As the race for the Stanley Cup is boiling itself down to just a small handful of teams still hoping to lift hockey’s Holy Grail, another more individualized race is gaining some clarity as well. The Conn Smythe Trophy—given to the MVP of the Playoffs immediately upon the completion of the Stanley Cup Final—is seeing its field of candidates getting narrower every day.
We know that a team that gets eliminated before the Final certainly won’t have one of its players win this prize, because that simply wouldn’t make sense, and since 1970, only three players have won the Conn Smythe as part of the team that lost in the Final (Reggie Leach-1976, Ron Hextall-1987, J.S. Giguere-2003). So, that limits our field to just the remaining teams, and with two full rounds already in the books, we have a significant enough sample size to start prognosticating as to who deserves this award.
Let’s take a look at each team still standing and determine who should win Conn Smythe, assuming their team skates away victorious.
It’s officially become an extreme long-shot that the Hurricanes get beyond the Conference Finals, being that as of the writing of this story, they face a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 climb against Boston. But, for s***s and giggles, let’s consider the “Bunch of Jerks,” and who we think could win the personal prize, should Carolina get on an unthinkable roll.
Through the first two rounds, several players on the ’Canes roster were holding out hope of being named the best performer in the Playoffs, with Warren Foegele, a 23-year-old forward with minimal recognition previously, leading the charge. By the time the rowdy Hurricanes fans waved their brooms to signal a sweep of the New York Islanders, Foegele had notched nine points in just 11 games, and had been impactful all over the ice, a real coming out party for the youngster. Petr Mrazek was huge in the first series as well, but had an injury in Round 2 that led to Curtis McElhinney’s insertion into the lineup. Mrazek has returned, but has faltered in the Conference Finals. So, even if Mrazek gets back in the net and carries his team to a Stanley Cup win, his Conn Smythe hopes are all but over.
At this point, the one guy on Carolina that I think still could have a shot at Conn Smythe (and again, that would require multiple miracles from his team) would be 21-year-old budding superstar Sebastian Aho. Aho is so smooth and creative, and these Playoffs have been a great showcase of his outstanding skill. The young Finn has 12 points in 14 games, and while his team has struggled mightily against Boston, Aho has managed a point in all three games. This kid is already Carolina’s best player, and these Playoffs have erased any doubt about that argument.
While Brad Marchand has been running around, doing what he does best in agitating the life out of opposing teams, he also has been quietly having a great playoff run. His antics after the whistle—stomping on sticks, rabbit punching an opponent in the back of the head, miming a captain’s “C” onto his chest, and even giving one-word interview responses—have almost overshadowed the fact that he now leads the Bruins with 16 points in 16 games. His… uh… leadership has helped push his team to the precipice of a Stanley Cup Final berth, and yet all we talk about is his seemingly-immature-but-certainly-calculated dastardly deeds.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Marchand’s performance so far is the fact that although he has racked up impressive numbers, he actually had a stretch of four games between Game 7 of the Toronto series and Game 3 of the Columbus series in which he didn’t register a point, and there have been four other games in which he has been held off the scoresheet. So, his 16 points have actually come in a total of 8 games. Thank goodness he’s had a few off nights.
And yet, even with Marchand having such a great performance, there’s no way that I can take this hypothetical Conn Smythe away from Tuukka Rask at this point. The B’s veteran netminder—who has seen his share of unfair criticism over the years in Bean Town—has been nothing short of outstanding. If the Bruins hoist the Cup in a couple of weeks, giving Boston its umpteenth sports championship and causing us all to gouge our own eyes out, it will be most heavily because of Rask. With a 1.96 GAA and .939 save percentage, Rask has looked unbeatable at times, and in Game 3 against Carolina on Tuesday, he completely stole the show. While I would hate to see Boston win the biggest prize, Rask winning the Conn Smythe would be welcomed and appropriate.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Sure, Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson have been electrifying on the blueline, racking up 30 points between them. Yeah, Joe Pavelski has demonstrated incredible leadership through toughness (scoring a goal with his teeth was not even close to the worst thing that has happened to Pavelski in these Playoffs). And it’s totally impressive that Jumbo Joe has turned back the clock, while Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl have emerged as real contributors.
But nobody on the Sharks—and perhaps throughout the league—holds a candle to the performance that Logan Couture has put together so far. After putting up six goals and two assists in the opening round against the VGK’s, he registered just one assist through two games against the Avs. Naturally disappointed in himself, he told media that he needed to be better in Game 3. So what did he do? He potted a hat trick that very night. Ho hum.
Couture has been unbelievable this entire postseason, from blocking a shot with his no-no zone to lighting the lamp more than anybody in the league (14 goals and six assists in
17 games). If the Sharks win the Cup, Couture WILL win Conn Smythe. Heck, if the Sharks make it to the Final and lose, I could actually see a world in which the MVP is still granted to Couture.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
There have been some interesting storylines surrounding the Blues during this campaign. For one, their coach, Craig Berube, is still technically behind the bench on an “interim” basis, after taking over for Mike Yeo mid-season. Berube gained control of a team that actually found itself in last place in the entire NHL on New Year’s Day, but won 30 of its final 45 games to finish third in the stacked Central Division and get itself into a decent Playoff position. But along with Berube, the Blues simultaneously found a diamond-in-the-rough goaltender in AHL call-up Jordan Binnington, who has been lights out since his summoning to the NHL.
The 25-year-old rookie bided his time in the minors, playing the better part of five seasons in the Blues’ farm system. When he finally got his shot, Binnington took control of the St. Louis goalcrease and never looked back. At times Binnington has seemed almost robotic, showing nearly no emotion (other than slamming his stick in anger on Wednesday after a controversial non-call of a handpass resulted in an OT winner for the Sharks). But this is the kind of guy you want backing your squad in the Playoffs, one who simply won’t falter mentally. Binnington’s numbers (2.67 GAA, .904 save percentage) aren’t as good as Rask’s, and Jaden Schwartz has found his scoring touch in the postseason to the tune of nine goals and four assists. But like in Boston, if St. Louis ends up winning this thing, it will be because of the outstanding play of Binnington.