As the final seconds of the 2015-16 NHL season came and went late Sunday evening, only one team found itself standing. Since early-April, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been a force to be reckoned with, and Sunday’s 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks in Game 6 proved to be the final obstacle between the Penguins and the fourth Stanley Cup victory in the franchise’s history.
Though opposing loyalties and passions keep many in the hockey community from praising the Penguins accomplishment or sharing the joy in their victory, there can be no denying that the team’s resume in the post-season certainly befits that of a champion. They easily dispatched the vaunted New York Rangers in Round One, overcame the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in Round Two, and ground out a seven-game series over a Tampa Bay Lightning team that had been in the Eastern Conference finals three years in a row. All of this before facing the Western Conference-winning San Jose Sharks in a series they would ultimately dominate in six games en route to the ultimate prize in hockey.
Though the efforts of the team brought them the chance to hoist the Stanley Cup in view of friends, family, and fans, there is always a standout player honored by the league as the playoff MVP and recipient of the Conn Smythe Trophy. And as he readied to receive the Stanley Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby’s name was called to claim the honor as this year’s playoff MVP.
While no one could reasonably question Pittsburgh’s claim to the Stanley Cup — not with the aforementioned resume — the choice to honor Crosby as the playoff MVP is more than ripe for scrutiny.
Though the focal point of the offense, Crosby has had an inconsistent post-season. Though he contributed two assists in Sunday’s final victory, the former Hart Trophy-winner had only 19 points in 24 games in the post-season. After a hot start against the Rangers with three goals and eight points in just five games, Crosby would struggle mightily with just two assists against Washington and four against San Jose. His six goals in the post-season put him in an eight-way tie…for twelfth…in playoff goal-scoring and third on his own team; His 13 assists are one fewer than teammate Nick Bonino, who anchored a potent third line with winger Phil Kessel that proved to be a significant difference-maker for the Penguins in their post-season efforts. Bonino’s accomplishments are even more impressive given his lack of power-play time (1:17 per game to Crosby’s 3:39).
None of this is to suggest Crosby is not a great player. By almost any metric, he’s one of the most impactful and skilled players in recent memory. Any discussion of who the best player in hockey currently is has to have him firmly in the discussion, although that is far too deep and subjective a conversation to have for the purposes of this article. Likewise, the concept of what is meant by “most valuable” is by its very nature a matter of subjective interpretation. But whenever an MVP is announced, either in the regular season or otherwise, there’s always a very good argument to be made for that player with a great deal of tangible evidence to point to.
And this is the problem with the selection of Crosby as this year’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner. It’s hard to look at the data and see how he’s the obvious choice beyond a reasonable doubt. The argument for picking Crosby seems to center around the notion that because he’s the focal point and key catalyst of the Stanley Cup-winning team — regardless of actual production — that makes him the MVP. This is a troublesome precedent to set where who you are becomes more important than what you do. Crosby certainly helped his team attain post-season glory, either directly through his production on the scoresheet or indirectly by taking up valuable attention from opposing players that allowed space for players like Bonino and Kessel to lead the team in assists and goals while getting third-line minutes. There’s also no denying that Pittsburgh wouldn’t have even made the playoffs if Crosby had not turned his game around after the coaching change that brought Mike Sullivan behind the bench mid-season.
Where does it end, though? Imagine for a moment if the Washington Capitals had won the Stanley Cup and Alex Ovechkin finished tied for sixth in playoff scoring — a full eleven points behind the playoff leader — and didn’t lead his team in goals scored even if he led them in overall points. If Ovechkin were handed the Conn Smythe Trophy merely for being the focal point of the Capitals offense, there would be a great deal of skepticism with such a decision and deservedly so.
Substitute Ovechkin’s name for the top player on any other team and the problem remains. No one person can definitively say with certainty what makes one player the “most valuable” of all and numbers don’t always tell the whole story. But when you select a player with a post-season resume that lacks domination, as Crosby’s does this year, controversy and criticism is warranted even if he is a world-class player who absolutely helped his team prevail in the end.
Congratulations are definitely in order for the Pittsburgh Penguins. They played hard and they played well for almost two months after the regular season ended. And when you look at the contributions throughout their lineup…from Kessel and Bonino on the third line to the stellar play of young Matt Murray in net…it’s easy to see how the roadmap to their success.
This critique of Crosby as the Conn Smythe recipient is not meant to take away any success from their team, nor is it meant to say that Crosby is any less than a world-class player. He is deserving of his reputation as a potent force in the NHL. But when you look at his performance in this post-season, choosing Crosby as playoff MVP over some of his teammates — to say nothing of the extraordinary performances players like Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, and Matt Jones made for San Jose — is not an easy choice to defend. For the first time in a long time, the choice for playoff MVP — while rarely universally agreed upon — is a dubious one.
By Keith Leonard