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Five past Conn Smythe Trophy contenders who should have won the award

Alex Ovechkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy on the back of a 15-goal post-season, but Evgeny Kuznetsov’s 32-point performance left some wondering how he didn’t win the award. Kuznetsov’s second place finish isn’t the biggest head scratcher, though.

In the minds of some, Alex Ovechkin’s Conn Smythe Trophy victory was a no-brainer, and that the Washington Capitals captain picked up the piece of individual hardware before hoisting the sport’s greatest prize, the Stanley Cup, above his head moments later came as no surprise to some. 

But as with almost every post-season, the Conn Smythe winner wasn’t uncontested, and there were those of the mind that Capitals pivot Evgeny Kuznetsov should have been the one to take home playoff MVP honors.

Sure, Ovechkin was everything the Capitals needed him to be at every single turn throughout the post-season. He played fast, physical and, yes, he filled the net. His 15 goals are a Capitals playoff record, and he’s now tied with Sidney Crosby — who else, right? — for the most goals in a single post-season in the post-lockout era. It can’t be overlooked, either, that Ovechkin finished fourth in hits, had more than a dozen blocked shots and more than a dozen takeaways. His 99 shots also tied him for the fourth-best mark since the 2005-06 season.

That said, though, it’s difficult not to dissect Kuznetsov’s numbers and feel as though he would have been just as worthy of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Washington captain. In the post-lockout era, Kuznetsov’s 32 points are second only to Evgeni Malkin’s 36 points during the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2008-09 Stanley Cup run. And when you run through Kuznetsov’s series-by-series performances, he stacks up quite well against Ovechkin.

In the first round, Kuznetsov’s four goals and eight points against the Columbus Blue Jackets matched Ovechkin’s five goals and eight points. Against the rival Penguins in the second round, Kuznetsov contributed three goals and six points in six games, one less than Ovechkin’s three goals and seven points. Kuznetsov really shone against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference final, scoring four goals and 10 points in seven games, besting Ovechkin’s four goals and seven points. And despite missing almost an entire game in the final, Kuznetsov finished with one goal and eight points in five games, including one game-winning goal. That put him three points clear of Ovechkin in the final, who scored three goals and five points.

The overall separation between the two players, with Kuznetsov notching five more points than Ovechkin during the Stanley Cup run, wasn’t enough to turn the Conn Smythe tide in the Capitals center’s favor. But it’s not as if Ovechkin’s playoff MVP honor needs some sort of asterisk, nor will there be many (or any) crying foul or saying Kuznetsov was snubbed. 

If we were looking for five Conn Smythe also-rans who were more deserving than the actual winners, though, there are more than a handful throughout NHL history. Here are five who stand out:

COREY CRAWFORD, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS — 2013
The 2012-13 campaign put Crawford on the map as an established starter, and his .926 save percentage and 1.94 goals-against average during the regular season were among the league’s top marks. But Crawford backed up his quality regular season with an outstanding post-season, one of the very best the league has seen in the post-lockout era. Of the goaltenders who have played at least 16 games in a single playoff since the 2005-06 playoffs, Crawford’s .932 SP and 1.84 GAA rank seventh and fifth, respectively. Crawford was at his best when it mattered most, too, only allowing more than three goals against in two of the six games it took the Blackhawks to defeat the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final.

Maybe you don’t want to take our word for it, though, that Crawford’s Conn Smythe loss was an oversight by voters. But post-season MVP Patrick Kane, who scored nine goals and 19 points in 23 games, said it himself in the aftermath of Chicago’s Stanley Cup victory. “You look at [goalie Corey] Crawford,” Kane said when running down teammates who could have won the award. “Maybe he got snubbed a little bit.”

ERIC STAAL, CAROLINA HURRICANES — 2006
There’s a romanticism to the rookie-goaltender-takes-over storyline, and you can rest assured that Cam Ward being a fresh-faced youngster who helped guide the Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup victory played a part in his Conn Smythe victory. As far as his statistics go, though, Ward wasn’t exactly the cream of the crop. His .919 SP was good, but not great, and it just so happens to be the fourth-lowest mark by a Stanley Cup winning goaltender in the post-lockout era. Still, Ward did enough to earn himself the nod from voters.

There was an easy case to make for Eric Staal as the most worthy winner, though. Just 21 at the time, Staal was a force to be reckoned with in the post-season. In 25 games, he scored nine goals and 28 points while skating nearly 20 minutes per outing. He led the post-season in scoring, finishing two points clear of teammate Cory Stillman, and Staal had the highest scoring playoff since Joe Sakic nine years earlier. Staal’s 28 points remain the seventh-most in a single post-lockout playoffs.

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DOMINIK HASEK, BUFFALO SABRES — 1999
Voters aren’t exactly in the habit of giving the Conn Smythe to a player from the losing club, which most certainly played into Joe Nieuwendyk’s MVP nod after the Dallas Stars’ 1998-99 Stanley Cup victory. That’s not to say Nieuwendyk’s win was without merit. He scored 11 goals and 21 points in 23 games, and six of his goals were game-winning markers, including two in overtime. He showed up in the big moments.

But if the Conn Smythe is truly supposed to go to the post-season’s most valuable player, there’s no way Hasek should have been overlooked. He was outstanding for the Sabres, and his performance was in some ways the precursor to Jean-Sebastian Giguere’s eventual Conn Smythe win with the Stanley Cup runner-up Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2002-03. Hasek posted a stunning .939 SP and 1.77 GAA across 19 games, and he almost single-handedly dragged an offensively inept team to the Stanley Cup final. The Sabres were led in post-season scoring by defensemen Jason Woolley and Alexei Zhitnik, who managed four goals and 15 points apiece. So, yeah, Hasek’s play meant a lot.

SERGEI FEDOROV, DETROIT RED WINGS — 1997
Since the NHL’s original wave of expansion, there are 57 goaltenders who have played at least 20 games in a post-season, and there’s a big gap – a chasm, really – between those netminders in terms of how often they were tested. For example, Tim Thomas faced 849 shots in 25 games during the 2010-11 post-season, but Martin Brodeur was only tested 463 times in 20 games during the 1994-95 playoffs. But Mike Vernon holds the distinction of being the only Conn Smythe-winning netminder to play in at least 20 games while seeing less than 500 shots. The Red Wings goaltender faced only 494 pucks en route to his Conn Smythe win in 1996-97, a run that saw him post a .927 SP and 1.76 GAA.

So, while Vernon’s post-season play was all well and good, it’s difficult to understand how he took the award over Fedorov, who was dynamite for Detroit. Fedorov scored eight goals and 20 points in 20 games for the Red Wings, including four game-winning goals. Better yet, two of Fedorov’s game winners came in the final against the Flyers, and Game 3 against Philadelphia was a monster contest from Fedorov. He finished that game with two goals and four points to help give Detroit to a commanding 3-0 series lead in their eventual sweep of the final.

WAYNE GRETZKY, EDMONTON OILERS — 1984
Mark Messier’s 1983-84 playoff performance was excellent, make no mistake. In 19 games, he fired home eight goals and 26 points, was a terror on both the power play and penalty kill for the Oilers and he netted two game-winners as Edmonton won its first of what would be four Stanley Cups in five years and five in seven if you want to extend it past the Gretzky era. But for as good as Messier was, it should come as absolutely no surprise that Gretzky was even better.

Already, Gretzky had proven he could be as dominant in the playoffs as he was in the regular season by scoring a league-best 38 points in 16 playoff games the season prior, but ‘The Great One’ followed that up with a 35-point performance in 19 contests during Edmonton’s first Stanley Cup victory. And Gretzky’s offensive output was better than Messier’s in more than just total points. Gretzky has two power play goals to Messier’s one, two shorthanded points to Messier’s one, three game-winning goals to Messier’s two and Gretzky even outshone Messier in the Stanley Cup final. Messier scored three goals and four points in five games against the Islanders in the final, but Gretzky was everywhere, netting four goals and seven points in five games as Edmonton finally put a stop to New York’s four-year dynasty.

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