Down Goes Brown: Seven Conn Smythe candidates to consider

Most people already seem to be looking beyond the Stanley Cup Final. So dominant has the Pittsburgh Penguins been that for many it feels as if it's a foregone conclusion.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a chance to make history Thursday night as they host the San Jose Sharks with a 3-1 series lead and the Stanley Cup in the building.

The series isn’t over yet, but a Pittsburgh win wouldn’t be a surprise given how things have played out. The Penguins have looked faster and have outshot the Sharks in every game, and have yet to play so much as a second while trailing. For a matchup that most figured would be close, the Penguins have had a surprisingly easy time of things.

One group that won’t be having an easy time: Conn Smythe voters. With perhaps just one game left to play in the post-season, a clear frontrunner has yet to emerge. Instead, we’ve got a handful of candidates, some with stronger cases than others.

Assuming the Penguins can finish things off at some point over the next three games, it’s going to make for a tough vote. [Note to editors: Delete this entire post after the Sharks’ Game 7 win.]

In the hours leading up to Game 5, let’s try to help out those voters with a look at the options. We’ll do this one candidate at a time, starting with the biggest name of the bunch.

Candidate #1: Sidney Crosby
The case for: He’s Sidney Crosby. He’s the Penguins’ identity, their best player, and the focus of everything they do. Opponents game plan around him, he always faces the toughest competition, he plays in all situations and he gets the most ice time of any forward by a decent margin. If the Penguins are winning, there’s a good chance Crosby is a big part of the reason.

On top of that, he’s had decent numbers so far, with six goals and 17 points in 22 games. That’s not quite the level of production we’re used to from Crosby, but it’s close. And given everything else he brings to the table it’s more than enough to get him into the Conn Smythe conversation.

The case against: His post-season numbers may be somewhat deceptive; he lit it up in the Penguins’ relatively easy opening-round win over the New York Rangers but only has three goals and nine points in 17 games since. He had three multi-point games in that series, but only one in the other three rounds combined. And it was only one series ago that he was being roundly criticized in the Pittsburgh media for not doing enough.

Maybe more importantly, he’s been quiet so far in the Cup Final, limited to just two assists so far. A lackluster final doesn’t rule a candidate out – the Conn Smythe is for the MVP of the entire post-season, not just one series, and Jonathan Toews won it in 2010 despite being held to just three assists in the final. But in a close race, voters may prefer somebody who’s had a more obvious impact against the Sharks.

Bottom line: Crosby hasn’t put up eye-popping numbers, but he’s shown up at big moments — including an OT winner against the Tampa Bay Lightning and that faceoff-win assist on another OT goal in Game 2 against the Sharks.

Is that enough?

In the eyes of some, it apparently is. And in a tight race, he’ll be a tempting choice for voters looking for a safe option – nobody’s going to scream too loudly if Crosby’s the pick.

So the case for Crosby is strong. Let’s pencil him in for now, but see how some of other candidates measure up.

Candidate #2: Kris Letang
The case for: Unlike the Hart Trophy crowd, Conn Smythe voters love their workhorse defencemen. Duncan Keith won last year, Scott Niedermayer won in 2007, and Drew Doughty was a near miss in 2014.

Letang fits that mold, logging big ice time for the Penguins. That’s been especially true since Trevor Daley got hurt, an injury that plenty of us thought might torpedo Pittsburgh’s chances. Instead, they haven’t missed a beat, and Letang has three points so far in the final.

The case against: Letang’s overall numbers are just OK. And he hurt his team by missing time with a suspension earlier in the post-season, which could bump him down some voters’ lists.

Bottom line: He’s not a bad candidate, but there’s not enough here to unseat Crosby.

Candidate #3: Evgeni Malkin
The case for: The Penguins’ other big star has matched Crosby in points while playing one fewer game. He’s looked feisty doing it, going back and forth with Joe Thornton in the sort of scene that voters love. And unlike Crosby or Letang, he’s actually found the net in the final.

The case against: That Game 4 goal was a gift — one that saw Phil Kessel basically bounce the puck in off Malkin’s stick. Beyond that, Malkin’s output looks a lot like Crosby’s – big numbers against the Rangers, then a relatively quiet run the rest of the way (although he did have points in five straight against the Lightning).

Bottom line: It’s a better case than you might think, given how little buzz Malkin seems to be getting. Still, if it’s a close call between the Penguins’ two top centres, Crosby’s going to have the edge every time. Sorry, Evgeni, but Sid’s still leading this race.

Candidate #4: Matt Murray
The case for: Now it gets interesting. Goaltenders always get plenty of Conn Smythe consideration, winning it five times since the turn of the century and three times in the cap era, both of which are more than any other position. The only three-time winner is a goaltender (Patrick Roy). And the voters especially love rookie goalies; three of the four rookies who’ve led their team to a Cup have won the Conn Smythe, with only Antti Niemi missing out. Heck, Ron Hextall won it just for coming close.

That all bodes well for Murray, a rookie who stepped in under tough circumstances and has played very well despite having just 13 NHL games under his belt. He’s posted a .925 save percentage, and won matchups against two Vezina finalists and a first ballot Hall-of-Famer to get to the final. If you love a good underdog story, Murray has to be your guy.

The case against: In today’s NHL, a .925 save percentage isn’t all that remarkable. It ranks Murray fifth among goalies in this year’s playoffs, and of the seven goaltenders to win the Conn Smythe in the last 25 years, all but Cam Ward had better numbers. Factor in that Murray briefly lost his starting job over the course of the run, and his case starts to look at least a little questionable.

Bottom line: Murray is the first of our candidates who poses a real threat to Crosby, and you can bet that he’s the leader on some ballots heading into tonight. But has he done enough to overcome Crosby’s all-around game and superstar status? I’m guessing he has, but just barely, and the margin is slim enough that a shaky showing tonight could be enough to shift the balance. But for now, let’s nudge him ahead of Crosby as we hit the homestretch.

Candidate #5: Someone from the Sharks
The case for: I mention this only because I love when it happens. There’s nothing in the Conn Smythe rules that says it has to go to the winning team, and it’s actually been awarded to a player from the losing team five times. Plus, we typically see it when the winning team didn’t have a standout candidate, just like this year.

And with so many Penguins candidates splitting the ballot, who’s to say a Shark couldn’t sneak in and steal it?

The case against: It’s not happening.

Bottom line: It’s fun when it happens and here’s hoping it does again someday, but this isn’t the year. The only way the Sharks are earning a Conn Smythe is by coming back and winning the series. Next.

Candidate #6: Nick Bonino
The case for: OK, sure, maybe you hear a record scratch sound effect in your head when you see his name show up. But Bonino is quasi-quietly having a fantastic post-season, and with 17 points he heads into Thursday even with Crosby and Malkin. The emergence of the HBK line has been crucial to the Penguins’ success, giving them three top lines and creating impossible matchups for their opponents. That doesn’t happen without Bonino playing as well as he has.

And it’s not like he’s padding his stats in minor moments: He had the series-winning OT goal against the Washington Capitals, and his late-game winner in Game 1 against the Sharks was probably the biggest regulation goal of the final.

The case against: He’s far from the Penguins’ centerpiece, ranking just fifth among Pittburgh’s forwards in ice time (although he’s only a few seconds behind Malkin for third). And fair or not, the lack of name value will hurt him here, given that he’s up against some big stars.

Bottom line: Bonino is a big long shot right now. But if he has a monster game tonight, or if the series goes another game or two and he keeps producing, he could be a sneaky darkhorse.

Candidate #7: Phil Kessel
The case for: And so we arrive at the elephant in the room. (Calm down, that wasn’t a conditioning joke.)

Kessel’s Conn Smythe candidacy has been one of the post-season’s most intriguing stories. Kessel has long been tagged as a guy you just can’t win with — a reputation that seems to have clung to him as recently as last month’s Team USA World Cup roster decisions. Now he’s on the verge of not only winning a Stanley Cup, but taking home MVP honours with it.

What does it all mean? Some see it as redemption for a guy who was never the problem all along. Others see this year as the exception that proves the rule – he couldn’t win until he was reduced to supporting player status. Others desperately wish that a Kessel Conn Smythe win would be the turning point that would get everyone to stop simplistically sorting hockey players into winners and losers, as if there’s some magical big-game switch that only certain guys know how to flip.

OK, that last one might just be me.

But whichever story you’d prefer to embrace, Kessel’s case here is a strong one. He’s the Penguins’ leading scorer, opening up a four-point gap heading into tonight. Points aren’t everything, but when a forward wins the Conn Smythe, it’s usually the team’s leading scorer, and you’d have to go back to Claude Lemieux in 1995 to find one who finished more than two points back of the top spot and still won. So barring a big outburst tonight from Crosby or one of the other forwards, history would seem to leave us with Kessel or Murray.

The case against: You can nitpick at his overall game – this is still Phil Kessel, so nobody’s mistaking him for a Selke winner – although it’s not like voters have shied away from giving the award to one-dimensional players in the past.

Beyond that, and assuming his past media sins aren’t being held against him, Kessel has a solid case. It’s just a question of whether someone else has a slightly stronger one.

Bottom line: If we’re basing the award on performance up until this point, then Kessel should win. It’s a close vote, maybe even close enough that Crosby and Kessel split the offensive-minded voters and Murray slides through for the win. But based on the numbers, Kessel’s case is the best one right now.

Of course, we’re not basing it solely on performance up until this point – there’s still at least one game to go and maybe more. Even assuming the Penguins do win the Cup, that still leaves plenty of time for someone to have the sort of big game that would tip the scales. If tonight sees the Penguins win thanks to a Murray shutout or Crosby overtime winner, that’s probably enough to knock Kessel out of the top spot.

But right now, that spot should be his. Questionable narratives and awkward interviews aside, he’s earned it.

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