemin averaged 30:33 minutes per game, Chris Pronger 30:11 and Niedermayer 29:51. Other than 35-year-old Sean O'Donnell, who averaged 20:20 per game, no one played more than Kent Huskins' measly 11:45.
Of the three it could be argued that Pronger was actually the best, scoring 15 points while Niedermayer and Beauchemin scored 11 and 8, respectively. Indeed, a Conn Smythe case could also have been made for Pronger the year before when he took the Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup Finals, and again in 2010 with the Philadelphia Flyers.
As for Niedermayer, his strongest case for the Conn Smythe might actually have been in 2003 with the Cup-winning New Jersey Devils, when he led the league with 16 assists and 18 points. That was actually the only time that a defenseman led the league in scoring and yet failed to win the Conn Smythe. Bobby Orr, Larry Robinson, Al MacInnis and Brian Leetch had all succeeded previously.
4. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins, 2009
Despite being constantly shadowed and draped by the league's best shutdown players, Pittsburgh's phenom Sidney Crosby still scored 31 points, the most since Joe Sakic in 1996.
There is only one Cup-winning captain who has scored more points while being denied the Conn Smythe, and that's Wayne Gretzky. His 2009 season is tied for eighth for the most points by a player who didn't win the Conn Smythe.
The analytic case for Crosby was made most persuasively by blogger Phil Myrland. Among other details, he points out that Crosby's even strength scoring was greatest, that the team outscored opponents by the widest margin when he was on the ice, and that despite converting on very few of them, his line did generate the most shots and scoring opportunities in that final series against Detroit.
It is hard to argue against Evgeni Malkin's selection. Almost any other season he would have been an extremely easy choice.
Malkin scored a whopping 36 points in 24 games. Even with the argument being made that Crosby was handling the tough minutes and leaving the 22-year-old Russian with lots of offensive zone time against the second lines, that's still an outstanding offensive performance.
Furthermore, two of his 14 goals and eight of his 36 points came in that final series against Detroit, compared to just one goal and three points for Crosby. A lot of emphasis is placed on how a player performs in the Stanley Cup Finals themselves and on the actual goal-based results rather than shots or opportunities. In both regards, Malkin had a clear edge over the captain.
3. J.C. Tremblay, Montreal Canadiens, 1966
When a defenseman leads a Cup-winning team in scoring, he almost always win the Conn Smythe. Such was the case with Bobby Orr, Larry Robinson, Al MacInnis and Brian Leetch. The only exceptions were Scott Niedermayer in 2003 and J.C. Tremblay in 1966.
The 27-year-old, who had 35 points in 57 games in the regular season, led the Canadiens with 11 points in 10 games.
Known equally well for his exceptional playmaking and defensive performance, Tremblay finished fourth in Norris trophy voting that year and would finish in the top five the following two seasons as well.
In 1966, Detroit's Roger "the Dodger" Crozier became the first player on the Cup-losing team to be awarded the Conn Smythe.
The 23-year-old backstopped the Red Wings past the two highest-scoring teams in the NHL, losing the deciding Game 6 on a controversial goal when Henri Richard slid into him unpenalized.
After winning the first two games, Detroit managed just six goals over the next four games, the final two of which Crozier played with a sprained knee and twisted ankle.
Crozier certainly wasn't selected because of limited options among the Cup-winning Canadiens. In addition to Tremblay, they had an outstanding performance goalie Gump Worsley, who himself was quoted to say "I think Big Jean Beliveau should have won it. We wouldn't have retained the Cup without him," according to blogger J. Amodeo.
2. Rod Brind'Amour, Carolina Hurricanes, 2006
Surprisingly, the captain of a Cup-winning team doesn't win the Conn Smythe very frequently. Only 10 times in the award's 50-year existence has the player donning the C gotten selected: Jean Beliveau, Wayne Gretzky (twice), Mario Lemieux (twice), Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and most recently, Jonathan Toews in 2010.
Rod Brind'Amour fell perhaps victim to the jinx in 2006 when the 35-year-old led the Hurricanes with 12 goals, including four game-winners. His 23:52 of average ice time per game amazingly exceeded even that of all the team's defensemen.
The Selke award winner was also the key defensive force on the team, playing big minutes against top opponents and in the defensive zone. He won faceoffs, killed penalties and did everything that was required to lead and inspire his team to its first-ever Stanley Cup.
Rookie goalie Cam Ward, who had just 28 games of rather poor NHL experience under his belt, stole the starting job away from Martin Gerber after just two games.
While Ward's .920 save percentage and 2.14 goals against average may seem unimpressive relative to most other Conn Smythe winners, it was a considerable upgrade from Gerber, who stopped just 25 of Montreal's 34 shots.
There may have been other deserving options, like Edmonton's Chris Pronger, or Carolina's Eric Staal, who had the sixth most points of any Cup-winning scoring leader among Conn Smythe snubs, but there's something almost irresistible about a rookie goalie who wins the Stanley Cup.
1. Dominik Hasek, Buffalo Sabres, 1999
Was there ever a more outstanding postseason goaltending performance than when Dominik Hasek carried an otherwise mediocre Buffalo Sabres team all the way to within a controversial goal of the Stanley Cup championship?
The Dominator was absolutely incredible in 1999. He had won the Vezina for the third straight season, and the fifth time in six seasons, after leading the league in save percentage for all six.
He posted an absurd and league-leading .939 save percentage in the playoffs to go with a 1.77 goals against average.
This is a team whose leading scorers were defensemen Jason Woolley and Alexei Zhitnik. With a primary reliance on players like Michael Peca, Curtis Brown and Dixon Ward for scoring, it was absolutely critical to have the lights-out goaltending that it did.
It's certainly no shame to be passed up in favor of Joe Nieuwendyk, who had an inspirational and clutch performance throughout the 1999 postseason.
The 32-year-old led the NHL with 11 goals in 23 games, six of which were game-winners. The future Hall of Famer's 21 points were two back of Mike Modano for the team scoring lead and three back of Peter Forsberg for the league lead.
There were nevertheless other options, even for those who feel the Conn Smythe should be awarded to a member of the Cup-winning team, including Modano, goalie Ed Belfour and even shutdown specialist Jere Lehtinen. There was no easy decision in 1999.