Thoughts On The Conn Smythe
I thought I'd talk about this separately from the rest of my Game 7/playoffs comments.
Understanding that Cam Ward put up good numbers (and made a few memorable circus saves), I just can't agree with his selection as the most valuable player of the playoffs. Some people may point to his insertion into the lineup against Montreal as what turned around the 'Canes' playoff fortunes, but really, given that Martin Gerber played much better when reinserted into the lineup against Buffalo, who's to say he wouldn't have found a way to get it together. (For what it's worth, in Game 3 of the First Round, Montreal's defensive collapse was just as critical as Carolina's goaltender swap).
For me, the idea of most valuable player refers to two things:
The overall performance, skill, and value on the ice to a given player's team.
The relative value compared to other player's (or potential replacements) on the team.
To illustrate my example, here are three questions:
1. Would the 'Canes have won the Cup without Eric Staal? Probably not.
2. Would the 'Canes have won the Cup without (ugh) Rod Brind'Amour? Probably not.
3. Would the 'Canes have won the Cup with Martin Gerber instead of Cam Ward? Maybe.
The absence of Staal and/or Brind'Amour would have meant an increased role for the likes of Josef Vasicek. I think they would have had a more difficult time advancing in this scenario than with Gerber in net. But this is still problematic, because it is difficult to imagine Carolina winning without any of Staal, Brind'Amour, Stillman, Ward etc.
This brings me to my problem with the Conn Smythe in general - the idea of picking a 'most' valuable player from a team competition becomes incredibly problematic. In many ways, I also find it antithetical to the concept of a tournament to determine the best team. On a good team, you have a multitude of players performing different roles well. How do you compare them? On the surface, scoring and preventing goals are the most important, but what of the other factors that contribute to them? Eric Staal may have scored 10 more points than Rod Brind'Amour, but what of Brind'Amour's faceoff prowess? How many goals (for or against) did that contribute to? As good as Cam Ward's G.A.A. and Save Percentage were, how successful would he have been without the defenseman who blocked shots or clogged up the passing/shooting lanes in front of him?
In some rare cases, you can say with confidence that a team's success is more proportional to one player (normally the goalie) than the other 18 (ie. Kiprusoff and the Flames regular season this year, Patrick Roy and Montreal's last two Stanley Cup wins). In most cases, it's just a judgment call.
I don't have a problem recognizing individual success in the playoffs, but I would like to see a move away from recognizing the 'most valuable' player. Instead, it would be more fair to recognize the 'most outstanding' player. This isn't just an argument over semantics, it's an argument about how we evaluate individual success within a team game. While there will still be a large degree of subjectivity, recognizing the best does not run contrary to the team concept in the way that designating someone the most valuable does. Anyone who watches enough of the games, and follows the stat sheets, should be able to determine who the best players are. They're not always from the team that wins the championship (all but 3 of the 40 or so Conn Smythe winners have been from the Cup winner), but they always stand out (edit: it's actually 5 Conn Smythe winners. Thanks to doogie2k for pointing this out). A move to recongize the best could create additional awards too - such as a playoff all-star team that many international tournaments (in hockey and other sports) employ, or awarding an outstanding player award at different positions (goalie, defense, forward). The NHL could also mimic FIFA and give out an award for the leading scorer in the playoff tournament (the Golden Blade Award?)
Though I disagree with the criteria employed to select its recipient, I do hope that the Conn Smythe Trophy continues in some form. One of the things I enjoy about hockey is the tradition, and how its reflected in the names of its awards. I just hope that in the future, Conn Smythe will be used to recognize the best (as objectively as we can), not the most 'valuable' individual in a team game.