With the Stanley Cup Final winding down, a late storyline is developing: Nobody can agree on who should win the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP.
Normally by this time, we’d be down to one or two clear favourites. But not this year. There’s a growing movement behind Jake Guentzel. Others are backing Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby. Elliotte Friedman suggested splitting the award between Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, but the league shot that idea down. And that’s just if the Penguins win. If it’s Nashville, we all thought Pekka Rinne was a lock, but a shaky performance in the first two games may have reopened the race. P.K. Subban? Roman Josi? Filip Forsberg? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s a mess.
Well, as I always say, when things are bad, find a way to make them worse. So while everyone’s trying to figure out who should be playoff MVP, let’s make things even more complicated with a question: What if we had to give out playoffs-only versions of all the major NHL awards?
Break out the tuxedos and D-list celebrities, because it’s time to hand out some hockey trophies.
Playoff Defenceman of the Year (i.e. The Orr)
Let’s start with a tricky one. Like the Conn Smythe, preference for our playoff awards will always go to someone whose team is in the final. But that’s not easy with Pittsburgh and Nashville. The Penguins barely have any defencemen – between losing Kris Letang and various other injuries along the way, their duct-tape-and-hope blue line has been a great part of their post-season story. Various guys have stepped up at different points, and Justin Schultz has a decent point total, but there’s nobody on the roster who’s been dominant.
Meanwhile, the Predators are at the other end of the spectrum – they have too many top blueliners, to the point that we spend more time arguing over who is or isn’t their true top guy. Subban, Josi, Ryan Ellis and maybe even Mattias Ekholm would all get votes in this category, which means they’d be in danger of cancelling each other out.
It’s a dilemma. Luckily for us, there’s an easy way out. While we said we’d prefer to give out our awards to teams in the final, we don’t have to — the other rounds should count for something, too. And in this case, that leads us to an obvious choice. Erik Karlsson was the best defenceman of the post-season, and it wasn’t all that close.
We’ll have to wait and see whether he takes home this year’s Norris, but he’s an easy call for the Orr. We’ll give the other two finalist spots to Ellis and Subban, if only so we can get another round of people complaining about Josi being overlooked.
Playoff Coach of the Year (i.e. The Bowman)
Let’s face it: If this were a real award it would come down to the last two coaches standing just about every year, with the other finalist spot reserved for a conference-final team. This year, that would give us Peter Laviolette, Mike Sullivan, and one of Randy Carlyle or Guy Boucher.
It’s actually tough to argue with that group. Boucher took a Senators team that had been written off as a non-factor to within a goal of the Cup final, and Carlyle got the Ducks a round further than last year while navigating some shaky goaltending along the way. Of the two, Boucher has the better case, so we’ll give him one of our finalist spots. But he can’t win, if only because everyone would complain that his acceptance speech was too boring.
So this one really comes down to Laviolette vs. Sullivan, as it probably should. If we’re going strictly on post-season performance, Sullivan’s case is strong. He made what may stand as the single toughest call of the playoffs when he switched from Fleury to Murray against Ottawa, and it paid off. It’s quite possible that we end up looking back on that decision as the one that earned the Penguins a Stanley Cup.
But on the other hand, Laviolette took the league’s 16th-place team all the way to the final. The real-life Jack Adams voters love an underdog story — the award almost always goes to the coach of a team that’s surpassed expectations. If we treat this award the same way, a Cinderella run like Nashville’s might prove irresistible.
Whoever wins the Cup would get an obvious leg up in the voting for this, but since we don’t know that yet, we’ll have to make a call now. Sullivan probably deserves it just based on the Fleury/Murray flip, but we’ll make Laviolette the pick because of how well he fits the coach-award mould.
Playoff Rookie of the Year (i.e. The Ciccarelli)
We won’t bother trying to build any suspense on this one: It’s Guentzel all the way. With 13 goals and 20 points, he’s miles ahead of the field. He takes this one home in a “1993 Teemu Selanne”–style runaway.
But we should probably round out the field with a few finalists, and that’s where things get tricky. The next two leading rookie scorers in terms of points are a pair of Ducks defencemen, Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour. Another blueliner, Brady Skjei, had decent numbers while playing some big minutes for the Rangers (when he wasn’t being inexplicably benched). Frederick Gaudreau is making a late push in the final. And we can’t forget about the guy who still ranks second among rookie forwards in goals: Auston Matthews, whose four goals make him runner-up to Guentzel even though the Leafs’ run lasted only six games.
Then there’s one more name that has to be in the conversation, even though it doesn’t feel like it should be. Despite chasing his second straight Stanley Cup as a starter, Pittsburgh’s Murray is still technically a rookie. If Playoff Rookie of The Year were really a thing, Murray would have won it easily last season. Can you win rookie honours in back-to-back years? I don’t think you can, but I’d have to go back and double-check the fine print on this made-up award that I invented out of thin air yesterday.
Either way, Guentzel takes home this year’s prize in a walk. Let’s say the runners-up are Murray and Montour and call it a day.
Playoff Most Gentlemanly Player (i.e. The Keon)
The Lady Byng is a weird award and it’s strange that we still have it. Just wanted to get that off my chest.
It would be especially weird to have a post-season equivalent, since the playoffs are supposed to be all about bloodied warriors battling their way through a never-ending war of attrition, and the word “gentlemanly” doesn’t really fit that whole vibe. But for the sake of completeness, let’s give this one to Phil Kessel, who has just two PIMs in 23 games and should have won last year’s Conn Smythe. He edges out Yannick Weber and Nick Bonino.
(Speaking of strange awards, we won’t be handing out the GM of the Year, because it never really makes any sense, or the Mark Messier Leadership Award, because it makes even less. Sorry. Even made-up award shows have their credibility limits.)
Playoff Best Defensive Forward (i.e. The Berpitoews)
Yes, that’s short for Bergeron/Kopitar/Toews. I’ll admit that the name might need some work. Still, it’s no coincidence that the three players who’ve combined to win the last five Selkes also won six straight Stanley Cups.
That streak ended last year when the Penguins won it all, so let’s start with them. There’s been a growing sense in recent years that Sidney Crosby deserves more credit for his two-way game than he typically gets. He’s received a few Selke votes over the years, and this year might end up being his best finish for the award yet. He hasn’t had to shut anyone down in the final because the Predators don’t have a top centre due to injury, but he’s still worth considering.
Speaking of those injured Predators, Ryan Johansen needs to be on the radar here, too. He’s a guy who plays a prototypical Selke-winner style, and was having a breakthrough post-season before he got hurt. If he were playing in the final he’d be an easier pick, but he still deserves some consideration.
But we’ll give the nod to another centre whose post-season was done after three rounds: Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler. He may well win the real-life Selke from the regular season, and he’d deserve it for the playoffs too. After helping the Ducks wipe out the Flames, he matched up against Connor McDavid in round two. He certainly didn’t shut the Oilers’ star down, but he did enough to keep McDavid from dominating. And he spent much of the Nashville matchup getting in Johansen’s head (even as the Predators’ pivot had the better of the matchup in a few games).
Did other forwards do a better job defensively in the post-season? Maybe, but the Selke has always been at least partly a reputation award. There’s no reason the playoff equivalent wouldn’t be, too, so Kesler is the pick.
Playoff Goaltender of the Year (i.e. The Dryden)
Uh… can we get back to you?
Here’s the problem: The Penguins have split their goaltending duties, so we can’t go with either of their guys. If we go back to the conference finalists, Craig Anderson was good except for one blowout and John Gibson was up-and-down. The best goalie of the first two rounds may have been Jake Allen, but he didn’t make it any further. Neither did Henrik Lundqvist. Carey Price and Martin Jones played well but didn’t even make it out of round one.
All of which leads us back to what seemed like an obvious choice just a few games ago: Pekka Rinne.
Rinne was ridiculous in the first two rounds, and while he cooled off somewhat against Anaheim, he still came into the final sporting a .941 save percentage that ranked as one of the best post-season performances ever. He was the story of the playoffs, and there wasn’t even a debate over which goaltender was having the best spring.
But it’s fair to say that Rinne’s first two games against Pittsburgh poked a few holes in that feel-good story. He made just seven saves in Game 1, then got yanked in Game 2. He had a better night in Game 3, allowing just one goal despite fighting the puck a few times. And he was fantastic in Game 4 last night.
That makes him the pick… unless he heads back to Pittsburgh and has another meltdown. For now, we’ll assume he got it all out of his system and hand him the award. But this is the NHL, so we reserve the right to review the decision and reverse on a technicality after the fact.