History of Conn Smythe Winners in Losing Efforts

The Conn Smythe Trophy is awarded to the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. Of the 58 recipients in the award’s history, 51 played for teams that won the Stanley Cup. The other five recipients established a true novelty in the NHL that has only happened once in each of the three other major professional sports leagues. They earned the trophy as the MVP of the entire playoffs, leading up to and including the Stanley Cup Final, which each of the five players’ respective teams lost.

How could the MVP be chosen on a losing team? A lot has to do with narrative elements, especially in the cases of the four goaltenders who received the award in a losing effort. A goaltender “standing on his head” for an underdog team against a mightier opponent who ultimately prevailed by a narrow margin fits a storybook narrative of exciting competition for the greatest trophy in sports.

However, the Conn Smythe has only gone to a player on a team who didn’t win the Cup once in the past 33 years. The possibility creeps into discussion every so often, but the voting trends simply do not favor it in modern times. Given the natural existence of recency bias toward a Stanley Cup champion, a player on a losing team must display a truly exceptional effort that aligns with an obvious narrative of fueling team success against the odds in order to achieve this intriguing novelty. 

Roger Crozier – 1966 Detroit Red Wings

The Detroit Red Wings backed into the 1966 Playoffs after a second-half slump dropped them to fourth place in a six-team NHL. They upset the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round, largely thanks to 24-year-old goaltender Roger Crozier. Detroit then jumped out to a surprising 2-0 lead in the Final against the Montreal Canadiens. With a 1-0 lead in Game 4 and a chance to take a commanding 3-1 advantage in the series, Crozier left the game with an injury. The Canadiens rallied for a 2-1 victory. Although Crozier did return in the following game, his departure from Game 4 ultimately proved to be the turning point of the series. The Canadiens took the Cup in six games.

History of Conn Smythe Winners in Losing Efforts

Montreal netminder Gump Worsley finished with a better save percentage (SV%)  and goals against average (GAA) in the postseason. However, Crozier earned the Conn Smythe in its second year of existence because of both his instrumental role in leading an underdog team to the brink of victory and the coincidental demonstration of his value by his team’s squandered Game 4 lead. 

Glenn Hall – 1968 St. Louis Blues

The NHL expanded from six teams to 12 beginning in the 1967-68 season. The St. Louis Blues earned their bid to the Stanley Cup Final by defeating two expansion teams from the West Division and earning a shot at the Canadiens, who advanced past two original six teams. 

Blues goaltender and eventual Hall of Famer Glenn Hall had already won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 1961. His superb play during the 1968 Playoffs made him the de facto face of NHL expansion. As stated by the Hockey Chronicle, “When the St. Louis Blues bowed to mighty Montreal in four one-goal Finals games- two of them in overtime- the creators of expansion could sit back and admire their artistic triumph” (L.A. to NHL: ‘We Want a Piece of the Action,’ The Hockey Chronicle, 2003).

Hall was awarded the Conn Smythe despite the fact Worsley again finished with a better GAA and SV% for the Canadiens. He was the second winner from a runner-up team in the award’s four-year existence to that point, indicating an early voter trend that has not continued into the modern-day. 

Reggie Leach – 1976 Philadelphia Flyers

Reggie Leach of the Philadelphia Flyers owns the unique claim as the only skater ever to win the Conn Smythe in a losing effort. He was truly exceptional, not just the best player, during the 1976 Playoffs. His 19 goals set an NHL playoff record that has only since been tied by Jari Kurri of the Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers during the 1985 Playoffs. 

Recent history gives very little reason to think his claim will be challenged any time soon. Chris Pronger, as a member of the Oilers in 2006, built the best case for a skater to match Leach’s unique claim during the 21st century. He averaged over 30 minutes in ice time (ATOI) and finished with 21 points in 24 games as a rock-solid force on the blue line for an eighth-seeded team that defied all odds to make it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Ron Hextall- 1987 Philadelphia Flyers

Ron Hextall’s stellar performance as a rookie during the 1987 Playoffs forced the Oilers, at the peak of arguably the greatest dynasty in NHL history, to the brink of elimination in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. He was the heart and soul of a Flyers team that suffered injuries to key players yet scratched and clawed past all expectations. 

Hextall’s brilliance as a rookie fits the narrative element as well as any of the five Conn Smythe winners from runner-up teams. “He was kind of the spirit of the team,” ex-Oiler Mark Messier said in an interview with SportsNet. “He represented what the team had been, and what it was (in ’87). He didn’t like anybody around his crease, and that was an extension of what the team was.” In reference to the tenacity and resilience the Flyers showed during their run, former winger Scott Mellanby said of Hextall, “he fit that mold as well as any goalie at that time could have.” 

Grant Fuhr finished with a better GAA and SV% for the champs. Wayne Gretzky finished with 34 postseason points, a number reached by only five other players in history. However, Hextall stole the show as the true storyline of the postseason. His determination to win was represented perfectly in a quote about receiving the award years later, “I can assure you that at that very moment it meant absolutely nothing to me” (LeBrun: The case and historical precedent for Tuukka Rask and the Conn Smythe, win or lose in Game 7, The Athletic, 2019).

Jean-Sebastien Giguere – 2003 Anaheim Mighty Ducks

In 2003, the seventh-seeded Mighty Ducks also reached Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against a heavily favored team on the back of a red hot goaltender. Relatively unknown 25-year-old Jean-Sebastien Giguere took the playoffs by storm from the very beginning. He saved 63 of 64 shots he faced in Game 1 of the opening round and helped his team to a triple-overtime victory. 

The Ducks stunned the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings in an opening-round sweep and continued the momentum to upset the top-seeded Dallas Stars in dramatic fashion. Giguere reached a new height during the Western Conference Final. He recorded three straight shutouts against the Minnesota Wild to begin the series and conceded one goal in a series-clinching Game 4 victory. His team was outshot in all four games, but he stifled the opposing attack with an outrageous .992 SV%. 

The identity of the Ducks as a “never say die” underdog in their first season under head coach Mike Babcock was made possible only by the superb play of Giguere. They rallied from a 2-0 hole against the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Final with overtime victories in Games 3 and 4, which rounded out their playoff record in overtime games at a perfect 7-0.

Martin Brodeur shut out the Ducks in three of the four New Jersey victories. His excellent playoff stat line was only narrowly short of Giguere’s. However, the work of a lesser-known goaltender to carry an underdog team as much as Giguere did was unquestionably the storyline of the playoffs. He was well-deserving of the accolade as the first player in 17 years to win the award in a losing effort.

Conn Smythe Debates

After the Tampa Bay Lightning won their second consecutive Stanley Cup in 2021, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was named the Conn Smythe winner. Montreal goaltender Carey Price finished fifth in the voting despite the fact that he was in the conversation as a favorite entering the Stanley Cup Final. The dominant effort of Tampa Bay, capped off by a shoutout by Vasilevskiy in the series clincher, squashed any debate about the most deserving player

Tuukka Rask had a legitimate case for the award as a member of the runner-up Boston Bruins team in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. His team, however, was, for the most part, evenly matched with the champion St. Louis Blues. He did not have the underdog narrative persuading the voters. 

The strong cases made by Pronger in 2006, Rask in 2019, and Price in 2021 fell short of the perfect storm needed to match the five precedent cases of a novelty that may or may not ever happen again.

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