Here are five forwards who skated away with the Conn Smythe despite finishing well back of one or more teammates in the scoring race.
Sidney Crosby captured his first Conn Smythe on Sunday night, earning the nod from media voters in a tough field that hadn’t produced a clear cut favorite. Plenty of fans thought the voters got it right. But others were disappointed, with many of those feeling the honor should have gone to Phil Kessel.
It’s not hard to see why. Kessel is a divisive player (especially among fans of his former teams), but when viewed from a certain angle he makes for a fantastic story. And more importantly, he was the Penguins leading scorer in the playoffs, finishing three points up on Crosby. And that made his Conn Smythe loss to Crosby an unusual one, at least in terms of recent NHL history.
But simply leading a team in scoring is no guarantee of Conn Smythe glory, nor should it be, and the award has a long history of debatable decisions. So today, let’s look back at some of the other cases in NHL history in which a Cup winner’s leading scorer was snubbed by the voters. We’ll ignore the (many) times where a leading scorer was passed over for a defenseman or goaltender, since that tends to be an apples and oranges case. Instead, we’ll focus on cases that fit the Kessel/Crosby pattern, where a team’s leading scorer was passed over for another forward.
As we’ll find out, it turns out that Kessel and Crosby are in good company. Here are five forwards who skated away with the Conn Smythe despite finishing well back of one or more teammates in the scoring race.
1967: Toronto Maple Leafs
The leading scorer was: Jim Pappin, who racked up 15 points in 12 games. Linemates Pete Stemkowski and Bob Pulford also cracked double digits, as did future Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich.
But the Conn Smythe went to: Dave Keon, who finished tied for fifth on the team with eight points.
What were they thinking?: This was only the third time the Conn Smythe had been awarded, so a traditional set of criteria hadn’t been established yet. But it’s not hard to see what the voters were going for here: Keon was the Maple Leafs best player, a four-time all-star who’d just finished leading the team in regular season scoring. He was also one of the game’s best two-way centers, so the lack of eye-popping offensive totals was easy enough to look past. His role against the Black Hawks and Canadiens was to shut down their best players, and he delivered.
1979: Montreal Canadiens
The leading scorer was: Guy Lafleur, who followed up a 129-point season with 23 more in the playoffs, leaving him tied with teammate Jacques Lemaire for the league lead.
But the Conn Smythe went to: Don Cherry, for forgetting how many players were allowed on the ice at one time.
OK, fine, it was Bob Gainey, who had 16 points.
What were they thinking?: Gainey was the best defensive forward of his era, having just finished the second of four consecutive Selke-winning campaigns. (Legend even has it that the award was created with Gainey in mind.)
And while his playoff numbers may not have come close to Lafleur’s, they were well ahead of his typical regular season output, meaning voters were seeing him at his best at both ends of the ice. It may also be worth noting that Lafleur had already won the Conn Smythe once before, in 1977, and at that point no forward had ever won the honor multiple times.
1981: New York Islanders
The leading scorer was: Mike Bossy, whose 35 points established a new record for most points in postseason history.
But the Conn Smythe went to: Butch Goring, who finished fourth on the Islanders with 20 points.
What were they thinking?: Goring was a well-respected veteran, and like Keon and Gainey his role was to play a two-way game. And this was a weird time in NHL history, one in which scoring records were being shattered but award voters were oddly fascinated with defensive play – remember, Rod Langway was about to win back-to-back Norris Trophies with 30-point seasons in an era where some defenseman were cracking 120 points.
So Goring’s win didn’t raise many eyebrows at the time. But for what it’s worth, Bossy may have earned some sympathy points; he won the Conn Smythe the following year despite finishing behind Bryan Trottier in the scoring race.
1984: Edmonton Oilers
The leading scorer was: Who else? Wayne Gretzky, who racked up 35 points to tie Bossy’s playoff record.
But the Conn Smythe went to: Mark Messier, who finished third on the Oilers with 26 points.
What were they thinking?: Conn Smythe voters were oddly reluctant to cast their ballots for Gretzky, who only won the award twice despite leading the playoffs in scoring six times. That includes the 1987 vote, in which Gretzky and the Oilers won the Cup but watched voters hand the Conn Smythe to the losing team’s goaltender.
Still, Messier’s case was a solid one. While fans today remember him as a longtime center, back in 1984 he was actually a natural winger who’d been asked to switch positions to help balance the Oilers lines. He was a physical force at both ends of the rink, and his spectacular goal in Game 3 may have been the turning point in the series.
1995: New Jersey Devils
The leading scorer was: Stephane Richer, whose 21 points edged out Neal Broten (19) and John Maclean (18).
But the Conn Smythe went to: Claude Lemieux, who ranked fourth on the team with 16 points.
What were they thinking?: First of all, remember this is the pre-Kris Draper version of Lemieux, one who wasn’t especially well-liked around the league but hadn’t yet ascended to outright supervillain status. Voters apparently liked his physical game, and while he didn’t rack up many points, his 13 goals led the postseason.
Richer, Broten and Maclean may have just been too similar as candidates, splitting some votes and leaving an opening for Lemieux to slip through. If anything, the surprise here is that the nod didn’t go to Martin Brodeur, who never did win a Conn Smythe despite leading the Devils to three Cups.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.