What We Learned: Why Phil Kessel deserved the Conn Smythe

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What We Learned: Why Phil Kessel deserved the Conn Smythe
What We Learned: Why Phil Kessel deserved the Conn Smythe

Since the Penguins went up 3-1 in the series, the world's hockey conversation shifted in a lot of ways to which player should win the Conn Smythe. That was more than a little bit of chicken-counting on the part of people whose eggs had not yet hatched, since the Sharks won Game 5 in Pittsburgh and delayed the party until last night.

At the time, it was thought there were three candidates people really considered for the award. There was Matt Murray, the netminder who had a save percentage in the high .920s until a disastrous first period probably doomed his candidacy. There was Phil Kessel, the Penguins’ postseason goals and points leader (10 and 21, respectively, in 23 games), ahead of Evgeni Malkin in both categories. And there was Sidney Crosby, the best player in the world who hadn't scored a ton by comparison, but was logging some heavy minutes against top competition and driving possession to an impressive extent.

An empty-net assist late in Game 6 pulled him within two points of Kessel and all but assured him a vote that was likely already delivered anyway.

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Obviously people had to change their views a bit as the Sharks cruised in Game 5, but the conversation was constructive in some ways, because it showed how people generally view what constitutes a playoff MVP.

One gets the feeling the knock on Kessel was that he's Phil Kessel, the guy with whom you still can't win. If the roles had reversed and Sidney Crosby was the one with all the points on the third line, while Kessel had the tougher minutes, Crosby would waltz his way to a Conn Smythe win on the strength of his Crosby-ness. (And, if we're going to be a little cynical-but-realistic here, his Canadian-ness.)

The argument for Crosby is one that the traditional hockey media would have rejected out of hand just a few years ago. Points are typically king in these kinds of things; no one is arguing Patrice Bergeron over Patrick Kane for the Hart. Now, the media finds justification in the numbers that still get cited by some old-school guys — alongside plus-minus — as one of those things you have to view in context.

Was Crosby great in these playoffs? Clearly. Was he Pittsburgh's most valuable player? That's tougher to say.

The threat of what he can do certainly makes it seem that way, but the actual production does not favor him at all. Expected goals are just that. Expected. They differ from actual goals by being theoretical in nature.

Simply put, the Penguins got outscored when Crosby was on the ice in this postseason. With Kessel on, they doubled their opponents' output.

Clearly the sport has changed a lot even in the last decade-plus. It's much harder to score a goal now than it was when the NHL first introduced the shootout, what we can consider the most “modern” era of hockey to which we can compare performances. Let's put it this way: Cam Ward won the Conn Smythe that first year out of the Second Bettman Lockout, and he did it with a .920 save percentage. This year, voting for someone with a .920 for any award at all would get you laughed out of the PHWA.

To that end, it's fair to only consider the Behind the Net Era — from 2007-08 to present — as the period in which we can most fairly judge other Conn Smythe winners to determine what the most valuable playoff performances have looked like for what is now nine full postseasons.

During that time, the positional breakdown for Conn Smythe looks like this: Two goalies (Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick), three centers (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jonathan Toews), two right wings (Patrick Kane and Justin Williams), one left wing (Henrik Zetterberg), and one defenseman (Duncan Keith).

The only guy in that group who stands out as a questionable pick before this season is Williams, who won the Conn Smythe mainly because the voters viewed him as “clutch.” Mr. Game 7 and all that. He finished tied for second on the Kings in points, with 25 in 26 games, and third in goals with nine. Anze Kopitar, who led the team in scoring while also being the best two-way player in the playoffs, only had five goals and that's probably what killed his chances. But regardless, the gap between them wasn't that big. You at least get the argument, even if it's wrongheaded.

So what do players who won the Conn Smythe look like, in general? In terms of what they do themselves, it's no surprise the forwards tend to be dominant scorers who generate a lot of high-quality chances for themselves and their teammates. It's no surprise that Duncan Keith, the only blue line winner in the last nine postseasons, scored plenty of points and also played a ton of minutes.

(As for the goaltenders, you don't need as much of a statistical breakdown. Quick and Thomas basically took the ballots out of the voters' hands, both posting save percentages of .940 or more. No one in this postseason was ever going to do that, so there's basically never been a real argument in favor of another goaltender — Murray or Martin Jones — winning it this year.)

Regardless, these are what the skater averages look like:

NHL
NHL

Clearly, these are dominant players who score a lot and push possession in the right direction. So the question is, which of Kessel or Crosby actually looked like a Conn Smythe winner?

Well, both were off the production pace from past Conn Smythe winners, but Crosby was much, much farther behind. And while Crosby was a dominant possession player who generated far more chances and shots on goal than his opponents, the Penguins were, again, outscored when he was on the ice. Meanwhile, Kessel may be a lesser driver against slightly weaker competition, but let's not act like he's been underwater or anything.

NHL
NHL

 

Simply put, one of these guys looks a lot like past Conn Smythe winners, and one of them does not. You'll also notice that in terms of production at 5-on-5, Kessel basically doubled Crosby's output at 5-on-5, when scoring is the most difficult. Their point totals in all other situations, are roughly comparable. But they should be; 1 in every 3 Pittsburgh power play goals saw both players get points on them.

While it's nice that people would adopt the use of “advanced” stats in their awards calculations, the issue here is an easy one to spot: Since when do somewhat-better underlying numbers trump significantly better production over a short playoff, or even in the regular season, in anyone's mind?

This shouldn't have even been an argument.

But if the clear winner was Kessel? You can't win with guys like that as your best player. Not even when you do.

What We Learned 

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks asked Dale Hunter to interview for their still-vacant head coaching position. He declined.

Arizona Coyotes: Still no real word if the Coyotes and Arizona State are going to be co-tenants in a new arena in Phoenix. We'll see I guess.

Boston Bruins: The Bruins still want to re-sign Loui Eriksson, and if they don't they're probably in a lot of trouble. Having one good right wing would be an issue, for sure.

Buffalo Sabres: I mean there's no way Pierre-Luc Dubois is available to Buffalo at No. 8, but the sheer number of solid options for them there is going to be daunting. They might even trade up or down. Who knows? This draft is gonna be wild.

Calgary Flames: Only tangentially Flames-related, but Brian Burke telling Gordie Howe stories is awesome.

Carolina Hurricanes: The strong performance the 'Canes turned in last season isn't enough to convince them to deviate from their rebuild plan. Hmm, that sounds... wise.

Chicago: Artemi Panarin and the team are already talking about an extension. I wouldn't want to commit too much before he plays in a season in which his linemate was the league MVP, but that's just me.

Colorado Avalanche: Know who else wants Jacob Trouba? Probably like 29 other teams.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Nice the organization finally has something to celebrate that isn't “barely making the playoffs and immediately getting destroyed.”

Dallas Stars: The Stars re-signed Brett Ritchie over the weekend. He might just be an actual NHLer next year.

Detroit Red Wings: The Wings and Pavel Datsyuk were supposed to meet to talk about the future this week, but the death of Gordie Howe pushes that back. This is something they need to address ASAP though.

Edmonton Oilers: They should be so lucky.

Florida Panthers: Did the Panthers “steal” from an artist? There's a convincing argument to be made.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 16: Dustin Brown #23 of the Los Angeles Kings skates with the puck in front of Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals in the first period at Verizon Center on February 16, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 16: Dustin Brown #23 of the Los Angeles Kings skates with the puck in front of Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals in the first period at Verizon Center on February 16, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Los Angeles Kings: Dustin Brown seems like a very nice guy, but the Kings are gonna try very, very hard to get rid of him this summer because they were not forward-thinking enough to avoid giving him an awful, untradeable contract.

Minnesota Wild: If the team underperforms next season, getting a new GM is starting to look like a distinct possibility.

Montreal Canadiens: I somehow missed this last week but yeah, no kidding.

Nashville Predators: The Preds and Filip Forsberg are trying to hammer out the term on the forward's next contract. If it's anything less than six years, the Preds are probably making a mistake.

New Jersey Devils: Yeah, I mean, loyalty and all, but if Patrik Elias wants another season, the Devils should let him do it elsewhere.

New York Islanders: Are we really ready to dump Jaroslav Halak — who's a good goalie — because of one good postseason by another guy on a team plagued with a history of subpar performances in that position? Yes, we are.

New York Rangers: If the Rangers trade either one of Rick Nash or Derek Stepan at the draft, that might as well come with a “For Sale” sign for every other veteran on the team. That starts a rebuild, full stop. Not that they don't need one or anything, because they do, but at that point you might as well just get Lundqvist out the door as well.

Ottawa Senators: Yeah, Elliotte Friedman mentioned the Senators in connection with the possibility of a team moving to Quebec. If they don't get that new arena deal done, it becomes a very distinct possibility.

Philadelphia Flyers: Michael Del Zotto is finally healthy and skating again. He hasn't played since mid-February.

Pittsburgh Penguins: What if — and I'm just throwing this out here — Malkin has been awesome for years???

San Jose Sharks: Same goes for Logan Couture. See ya.

St. Louis Blues: The Blues really ought to give this kid whatever he wants on his next contract.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Bolts could lose assistant Rick Bowness to the Ducks' coaching search.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Man this team is going to be fun to watch for the next month. Maybe not so much next season.

Vancouver Canucks: It must have been really hard to come up with five reasons to be optimistic about the Canucks' offense next year. And really hard to whittle “reasons for pessimism” down to just five.

Washington Capitals: Shoutout to Braden Holtby. Shoutout to the Caps.

Winnipeg Jets: Cheapest tickets to see the Heritage Classic — a Jets/Oilers games — is $185. Get lost with that.

Play of the Weekend

This freakin play by Kris Letang probably cemented the Crosby Conn Smythe. 

Gold Star Award

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12: Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12: Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Phil Kessel is my beautiful champion. Fill that Cup with hot dogs, bud. Eat every damn one of em. 

Minus of the Weekend

 (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Waiting from Thursday to Sunday for a Cup Final game was ludicrous. Not a fan.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “ulysse84” is taking nothing for granted (thanks!).

To Vancouver: Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais ($1 million retained), 3rd 2017

To Montreal: 1st 2016, 3rd 2016, Alex Burrows, Yan-Pavel Laplante 

Hmm, yes.

Signoff

I don't know why Harvard even bothers to show up. They barely even won.

 

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)

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