Breaking Down the Necessary Qualities of a Conn Smythe Winner

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IMay 10, 2014

Colorado Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy is presented the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup playoffs by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman after they won the Stanley Cup with a 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils in Denver on Saturday, June 9, 2001. (AP Photo/Fred Jewell)
FRED JEWELL/Associated Press

What does it take to win the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP? When looking back at the winners over the almost 50 years of the award's existence, certain patterns begin to emerge. These can be used to assemble a list of qualities each of them possess which can be used to predict who might win it this year.

To prepare this list, I assembled everyone's playoff data going back all the way to when the Conn Smythe was first awarded in 1965. I was looking for which measurable qualities were and weren't important to the voters of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association.

Ultimately, I found two potentially obvious traits that the bulk of Conn Smythe winners possessed, three that they did not and two more which didn't seem to matter at all. Putting it all together, there are four current NHL players who appear to have an edge this year.

Quality 1: Their Teams Win the Stanley Cup

The first quality common to most winners is obviously being on the Cup-winning team. In almost 50 years, there have been only five Conn Smythe winners who were on the losing end of the Stanley Cup Final.

MONTREAL, CANADA - CIRCA 1976:  Ken Dryden #29 of the Montreal Canadiens guards the net during against Reggie Leach #27 of the Philadelphia Flyers circa 1976 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)
Denis Brodeur/Getty Images

If a player is on the losing side, it is far better to be a goalie. Reggie Leach is the only skater to win the Conn Smythe on a losing team, while the goalies include Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Ron Hextall, Roger Crozier and Glenn Hall.

How did Leach do it? By scoring 19 goals in 16 games in the 1976 playoffs. Boston's Jean Ratelle was in second place with eight, and no member of the Cup-winning Canadiens had more than seven. So perhaps there's an exception that deals with leading the league in scoring by an absolutely ridiculous margin.

Quality 2: They Win the Scoring Race

Conn Smythe voting is certainly slanted toward offensive-minded players, because winning the postseason scoring race has proved to be such a huge advantage. Of the 31 non-goalie Conn Smythe winners, 17 won the scoring race and four more were within three points.

Looking at it from the other direction, of the 38 players on Cup-winning teams to finish alone or tied for the postseason scoring lead, 16 have won the Conn Smythe. This includes all but one of the five defensemen to do so, Scott Niedermayer in 2003.

Even if someone doesn't lead the league, scoring is clearly critical to a player's chances of winning the Conn Smythe. All but one forward scored at least 16 points, and every defensemen had at least 10.

MONTREAL - 1970's:  Dave Keon #14 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Montreal Canadiens.  (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI/via Getty Images)
Denis Brodeur/Getty Images

That one exception is Dave Keon, the key shutdown forward on the 1966-67 Toronto Maple Leafs, the last one to win the Stanley Cup. Keon led the team in regular-season scoring, but he registered only eight points in 12 playoff games to finish in a tie with Tim Horton for fifth on the team.

Defensive-minded forwards Bob Gainey and Butch Goring have also won the Conn Smythe, but by managing to still score at the point-a-game pace or better.

While this precedent at least keeps the door open for today's two-way players like Patrice Bergeron or Tomas Plekanec, they will still need to score.

Quality 3: They're Not Wingers

There is one addendum to the high-scoring quality, and it's bad news for Zach Parise, Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa. Centers who win the scoring race are about 33 percent more likely than wingers to win the Conn Smythe, and those who lead the Cup-winning team in scoring are almost twice as likely.

In absolute terms, there have been 16 goalies, 14 centers and nine defensemen to win the Conn Smythe, but only four left wingers and five right wingers.

BOSTON, MA. - 1970's: Yvan Cournoyer #12 of the Montreal Canadiens plays against the Boston Bruins .  (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Steve Babineau/Getty Images

Of them, Henrik Zetterberg was the only left winger to win since 1994-95, and last year, Patrick Kane was the first right winger since 1981-82. Part of the problem for wingers is that it's usually a center who leads the postseason in scoring, exactly 75 percent of the time in fact. But even among those wingers in the remaining quarter, there are only three Conn Smythe winners: Yvan Cournoyer, Guy Lafleur and Leach.

The good news for P.K. Subban and Brent Seabrook is that defensemen who lead the league and/or the Cup-winning team in scoring are virtually a slam dunk for the Conn Smythe. The lone exception is J.C. Tremblay, who led the 1966 Montreal Canadiens with 11 points, while the award went to the opposing goalie, Roger Crozier.

Quality 4: They're Without a Previous Conn Smythe

It's awfully hard to win the Conn Smythe award twice. Once again, there have been only five exceptions: Patrick Roy, Bernie Parent, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr. Those are some huge names!

Among them, Parent and Lemieux were the only two to win in back-to-back seasons. So this is bad news not just for Jonathan Quick, Brad Richards, Evgeni Malkin and Jonathan Toews, but especially for last year's winner, Kane.

Of course, the lack of multitime Conn Smythe winners is largely due to the difficulty in winning the Stanley Cup repeatedly while also winning the scoring race. Still, it is possible that players like Bryan Trottier, Lafleur, Jean Beliveau, Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman could have been snubbed because they previously won the award.

Quality 5: They Didn't Win the Hart Trophy

9 Jun 2001:  Joe Sakic #19 of the Colorado Avalanche brings the cup down ice against the New Jersey Devils during game seven of the Stanley Cup finals at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.  DIGITAL IMAGE Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr/ALLSPORT
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Only three playersOrr, Lafleur and Gretzkyhave won the Hart Trophy and the Conn Smythe Trophy in the same year. This is potentially bad news for Sidney Crosby, who will almost assuredly win the Hart Trophy this year.

There have been only four other Hart Trophy winners who have played for the Stanley Cup-winning team, including Bobby Clarke in 1975, Mark Messier in 1990, Sakic in 2001 and Martin St. Louis in 2004. Messier and Sakic won the postseason scoring race, while Clarke and St. Louis each finished a close second in their team rankings.

Leadership Doesn't Matter

Only eight of the 48 Cup-winning captains won the Conn Smythe, and not because they were team leaders. Of the six who were forwards, all of them either won the scoring race or came within a single point.

MONTREAL 1980's: Mark Messier #11 of the Edmonton Oilers skates against Larry Robinson #19 of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1980's at the Montreal Forum in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)
Denis Brodeur/Getty Images

In contrast, there were five cases of a Cup-winning captain winning the scoring race without being awarded the Conn Smythe. This includes most famously Messier in 1990, and most recently Dustin Brown in 2012. There are also eight more Cup-winning captains who finished within five points of the scoring lead while being similarly overlooked.

There have been lots of great captains who have enjoyed fantastic postseasons without winning a Conn Smythe, like Crosby, Clarke and Denis Potvin. All of this is not enough to make the captaincy a handicap, but it's certainly enough to suggest that leadership isn't one of the key qualities that is required to win the Conn Smythe.

Nationality Doesn't Matter

Until very recently, the award was almost exclusively given to a Canadian. Brian Leetch in 1994 was the first non-Canadian to win the Conn Smythe and also the last one until Nicklas Lidstrom became the first European to win in 2002.

Of course, the game was absolutely dominated by Canadians until the 1990s. Leetch was also the first non-Canadian to lead the postseason in scoring, for example. Sergei Fedorov, Peter Forsberg, Brett Hull, Jamie Langenbrunner and Daniel Alfredsson did, however, soon follow suit without a victory of their own, but only Langenbrunner was on a Cup-winning team.

Canadiens forward Mats Naslund #26 in close against Blues goaltender Greg Millen #29 at the Montreal Forum during the 1987-88 season.(Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)
Denis Brodeur/Getty Images

Among those on Cup-winners, Mats Naslund was the first non-Canadian to lead his team in postseason scoring back in 1986, and the only one before Leetch. Since then, Fedorov, Mike Modano, Langenbrunner, Zetterberg, Malkin, David Krejci, Brown and Kane have all accomplished the feat, with four of the most recent five winning the Conn Smythe.

Given that Toews is the only Canadian to win the Conn Smythe in the past six years, it may appear that the roles have reversed, but is this just a coincidence? After all, Toews was also the only Canadian to lead a Cup-winning team in scoring in the past six years.

Being non-Canadian might have potentially been a barrier for a little while, but this is no longer a factor in the voting (assuming it ever was).

Who Possesses These Qualities This Year?

There are four players who possess the qualities shared by previous Conn Smythe winners while avoiding its pitfalls: Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings, Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks and Subban and Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens.

While it would obviously be quite premature to rule out about a dozen other strong possibilities, history suggests that those four are those who could potentially possess all of the qualities looked for in a Conn Smythe winner.

All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.

Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.


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