Hockey is the ultimate team game, which is what makes the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded annually to the playoff’s most valuable player, such an anomaly.
Individual versus team award?
Most winners will tell you that, as kids, they lie awake dreaming about the Stanley Cup, not the Conn Smythe. Generally, it is an award the recipient enjoys more long after the fact, given that the Conn Smythe usually lands in a winner’s hands minutes before the bigger prize, the Stanley Cup, is awarded.
A lot of years, voters have a hard time coming up with a single standout candidate for the Conn Smythe, another of the aspects that made the Kings’ 2014 run to their second Stanley Cup championship in three seasons so unique.
In the end, the trophy went to forward Justin Williams, nicknamed Mr. Game 7, for his ability to raise the level of his play in the games that mattered most.
The selection was completely understandable.
Until the final series against the New York Rangers, the Kings went the distance against their three previous opponents — the San Jose Sharks, the Ducks and the Chicago Blackhawks. You could make a convincing argument that without Williams’ heroics in elimination games, the Kings would not have been in a position to hoist the Stanley Cup on Friday night.
But as Williams pointed out afterward, there were a lot of other possible candidates.
“Up and down our lineup, you can make a case for any line, any ‘D’ pair,” said Williams. “That’s not just blowing smoke. That’s the God’s honest truth. To be singled out like that, have my teammates give me an applause, be genuinely excited for me, that was the most special thing.”
As Williams noted, you could also make good-to-excellent cases on behalf of five other players on the Kings’ roster, beginning with defenseman Drew Doughty.
Doughty played the most minutes of any player in the NHL playoffs (747 minutes and 33 seconds), the most by any player in a playoff year since ice time was added as an official stat in 1997-98, and was Kings Coach Darryl Sutter’s go-to option in every situation, even strength, power play and penalty killing.
Center Anze Kopitar led the NHL in overall playoff scoring, and though he was mostly a setup man in the final two series, scoring just a single goal in the final 19 of the Kings’ 26 playoff games, he was a factor in the faceoff circle, defensively against some of the league’s premier centers (such as Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf and Joe Thornton) and contributed the same sort of strong two-way play at center that Doughty did from the blue line.
At various times in these playoffs, center Jeff Carter contributed key scoring moments, mostly playing on a line with rookies Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, and was a far greater force at both ends of the ice than he was in 2012, when the Kings won their other Stanley Cup. Many years, a player such as Marian Gaborik, who led the postseason with 14 goals, would win it easily, but this year, his candidacy received less attention because of the overwhelming number of candidates ahead of him.
Tellingly, Gaborik joined a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Claude Lemieux, as the only players in NHL history to record more goals in the playoffs than the regular season after scoring a minimum of 10 regular-season goals. And what of the 2012 winner, Jonathan Quick? His numbers were more than a goal a game higher than two years ago (a 2.58 goals-against average this year, compared to 1.41 in 2012), but when the Kings really needed him, with the game on the line, he was almost unbeatable.
In all, Williams scored 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists) in 26 games and led all players in multi-point games (seven) and plus-minus (plus-13). He also led all scorers in the Stanley Cup Final, with seven points in five games. His name will be engraved alongside legends from Jean Beliveau to Wayne Gretzky to Mark Messier on the Conn Smythe.
“I thought there were a lot of candidates, you could give that award to the whole team,” Doughty said. “Justin deserved it. He played well for us the whole playoffs, especially in the finals, and he deserved it. But our whole team played well and helped him get that award as well.”
Defenseman Alec Martinez, who scored the Cup-clinching goal in overtime, called Williams “an unbelievable hockey player.”
“He’s been around for so long,” Martinez said. “He’s such a great leader in the room. He can do a lot of special things with the puck. He seems like he’s always got the puck on a string. Obviously, you guys have [called] him, Mr. Game 7, I think I’ve called him that a couple times too, but I couldn’t be happier for him.”
When Williams was asked, if someone had told him that the Kings would win the Stanley Cup after falling behind three games to the Sharks in the opening round, he said: “Things looked bleak for us. But we were able to channel our inner will. We just didn’t want to go away. The term ‘one at a time’ certainly applied to us that series.
“What we went through to get to this point, to win the Stanley Cup, is pretty emotional and special — and we’ll never forget it.”