With a 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks last night, the Pittsburgh Penguins captured their fourth Stanley Cup title in franchise history. In the aftermath of the Penguins victory, Sidney Crosby was awarded the Conn Smythe Award as the team’s playoff MVP. It’s Crosby’s first time winning this prestigious honor- the award went to Evengi Malkin after the Penguins won in 2009.
Crosby was deserving of the Conn Smythe. He was second on the team in points during the playoffs, tallying 6 goals and 13 assists. Even more impressive was how he logged significantly more ice time than his fellow forwards by three-five minutes per game. Moreover, Crosby was vital to the Penguins success due to his ability to win face-offs as well as his ability to maintain possession like few others in the NHL. Plus, he came through when it mattered most.
His Game 2 winner against Tampa evened the series, and I’d argue that that was the crucial turning point for the Penguins in the postseason.
To be clear, I don’t have much of a problem with Crosby winning the Conn Smythe. I just have an issue with Phil Kessel not winning.
Let me ask you this: if Crosby had led the Penguins in both goals and points in the playoffs, he would have won this award unanimously, right? Well, then why doesn’t Kessel get the same treatment? He scored 10 goals in the playoffs, which was four more than both Crosby and Malkin, and had 22 points to lead the Penguins overall.
But what really tips the Conn Smythe argument in favor of Kessel is that he was far superior to Crosby if we look at his statistics on a per-minute basis. In 5 on 5 situations in the playoffs, Kessel was superior in the following categories: goals per 60 minutes (0.9 for Kessel vs 0.5 for Crosby), assists per 60 minutes (1.1 vs 0.8), points per 60 minutes (2.1 vs 1.3), high quality scoring opportunities generated per 60 minutes (4.9 vs 3.6), and shots per 60 minutes (12.2 vs 7.6). As for power plays, Kessel and Crosby each had 11 points, but Kessel had five goals compared to Crosby’s three.
Not only did Kessel have a more impactful postseason than Crosby, but his statistics are more in line with past production of past Conn Smythe winners. The last five forwards to win the award have averaged 1.1 G/60, 1.7 A/60, 2.7 P/60, 4.4 high quality scoring chances per 60 minutes, and 10.5 shots per 60 minutes. Even though Kessel himself doesn’t match some of those standards, he is much closer to them than Crosby.
I have two other problems with Crosby winning the Conn Smythe over Kessel. First, Crosby didn’t even score in the Stanley Cup Finals. Justin Williams, who won the Conn Smythe in 2014 for Los Angeles, had 2 goals in five Stanley Cup games that year. Patrick Kane the year before? 3 goals in six Stanley Cup games. I understand this award is given to players based on their performance throughout the entire playoffs; but the Cup Finals must be given more weight than, say, the conference semi’s. Even though there is precedent with Conn Smythe winners going goalless in the Cup Finals because Jonathan Toews did so in 2010, I have a problem with a star forward winning playoff MVP despite not scoring a single goal in a six-game Stanley Cup Final.
The other main reason I have a problem with Kessel getting overlooked is that he had a far superior plus/minus. Crosby didn’t even break even: he was at -2 for the entire postseason. Kessel, on the other hand, finished at +5. Plus, he was +7 if you discount the Rangers series in the first round, indicating that Kessel was even better when the Penguins needed him most.
Sports pundits have given playoff/championship MVP’s to players they want to win before. You can go all the way back to when Joe Namath won MVP in Super Bowl III for the Jets even though he didn’t throw a touchdown pass to find examples of this. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the player who does win isn’t deserving of the award. It just means someone else got snubbed.
In the case of the 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby just felt like the right choice. The only problem was that Phil Kessel was the right one.