(With about thee-quarters of this post already written, I noticed that my prior post on the wrong numbers in hockey had been linked to from the Leafs Central message boards, and in an interesting coincidence it was in a post where occasional commenter here Seventieslord was arguing exactly the same thing that I am about to claim in this post. I'll credit him where appropriate for a couple of things that I added on to strengthen my own argument).
Point totals in hockey seem to be magic numbers. The players who score the most are generally considered to be the best players, and players are routinely described to be playing well if they are racking up the points and not playing well if they aren't.
The problem is that isn't always true. There may be lots of reasons why a player is scoring or not scoring points other than his level of play, such as the type of situations his coach is putting him in, the shooting luck of his teammates, the play of the opponents he is matched up against, and just general puck luck. It is often the case that a player who outscored another in the playoffs was the better player, but this is far from always true, and that means it is a mistake to assume that a higher point total trumps all.
In my opinion, the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy went to the wrong guy. I don't want to take anything away from Evgeni Malkin (well, other than the trophy they gave him, I guess), but I'd argue that Sidney Crosby was the Penguins' best player. There have been many Malkin vs. Crosby arguments debating which player stepped up in the Finals, which one the Red Wings focused their defensive attention on, which one carried the team in the key games in the earlier rounds, which one was the bigger leader, and so on. At the end of the day, I think there were really only two numbers that mattered: 31 and 36, the respective point totals of Crosby and Malkin. Like it or not, those numbers coloured the rest of the debate, and since 36 > 31, Malkin was the popular choice as Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
The way I see it, Crosby was the better player and the point totals are misleading. Crosby scored more goals and more even strength points than Malkin. With Malkin on the ice, the Penguins scored 41 goals and gave up 21. With Crosby on the ice, the team scored 40 and allowed just 14, in a similar amount of ice time, which indicates he and his linemates may have had a better two-way effort (which also came against tougher opposition). From those numbers and from watching the games, I don't think Malkin was outplaying Crosby, just outpointing him.
The reason that Malkin won the points race was power play scoring. Malkin scored 16 power play points to Crosby's 10. Not surprisingly, however, both stars were on the ice for the majority of the Penguins goals, given that they both played heavily on the team's first PP unit. There were 16 PPG that both were on the ice for, and Crosby and Malkin each had one additional goal where they were on the ice but the other was not.
During the regular season, both players got points on 75% of the team power play goals they were on the ice for. In the playoffs Malkin had points on 94% of his on-ice goals, while Crosby was at just 59%. It was certainly not the case that somebody else replaced Crosby's contribution (both Crosby and Malkin each scored more PPP than the rest of Pittsburgh's forwards combined). I think that the simple explanation is that puck luck worked to the benefit of Malkin and the expense of Crosby.
I watched all the power play goals Pittsburgh scored with either player on the ice on the NHL game highlights on Youtube, and noted how each goal was scored. Here is the breakdown of how they got their points:
Solo effort or good play to create the goal: Malkin 4, Crosby 3
Converting a routine rebound: Malkin 0, Crosby 2
Routine pass to a teammate who created the goal: Malkin 7, Crosby 4
Fortunate bounce: Malkin 5, Crosby 1
Third assists: Malkin 0, Crosby 3
The first Penguins' power play goal of the playoffs I counted as a fortunate bounce for both players, as Malkin's attempted pass across the crease was deflected by Martin Biron off of Crosby's skate and into the net. The other four goals counted as lucky for Malkin included: a point shot that bounced in off of Malkin's knee, a Malkin pass that was batted by an opposing defender right to Mark Eaton who promptly scored, an attempted pass to Crosby on a 2-on-1 that was deflected into the net by a defender for an overtime game-winner, and Brad Stuart knocking the rebound into his own net after Chris Osgood made the initial save on Malkin.
In all likelihood, Malkin and Crosby played at a similar level on the power play in the '09 playoffs, Malkin just ended up on the scoresheet more often. Even if Malkin did create a few extra scoring plays compared to Crosby 5-on-4, I don't think it makes up for Crosby's better overall performance.
Much was also made of the Stanley Cup Final scoring differential, but I'm still not sure that Crosby was any worse than Malkin in the Finals, even discounting the fact that the Red Wings obviously targeted Crosby as their #1 defensive priority. Crosby and his linemates were simply snakebitten that entire series. Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz, Crosby's most frequent linemates, combined to score 0 goals on 32 shots. Guerin missed several point blank chances, and Crosby himself hit several posts and was robbed repeatedly by either Chris Osgood or Henrik Zetterberg. Guerin and Kunitz had almost the same shot rate against Detroit as they did in the other three rounds, yet nothing was going in. By my eyes, that certainly wasn't Crosby's fault. I think the hockey gods deserve at least as much credit for "shutting down" Crosby as Lidstrom and Zetterberg.
In contrast, Malkin's most frequent linemates Ruslan Fedotenko and Max Talbot combined to shoot 17% in the Finals. Malkin himself scored 8 points, but again it was a case of him being on the right side of some puck luck. Two of Malkin's routine power play assists came in that series on goals by Letang and Gonchar, and two more assists came on lucky breaks, one a horrible rebound by Osgood left for Fedotenko to bang in, and the other a bounce off of a forechecking Malkin's skate right to Talbot, who promptly scored. Malkin also got credit for the Brad Stuart own goal mentioned above.
There are two additional arguments for Crosby that I'm stealing from Seventieslord at Leafs Central. First, Crosby shouldered a heavy load with faceoffs, leading all players in the playoffs by taking a 37.7% share of his team's draws while winning a respectable 53% of them. Secondly, Malkin cost his team quite a bit of time spent on the penalty kill by taking 18 minor penalties, nearly double the number of any other player in the playoffs, while Crosby was only whistled for 7 minors.
While I think Crosby was superior, Malkin did play very well. Malkin also hit his share of posts and created chances where the puck luck wasn't on his side, which means it perhaps wasn't so unrighteous that he got some of the bounces along the way. It is also incorrect to completely discount routine plays, as the ability to consistently make routine plays under pressure is part of what differentiates a great player. Not every goal is an amazing end-to-end rush, after all. That said, the rate that those routine plays get turned into goals can certainly vary quite a bit in the short term.
In nearly every other playoff season, Malkin would have been a very deserving Conn Smythe winner. I just don't think he was in 2009, as the evidence supports Sidney Crosby. Unfortunately, many hockey observers have a tendency of looking at the wrong or the simple numbers and ignoring the importance of context. Even to self-professed stats-hating hockey observers, the power of a single number can be very strong indeed, and at the end of the day 36 points were just too much to ignore.