Heading into the Stanley Cup final, the Conn Smythe Trophy feels like a two-horse race between Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin. But there’s a second tier of contenders, featuring the Golden Knights’ Jonathan Marchessault and the Caps’ Evgeny Kuznetsov and Braden Holtby. And even beyond the top five candidates, there’s a handful of players who could force their way into the playoff MVP debate with a sterling effort in the final.
So here’s the long list for the Conn Smythe Trophy. We cut it off at the top 20 – anything more than that would be silly.
1. Marc-Andre Fleury: Even if Vegas falls in the Cup final, it’s going to be hard to deny Fleury as the playoff MVP. His post-season stats are off the charts – 12-3 record, .947 save percentage, 1.68 goals-against average and four shutouts. Beyond the numbers, though, is the confidence that he instills in the rest of the team. They believe he’s going to make the next save, the big save and every other save. And he pretty much has. Remember when Fleury was a playoff flop? Ancient history.
2. Alex Ovechkin: He’s doing everything he can to win the Stanley Cup in the same year that Russia won Olympic gold. He scores, he hits and he’s pulling the rope on defense, too. It would seem pretty cruel if Ovechkin finally gets past Pittsburgh and then scores the Game 7 winner in the Eastern Conference final, only to fall to an expansion team in the Cup final.
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov: If Ovechkin doesn’t end up leading the playoffs in goals and points, it’ll probably be Kuznetsov. When it comes to offensive creativity, he’s the most dangerous player on the ice. His Game 6 overtime winner to eliminate Pittsburgh is the kind of signature goal that generates support for the Conn Smythe Trophy – and deservedly so.
4. Jonathan Marchessault: The Golden Knights’ leading scorer and best player who doesn’t wear a goalie mask. Like his team, he has been perpetually underrated and has yet to receive his due recognition. That’s about to change.
5. Braden Holtby: He’s been the best goalie in the playoffs this side of Fleury. That’s not bad for a guy who began the post-season sitting on the bench for two games.
6. John Carlson: Washington’s No. 1 defenseman leads both teams in ice time at nearly 26 minutes per game, and he’s a vital part of the Caps’ dominant power play – all three of his goals and 10 of his 16 points in the playoffs have come with the man advantage.
7. Reilly Smith: The playmaker on the Golden Knights’ go-to scoring line leads all remaining players in assists (14), but he needs a few big goals to bolster his MVP case.
8. William Karlsson: The shooter on the Golden Knights’ go-to scoring line, he also leads all Vegas forwards at nearly 22 minutes per game.
9. T.J. Oshie: Passionate player with a big-game rep, he could climb into the top five in goals and points with a big finish to the post-season. He’s borderline top-10 in the Conn race at the moment, so he needs to be a major presence the rest of the way.
10. Tom Wilson: Only three goals, and then there’s that three-game suspension on the negative side of the ledger. On the other hand, 11 points in 16 games is nothing to sneeze at. Plus he’s got the whole Milan Lucic-level devastation thing going on. He can turn a game with his physicality.
11. Nicklas Backstrom: Ovechkin’s traditional set-up man missed the clinching game against Pittsburgh and the first three games against Tampa Bay. He needs to rack up a lot of beautiful assists in the final – like, a lot — to enter the MVP conversation.
12. Lars Eller: He did a heck of a Backstrom impression when the Caps’ top-liner went down, and he’s been a frequent source of secondary offense — five goals, including two-game-winners, and 13 points.
13. Nate Schmidt: Former Caps defenseman gets crack at his old team as a breakout defenseman for the Golden Knights.
14. Brayden McNabb: Speaking of breakout defenseman, have you met McNabb? You will.
15. James Neal: He’s the Knights’ answer to the Caps’ Wilson on the scary-power-forward front, but he’s a more accomplished player in the offensive end – even if he trails Wilson in points 11-9.
16. Alex Tuch: Vegas rookie has six goals, including two winners, to lead the Golden Knights’ second wave of attack.
17. Dmitry Orlov: Mobile Caps defender who’s good with the puck, his stock has continued to rise in the playoffs.
18. Matt Niskanen: The Capitals’ second-most leaned-on defenseman behind Carlson (25:31 per game), he’s chipped in some offense (one goal, eight points) while taking care of the defensive end.
19. Shea Theodore: Sophomore plays with an offensive bent and looks like a mainstay on the Vegas blueline for a decade or more.
20. David Perron: The veteran winger missed four games between San Jose and Winnipeg and he’s still looking for his first goal in 11 playoff games, but he’s collected seven assists and you know he’ll be ready to roll in the final.
(Bonus) Erik Haula: Shout-out to Haula.