With the Stanley Cup Final winding down, a late storyline is developing: Nobody can agree on who should win the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP.
Normally by this time, we’d be down to one or two clear favourites. But not this year. There’s a growing movement behind Jake Guentzel. Others are backing Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby. Elliotte Friedman suggested splitting the award between Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, but the league shot that idea down. And that’s just if the Penguins win. If it’s Nashville, we all thought Pekka Rinne was a lock, but a shaky performance in the first two games may have reopened the race. P.K. Subban? Roman Josi? Filip Forsberg? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s a mess.
Well, as I always say, when things are bad, find a way to make them worse. So while everyone’s trying to figure out who should be playoff MVP, let’s make things even more complicated with a question: What if we had to give out playoffs-only versions of all the major NHL awards?
Break out the tuxedos and D-list celebrities, because it’s time to hand out some hockey trophies.
Playoff Defenceman of the Year (i.e. The Orr)
Let’s start with a tricky one. Like the Conn Smythe, preference for our playoff awards will always go to someone whose team is in the final. But that’s not easy with Pittsburgh and Nashville. The Penguins barely have any defencemen – between losing Kris Letang and various other injuries along the way, their duct-tape-and-hope blue line has been a great part of their post-season story. Various guys have stepped up at different points, and Justin Schultz has a decent point total, but there’s nobody on the roster who’s been dominant.
Meanwhile, the Predators are at the other end of the spectrum – they have too many top blueliners, to the point that we spend more time arguing over who is or isn’t their true top guy. Subban, Josi, Ryan Ellis and maybe even Mattias Ekholm would all get votes in this category, which means they’d be in danger of cancelling each other out.
It’s a dilemma. Luckily for us, there’s an easy way out. While we said we’d prefer to give out our awards to teams in the final, we don’t have to — the other rounds should count for something, too. And in this case, that leads us to an obvious choice. Erik Karlsson was the best defenceman of the post-season, and it wasn’t all that close.
We’ll have to wait and see whether he takes home this year’s Norris, but he’s an easy call for the Orr. We’ll give the other two finalist spots to Ellis and Subban, if only so we can get another round of people complaining about Josi being overlooked.
Playoff Coach of the Year (i.e. The Bowman)
Let’s face it: If this were a real award it would come down to the last two coaches standing just about every year, with the other finalist spot reserved for a conference-final team. This year, that would give us Peter Laviolette, Mike Sullivan, and one of Randy Carlyle or Guy Boucher.
It’s actually tough to argue with that group. Boucher took a Senators team that had been written off as a non-factor to within a goal of the Cup final, and Carlyle got the Ducks a round further than last year while navigating some shaky goaltending along the way. Of the two, Boucher has the better case, so we’ll give him one of our finalist spots. But he can’t win, if only because everyone would complain that his acceptance speech was too boring.
So this one really comes down to Laviolette vs. Sullivan, as it probably should. If we’re going strictly on post-season performance, Sullivan’s case is strong. He made what may stand as the single toughest call of the playoffs when he switched from Fleury to Murray against Ottawa, and it paid off. It’s quite possible that we end up looking back on that decision as the one that earned the Penguins a Stanley Cup.
But on the other hand, Laviolette took the league’s 16th-place team all the way to the final. The real-life Jack Adams voters love an underdog story — the award almost always goes to the coach of a team that’s surpassed expectations. If we treat this award the same way, a Cinderella run like Nashville’s might prove irresistible.
Whoever wins the Cup would get an obvious leg up in the voting for this, but since we don’t know that yet, we’ll have to make a call now. Sullivan probably deserves it just based on the Fleury/Murray flip, but we’ll make Laviolette the pick because of how well he fits the coach-award mould.