With the NHL’s conference finals well under way, a few favorites have emerged to be named this year’s Stanley Cup playoff MVP.
The Conn Smythe Trophy, the highest individual postseason honor bestowed upon a player, is arguably the NHL’s most prestigious award, next to that big, shiny piece of silver hardware a lucky few will hoist at tournament’s end. And history suggests we already have a clear idea on who might win it.
Since the Conn Smythe was first awarded in 1965, all but five recipients have been a member of the team that won the Stanley Cup, and no player has ever won it without playing in the Final. Those trends won’t change this year, but we could see an anomaly in center and goaltending favoritism with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Blake Wheeler or Nikita Kucherov threatening to disrupt convention.
Sporting News ranks the top 10 MVP candidates through the conference finals. The list is fluid and will be adjusted as this year’s Stanley Cup finalists reveal themselves.
10. Victor Hedman, Lightning
Hedman stepped up with a monster Game 3, scoring a goal with two assists to help save the Lightning from falling into an 0-3 hole and near-certain defeat. He’s on an eight-game point streak, the longest by a defenseman in the playoffs since Larry Murphy’s nine with the Penguins in 1995.
9. Jon Marchessault, Golden Knights
Marchessault is the gift that keeps on giving for the Golden Knights, one third of what could be considered the top line of the entire playoff field. Two goals in Game 2 ran his playoff point total to 15 in 12 games and could give Vegas the jumping-off point it needs to topple the favored Jets.
8. Nikita Kucherov, Lightning
The seasonlong Hart Trophy favorite finished just outside the finalist discussion, but he’ll be in the running for playoff MVP as the Lightning’s most consistent player should their run continue to the Stanley Cup Final. Kucherov, who fell quiet in the second round after dominating the Devils, still leads Tampa with seven goals and 15 points and is now riding a five-game point streak. He and Steven Stamkos looked like a dynamic duo again in Game 3 against the Capitals.
7. Blake Wheeler, Jets
As per usual, Wheeler continues to fly under the radar as one of the NHL’s best players no one talks about. His 18 points are tied with Mark Scheifele for the Jets lead, but the captain doesn’t have a sexy goal total to stir up that same level of MVP chatter as his top-line runningmate.
6. Connor Hellebuyck, Jets
As a playoff rookie, there had been some uncertainty as to how Hellebuyck might handle his first postseason. Any such doubt was short-lived. The 24-year-old so far has extended his Vezina-worthy regular season, most notably outdueling fellow finalist Pekka Rinne in the second round. He’s 9-5 and second behind Marc-Andre Fleury in save percentage (.924) among active playoff netminders.
5. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Capitals
Kuznetsov, at present this year’s playoff scoring leader, is responsible for the Capitals’ biggest goal in the last 30 years and vanquishing the hated Penguins at once. It was the most impactful of his nine goals and 20 points in 15 games so far, but it seems they’ve all come in a timely manner while leading all Caps forwards in time on ice (21:52).
4. Braden Holtby, Capitals
Other than Ovechkin’s continued excellence, Holtby is the one who’s most made the Capitals click. Quite literally, you can pinpoint the moment their playoff campaign turned from abject first-round disaster to the cusp of the Stanley Cup Final, when Holtby took over the crease from Phillip Grubauer in Game 2 against the Blue Jackets and stabilized it. He’s gone 10-3 since with a .921 save percentage (.933 at even strength), which took a dip after allowing four goals on 23 shots in Game 3 against the Lightning.
3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals
Ovechkin has always been a great postseason performer, regardless of the narratives you’ve been spoon-fed in the past. This year, he’s following up an age-defying comeback during the regular season with what may already go down as a career-defining playoff run, finally alleviated from his Penguins burden. Ovechkin had a hand in three game-winning goals in the second round, and already has scored in both Games 1 and 2 in the conference finals. It all adds up to 19 points in 15 games, two shy of his previous career high.
2. Mark Scheifele, Jets
Who says Scheifele isn’t a superstar? This is a guy who’s seventh in the league in regular season points-per-game (1.02) since the start of 2016-17 (minimum 100 games played). That it’s taken one of the hottest goal-scoring starts to a postseason in the last 20 years for a wider audience to fully appreciate his talent is telling, but he’s making it count. Scheifele enters Game 3 with 12 goals and 18 points in 14 games. If the Jets reach the Stanley Cup Final, it stands to reason he’ll join then pass Sidney Crosby (2009) as the only players with 15 goals or more in a single postseason since Joe Sakic racked up 18 in 1996.
1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Golden Knights
Outside of a first-period slip-up in Game 1 of the West finals, Fleury’s play in net for the Golden Knights has been nearly perfect as he rebuilds his reputation as a postseason dud from his days in Pittsburgh. Anything less than a .945 save percentage and it’s likely Vegas’ improbable playoff run would have ended in San Jose. Instead, the Flower continues to put up historic numbers. Even while factoring in some due regression, Fleury’s play will be more critical to their success than anyone else remaining in the field should the Golden Knights reach the Stanley Cup Final.