Friday, September 25, 2009

Conn Smythe Trophies

I think the worst commonly used argument for ranking Patrick Roy over Dominik Hasek is the oft-invoked "4 Cups, 3 Conn Smythes vs. 1 Cup, 0 Conn Smythes". I've dealt with the issue of team success pretty much all along in this space so you've heard those arguments before, but I also don't like it when players are evaluated based on the number of Conn Smythes they win.

There isn't a more situational award in all of hockey than the Conn Smythe Trophy. I'm not trying to diminish the importance of playing great in the playoffs, I just don't believe that one's Conn Smythe haul is a good way to evaluate playoff success or to compare the relative performance of different players. The binary nature of the award (winner gets 1, all others get 0, only 1 award handed out every year) makes it more arbitrary. If you ranked all the playoff performances of the 1990s for every single player, for example, you might have three players from 1993 end up in the top 10 (Patrick Roy, Wayne Gretzky, Doug Gilmour). Obviously only one of them can win that year's MVP award, meaning that the others end up, by "Smythe only accounting", ranked below players from weaker postseasons that weren't at their level of play. Was Cam Ward in 2006 better than Dominik Hasek in 1999? John Vanbiesbrouck in 1996? Martin Brodeur in 2003? Olaf Kolzig in 1998? Ward's the only one of those guys with a Smythe, even though I wouldn't rate his playoff as even close to any of the others.

The rest of the team is obviously a big factor, since in almost all cases the Conn Smythe Trophy winner is from the Cup champion. To win the Stanley Cup, a player needs to have great teammates around them. There have been a number of absolutely terrific playoff performances by players whose teams ended up losing in the second round or the Conference Finals. Gilmour in 1993 and Peter Forsberg in 2002 are two of the most commonly cited examples, and we can also point to the more recent efforts of Alex Ovechkin and Jonas Hiller in the 2009 playoffs. As such, by simply counting Smythes you are at least partially giving double credit for team success. Being the best player on a Stanley Cup winner is a notable achievement, but that by no means signifies that player was the best player on any team.

A player's Conn Smythe chances depend a lot on who else happens to be playing great in that particular playoff season. In the 2009 playoffs, Sidney Crosby scored 15 goals and 31 points, which is more than anyone has recorded in either category since Joe Sakic in 1996. That sounds pretty deserving of some hardware, but unfortunately for Sid the Kid his teammate Evgeni Malkin scored 36 points in the same postseason, which means Malkin gets a Smythe while Crosby gets nothing. In other years there have been no singularly outstanding candidates and the writers more or less picked somebody out of a hat (2007 is a good example, the Ducks likely split the votes among a number of good candidates). If Crosby had the same playoffs as he did this year in 2006, 2007, or 2008 he would have easily won the Conn Smythe, probably even if his team lost the Final. Therefore, giving no credit to the second place guy makes little sense.

I also dislike the excessive focus on the Stanley Cup Finals in Smythe voting. Over a short series, luck has a big impact. A player can be driving puck possession and creating scoring chances and yet not have his shots or his linemates' shots hit the net for a few games in the Finals, throwing him out of Smythe contention. Again Crosby is a good example, as in the 2009 Finals he scored 1 goal on 16 shots while linemates Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz combined for 0 goals on 32 shots. Sometimes the puck luck is against you, and that's pretty much the only conclusion you can make when a top line shoots 2% and hits more posts than they score goals over an entire series. Crosby's 3 points in 7 games cost him the Conn Smythe, but it looked to me like he was doing the same thing he had been doing all playoffs. The difference was that he was playing against tougher competition and the shots weren't going in.

The last thing is that, like any awards voting, sometimes the voters make debatable choices. I don't agree with the voters' choice of Cam Ward over Rod Brind'Amour or Chris Pronger in 2006, or Joe Nieuwendyk over Hasek in 1999, to give just a couple of examples.

If I was running the league, I would make the Conn Smythe voting results public so we could see who was finishing in 2nd and 3rd place. I would also adopt all-star voting for the Stanley Cup playoffs, like they do in international tournaments and at the end of the regular season. This would allow credit to be given to the players who were the best at their position but who may not have ended up with a ring because their teammates weren't as good.

Here is my attempt at putting together postseason All-Star teams for each season since the lockout:

2009:
G: Jonas Hiller
D: Nicklas Lidstrom, Brent Seabrook
F: Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin

2008:
G: Marc-Andre Fleury
D: Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Gonchar
F: Henrik Zetterberg, Sidney Crosby, Johan Franzen

2007:
G: Roberto Luongo
D: Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger
F: Daniel Alfredsson, Sami Pahlsson, Dany Heatley

2006:
G: Dwayne Roloson
D: Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer
F: Eric Staal, Rod Brind'Amour, Patrik Elias

I doubt the Conn Smythe voters would have agreed with me on those teams (I left 2 of the 4 trophy winners off of my teams entirely). If you disagree with my selections, by all means take a shot at it in the comments. However, regardless of disagreements over a few individual cases, awarding All-Stars would give players like Crosby and Lidstrom the credit they deserve for their outstanding playoff performances.

12 comments:

ARoth said...

I would just do away with the award. The regular season awards (MVP, best defensemen, goaltender, etc.) are enough and once you get to the postseason, you have to question the small sample sizes their using to assess the productivity of players.

It also makes for ridiculous debates that never seem to end (A has more Conn Smythe's than B, therefore he's better, period.)

James Benesh said...

I have always been critical of the dogmatic use of Conn Smythe wins as the basis of an argument. The "binary" nature of the award is the reason.

I wish the award voting was made public but it never has been, so why would it now?

One of these years I want to start a project in the history section at hfboards where we discuss and then vote on the 2nd-5th-best players of the playoffs. Who knows, maybe even go down to 10th. If 10 people participate and everyone submits 5 votes and we use a points system that makes sense (like 10-8-7-6-5 instead of the commonly used 10-7-5-3-1, for example) we could get some interesting and useful results.

Bruce said...

If I was running the league, I would make the Conn Smythe voting results public so we could see who was finishing in 2nd and 3rd place. I would also adopt all-star voting for the Stanley Cup playoffs, like they do in international tournaments and at the end of the regular season.

Agree 100% with the philosophy, if not the selections.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Hasek hands-down deserved the Conn Smythe in 1999.

Anonymous said...

PS where is Fernando Pisani for your 2006 All-Star Team?

Moneypuck said...

I mean if they want to put so much emphasis on the Finals why not make a Finals MVP ala MLB and make the Conn Smythe a general playoffs award?

Lawrence said...

Maybe we are just putting way to much importance on saying who is better than who - which in my mind is always quite stupid, whether it be including the Conn Smythe or not.

Another way to look at this: "The binary nature of the award (winner gets 1, all others get 0, only 1 award handed out every year) makes it more arbitrary." is that it must be even more impressive that one guy is selected numerous times from all of the 23 or so who win the cup over numerous years. Maybe 3 Conn Smythes is exponentially greater than one. Odds of winning one: 1 in 30, two: 1 in 900, three: 1 in 27000 for example.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Lawrence: You're not interested in who is better than who? To me, that's the fundamental question of sports fandom. It is certainly the fundamental question of sports analysis.

If you simply appreciate professional athletes for their high level of skill and ability that's fine. That is quite different from my perspective, however.

quoipourquoi said...

I completely agree outside of one small detail: If there were post-season All Star teams, people would still only give votes to those who make it really far, because of the larger sample size. It's not like Hasek would snag a spot past Richter or Brodeur or McLean in 1994, even if he had better numbers. We would probably see Hasek with one 1st Team and one 2nd Team, and Roy with four 1st Teams and one 2nd team. If anything, removing the binary opposition of Conn Smythe winner and non Conn Smyther winner would only serve to favor Patrick Roy against Dominik Hasek, because he has 1989 and 1996 to fall back on (just as easily as Hasek has 1999 and 2002). You would need a full voting record (1st place through 5th place) to create a balance.

Magnus said...

The fact that Giguere beat out Brodeur in 2003 still disturbs me. Yes, Giguere was awesome and got his team to the Finals, getting many shutouts on the way. But so did Brodeur, and moreso. Brodeur set NHL modern-day records that year, and furthermore, he had THREE shutouts in the Finals, including in GAME 7... Tell me, is a guy who lets in 3 goals in Game 7, THE most important game of the playoffs, or the guy who lets in NO goals, thus single-handedly winning his team the Cup, more deserving of the MVP?

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

The guy who let in three goals.

If the Conn Smythe was for game 7 MVP, then I agree with Brodeur over Giguere. But it's for the whole playoffs, and Giguere's performance in 2003 was one of the best goalie performances ever.

Host PPH said...

It is the same problem that soccer has with Messi and Maradona. But we know that Maradona was way better than Messi.