As it became obvious in the final minutes of Game 7 that the St. Louis Blues were going to win the Stanley Cup, a spirited debate developed between members of our staff. Who was the playoff MVP? Two camps took their positions: Ryan O’Reilly vs. Jordan Binnington.
The outcome is old news, but the relevance of the selection is not, for a couple reasons. First, individual honors shape history. They’re benchmarks used by Hall of Fame selectors and honors historians utilize to help define the game’s past. Secondly, award voting can be important in contract talks. Binnington, for example, is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. His second-place showings in Conn Smythe and Calder Trophy balloting give him decent leverage but not as much as he would have had if he’d won those two awards. I have a lot of respect for the reporters (and my staff members) who preferred O’Reilly for the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP, but Binnington had a stronger case. Hear me out.
The Conn Smythe is meant to be awarded to the MVP of the entire playoffs, not just the Cup final. When it was introduced in 1965, there were two rounds, meaning far fewer games to track. Now, it’s a two-month odyssey; how do you see all the games of the leading candidates unless you cover them?
Enter St. Louis Post-Dispatch hockey writers Tom Timmermann and Jim Thomas, both of whom voted for Binnington. Thomas, in fact, had O’Reilly third. Timmermann said Binnington’s play when it mattered most, particularly in Rounds 2, 3 and 4, tipped the scales. “Many of those games could have gotten out of control if not for (his) play,” he said. Meantime, O’Reilly, said Timmermann, wasn’t much of a factor in the Dallas and San Jose series, primarily due to a rib injury.
Statistically, O’Reilly stood tied for the playoff scoring lead at the finish line, but through the first three rounds, he was tied for ninth in points and second on his own team, having scored just one goal in a 14-game span. He was minus-3, which tied him for 11th among 14 Blues forwards, and was 48.7-percent successful at the faceoff dot, third among the Blues’ four regular centers. We know O’Reilly’s value can’t be measured purely by numbers, as he’s an invaluable two-way, minute-munching player, but if part of your argument includes his overall point tally, you can’t ignore the numbers’ game prior to the final.
Binnington’s stats weren’t glowing until you held them up to the light. The playoffs are a small sample size. A couple bad games by a goalie can cloud the big picture. Binnington was torched in two blowout losses, surrendering 11 goals on 53 shots. If you back those out (a loss is a loss, no matter by how many goals), his save percentage through three rounds was .928. You may argue a playoff MVP shouldn’t have any poor games, but that’s an unfair expectation, especially for goalies. It’s obvious when a netminder doesn’t have his ‘A’ game; his mistakes end up in the back of the net. With a forward it’s more subtle. O’Reilly’s numbers suggest he didn’t carry the team every night through three rounds.
Also, via naturalstattrick.com, when Binnington was on the ice, the Blues faced more scoring chances than their opponents in three of four series and 25 more high-danger attempts than the other team in the four rounds combined. In the first two rounds, against Winnipeg and Dallas, the disparity of HD Corsi Against was 32. This douses the argument that Binnington benefited more from defensive protection than his rivals.
Anecdotally, if you put any stock in three-star selections, Binnington trounces O’Reilly. I understand game-star selections aren’t gospel, but a local hockey reporter typically chooses them. Winnipeg didn’t pick three stars in the first round, so I asked our Winnipeg-based staffer, Jared Clinton, to do so retroactively. In the Blues’ first 12 wins, Binnington was the first star three times, second star four times and third star twice. O’Reilly didn’t earn any star selections in the first three rounds. In the final, O’Reilly was the first star twice and second star once. Binnington was the first star once and second star once. All told, Binnington was a game star 11 times, O’Reilly three times.
O’Reilly’s Cup final performance was indeed heroic as he came up huge repeatedly in the crunch. Binnington was equally spectacular in pivotal moments, throughout the playoffs. In Games 5, 6, and 7 of the post-season, Binnington was 8-2 with a .947 SP. O’Reilly impressed with four goals and 11 points in those 10 games.
Perhaps the next time the board of governors assembles to discuss rule changes (see pg. 8), it should table trophy-voting definition reform. There is ambiguity in more than just the Conn Smythe. It could also consider the introduction of a second playoff trophy, one awarded to the MVP of the final – like the other major sports do. As for Binnington, the short- and long-term impact of the vote are unknowns, question marks as large as a 6-foot-1 minor-league call-up goalie who emerged as the king of 2019’s new guys.